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PARIS – These may only be a few short sentences, but they have sparked strong reactions from critics of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has become a leading figure in the climate movement.

On November 9, 2019, an article titled “Why We’re Striking Again”, written by Thunberg and two others, stated: “The climate crisis is not just about the environment. It is a crisis of human rights, justice and political will. Colonial, racist and patriarchal systems of oppression created and fueled it. We must dismantle them all. Our political leaders can no longer shirk their responsibilities.

The article takes up one of the arguments of decolonial environmentalism: that the climate crisis is linked to the history of slavery and colonialism by the Western powers.

Since the 1970s, African-American researchers have made the connection between the environment and colonialism. “The real solution to the environmental crisis is the decolonization of the black race,” wrote Nathan Hare in 1970. Five years later, sociologist Terry Jones spoke of “apartheid ecology,” a concept that would be further developed in the 1990s by Latin Americans. decolonial thinkers in American universities, such as Walter Mignolo in Duke (North Carolina), Ramón Grosfoguel in Berkeley (California) or Arturo Escobar at the University of North Carolina.

“The real beginning of the Anthropocene was the European colonization of America. This major historical event, which had dramatic consequences for the Amerindian peoples and founded a capitalist world economy, also left its mark on the geology of our planet, ”write researchers Christophe Bonneuil. and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz in The Shock of the Anthropocene: Land, History and Us, alluding to the work of British geographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin. “

“Bringing together the flora and fauna of the Old and New World completely transformed agriculture, botany and zoology across the world, with life forms that had been separated by the breaking up of Pangea and creation. of the Atlantic Ocean 200 million years ago before suddenly mingling all over again, ”they add.

In France, researchers seek to show how the slave trade, slavery, the conquest and the exploitation of the colonies allowed capitalism to structure itself around an economy of extraction. This destructive way of inhabiting our planet is at the origin of a new geological era characterized by human industrial activity: the Anthropocene.

For decolonial thinkers, it is not humans (anthropos) as such that are responsible for climate change, but some form of human activity linked to Western capitalism. They claim that the current environmental crisis is therefore a direct consequence of colonial history.

Picking cotton on a plantation in the South in 1913 – Photo: Jerome H. Farbar

People in less economically developed countries are not responsible, but they are the ones who suffer. In a study published by the American journal PNAS in May 2019, climatologist Noah Diffenbaugh claimed that “most of the poor countries on the planet are considerably poorer than they would have been without global warming. At the same time, most of the rich countries are richer than they would have been “.

To highlight how the roots of the climate crisis lie in slavery and colonialism, researchers Donna Haraway, Nils Bubandt and Anna Tsing coined the term “plantationocene”.

“It describes the devastating transformation of different types of pastures, crops and forests into closed and extractive plantations, which are based on slave labor and other forms of labor involving exploitation, alienation and generally displacement. spatial “, explained Donna Haraway in a 2019 interview with The world. “It reminds us that this model of large-scale plantation establishment preceded industrial capitalism and allowed it to develop by accumulating wealth at the expense of enslaved human beings. From 15e to 19e century, sugar cane plantations in Brazil, then in the Caribbean, were closely linked to the development of mercantilism and colonialism.

We are exploiting both the land and the people for the sake of consumption and pleasure somewhere far away.

The establishment of monocultures that destroyed biodiversity and were responsible for soil impoverishment was achieved through massive deforestation. In the Caribbean, the effects are still being felt to this day. In his essay Decolonial ecology, Malcom Ferdinand, researcher at the CNRS, explains that the Plantationocene makes it possible to contextualize and historicize the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene so that “the genocide of the Amerindians, the slavery of Africans and their resistance are inscribed in the history of the Earth.”

Marked by a “double divide, colonial and environmental”, the modern era has created a “colonial way of life” and a “Land without people”, explains Malcom Ferdinand. On the one hand, there is a dominant population, that of the West. On the other, dominated populations, considered too numerous and exploitable. This separation between the “zone of being” and the “zone of non-being” is maintained today through the world economy of extraction, intensive monocultures and ecocides, leading to spatial injustices: we let us exploit both the earth and the men for the sake of consumerism and pleasure somewhere far away.

For Ferdinand, the other side of the plantation is “the policy of the hold” – a reference to slave ships – where a minority undermines the vital energy of a majority and benefits materially, socially and politically from the “negro”, a human reduced to a tillage tool.

“Since the 1970s,” Ferdinand said The worldAfrican-American researchers have noted that toxic waste has been disposed of near areas inhabited by black communities. They have called the practice of exposing racial minorities to environmental dangers “environmental racism.” Rouge and La Nouvelle -Orléans (Louisiana), nicknamed Cancer Alley, which is home to a predominantly black population who settled there after slavery and segregation and has a cancer rate sometimes 60 times higher than the national average.

Cancer Alley in 1972 – Source: National Archives at College Park

Ferdinand also recalls that in France, nuclear tests were not carried out on French soil but in Algeria and Polynesia. The researcher also underlines how Martinique and Guadeloupe were contaminated by the use of the toxic pesticide Chlordecone in the production of bananas, specifying that this is another chapter in the history of an “agricultural process carried out by a small number of individuals belonging to Creole communities descended from the first slave settlers of the French Antilles “,

“The decolonial approach makes it possible to overcome the double divide, colonial and environmental. It seeks to create a more egalitarian, more just world, and for that we have to reconsider things that have been silenced, ”explains Ferdinand.

This is one of the basic principles of decolonial ecology: to promote different, often ancestral, ways of inhabiting the world, damaged by colonization, idealized or folkloric.

In Latin America, where the current decolonial theory originated, thinkers like Ecuadorian economist Alberto Acosta Espinosa are calling for a new relationship with the Earth and with others. They call it “buen vivir” (live well), and it is inspired by a Quechua concept of “feeling-thinking with the Earth” that was also developed by the American-Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar. It challenges the Western worldview – which separates nature and culture, body and mind, emotion and reason – and transforms the universal into “pluriversal”, a version of universality that accommodates differences.

These new ways of inhabiting the world are also inspired by “diplomatic cosmology”, explains Bolivian researcher Diego Landivar, referring to the Bolivian constitution proposed by former president Evo Morales, who recognized Pachamama (Mother Earth) as a subject of law. Ecuador also made nature a legal subject, and the Vilcabamba River won a lawsuit against the municipality of Loja, which was accused of depositing large amounts of rocks and excavation material in the river.

Decolonial ecology establishes new non-extractive horizons: it is an ecology of renunciation

Decolonial thinking invites us to combine local knowledge with scientific and technological research. It was also the recommendation of a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which called for the promotion of agroecology. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations agrees. Considering indigenous beliefs and practices sometimes means not exploiting certain natural resources. In Australia, for example, Aboriginal communities halted tourism to Uluru (Ayers Rock), a sacred site that attracted 300,000 visitors a year.

“Decolonial ecology establishes new non-extractive horizons: it is an ecology of renunciation”, explains Diego Landivar. “In the Western worldview, if we can think of something, we can do it. Today we are even thinking of colonizing Mars. But I don’t believe that we can colonize the moon, the sky, Mars, just because they are empty. . “

Coumba Sow, an agro-economist at FAO, says local traditional knowledge often helps to better understand natural phenomena and find effective solutions. In a 2019 interview with The World Africa, she recalled the experience of Yacouba Sawadogo, who “has been practicing since 1980 an ancestral agricultural technique, the zaï, which consists in creating stone barriers to prevent water from flowing, and also uses the canals dug by termites to collect the water. Thus, he recovered tens of thousands of hectares of the Sahara Desert. “

According to Coumba Sow, “Numerous studies show that local farmers who use agro-ecological practices are not only better able to resist but also to prepare for climate change, because they lose less of their harvest due to drought… Traditionally, humans cultivate the land according to the same ecological principles that agroecology promotes, principles that are rooted in indigenous agricultural practices. “


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