When we dig into human history in search of the reasons for and origins of the current environmental catastrophe, we come across the generic words "climate change”. These words have become so ubiquitous in daily vocabulary that we no longer even realize that they tell us nothing about those responsible for this phenomenon, their history, and their identity. Being a shared problem facing humanity seems to suggest that all of us, regardless of our origin, ideology, and place in the world, share responsibility for it. How did we come to this absurd conclusion?
Everything began in the 19th century when the Western world and its ideology of whiteness positioned itself as the center of the world and the universe, as the main driver of "civilization" and knowledge. The social value of people was determined according to these ideas, with human existence racialized and humanity divided up according to physical characteristics and geographic origins. Non-white human groups were systematically deemed of less worth than their white counterparts, opening up the possibility of their domination and the exploitation of their territories.
A singular vision of the world has dominated ever since; a racist bulldozer ploughing over hundreds of thousands of lives that today continues to dictate privilege and power in the twenty-first century. The inspiration for this racist ideology came from an understanding of progress as synonymous with the development of large industries and the rise of big cities which separated people from their natural environments.
In order for industries and cities to flourish, the world's natural environments and their populations had to be exploited. Diverse ecologies were reduced to mere “resources”; commodities that, like people, were enslaved in the service of capitalist progress.
The fallacy of equality.
The ideology that accompanied the industrial revolution invented a new modern subject, "the citizen", which, in theory, placed all humanity and all subjects on an equal footing. Yet this was contradictory to the race-based system that was indispensable to colonial plundering.
In the Americas, modern nation-states emerged that excluded indigenous and black people from the exercise of citizenship. Further afield, the so-called "Race for Africa" organized the various African kingdoms for the purposes of colonization by European countries seeking trade routes and the exploitation of human and natural resources. Women were excluded from citizenship in Africa as well as in the Americas, thereby completing the underlying triad that forms the basis of colonial conquest: racism, patriarchy and exploitation.
So we are "equal" only when it comes to being held responsible for climate change and environmental catastrophe, but we are classist, racist and sexist when it comes to accessing the world’s riches.
In this way, societies in the South are told to limit their consumption, as if they had ever reached the same levels of consumption of people in the North. We are told to stop having children, which has now become a privilege accessible only to those who can afford it, to take care of water resources… and yet at the same time to continue sacrificing the riches of our surrounding territories and living spaces. In other words, we continue having to pay ourselves for the environmental catastrophe caused by others.
Colonialism is defined simply as "a political and economic system through which a foreign state dominates and exploits a colony". I say “simply” because the true historical and psychological consequences of this phenomenon on humanity run very deep.
Colonialism was the foundation of industrialization. It would have been unthinkable without the exercise of power enabled by colonialism, which permitted the industrial powers of Europe and the United States to expand their reach across the world and use at will the forests and numerous other raw materials to satisfy the demands of the industrial revolution and the consumerist societies in the North. Aided by a dominant ideology that depicted colonies as peripheral sites, subordinate to the metropolitan centers, non-white peoples were subjected to extermination, genocide, enslavement, forced displacement, rape and other deplorable practices.
In Eurocentric historiography, the industrial revolution is considered the panacea of progress, the historical moment in which humanity could for the first time produce more than it needed to subsist, both in terms of food but also various other types of goods which were mass-produced in factories that processed huge quantities of "natural resources" extracted from different sources around the world. One such resource, extracted from trees native to the world’s two largest jungles, the Amazon and the Congo, was rubber. Hundreds of thousands of people were enslaved, tortured, and displaced in order to obtain this material which was central to numerous modern industries including weapons, pharmaceuticals, communications, transportation, clothing, and leisure.
The images below show how local indigenous societies in both the Congo and the Amazon were subjected to numerous abuses including torture, forced labor, rape, forced displacement, and the systematic mutilation of body parts to spread terror and force people into rubber extraction.
Source: Photograph taken by Missionary Alice Seeley Harris in the Congo at the beginning of the 20th century.
A common method of forcing indigenous peoples to tap rubber was the practice of mutilating their limbs if they failed to meet minimum daily quotas.
Source: Early 20th century photograph from the Putumayo geographic region.
There is no consensus on the number of genocides in the Amazon due to the rubber boom but we know those entire populations disappeared as a result of the grueling work conditions in the area, with many other populations forcibly displaced, and the practice of "raiding" or "hunting" indigenous people in the jungle for purposes of rubber extraction extremely widespread in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The factories located in Europe and the United States that manufactured various rubber goods not only extracted this resource through the enslavement of local populations but in the process emitted tons of CO2 and water vapor into the environment, two of the main components driving the greenhouse effect that is responsible for the retention of solar radiation and global warming following 200 years of industrial production.
This was first recognized in 1990 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that temperatures in the last century have risen by between 0.3 and 0.6 ºC, with industries in the north being the main emitters of warming gases.
Colonialism continues to cause climate change .
More than 30 years later, at its last meeting, the IPCC finally formally identified a direct link between climate change and colonialism for the first time in history, despite it being a reality throughout the twentieth century.
Unfortunately the story is not over. Today, the unbridled race for natural resources such as minerals and oil continues to exploit territories, subjecting their raw materials and human populations to new forms of colonial plundering in places that are key to the survival of the planet's species.
In spite of this, the great drivers of resource extraction, principally China and the United States, continue to expand their operations in a deadly race that affects humanity as a whole.
Coloniality as the only solution to climate change.
If colonialism and climate change are part of the same historical problem that continues to structure our societies, then the only way to confront this global issue is through the decolonization of our thoughts, bodies, and territories, but how?
It is important to recognize that we are not starting from zero. Capitalism has made us believe in false equality; not only that we’re all equally responsible for climate change, but also that we’re homogeneous in our relationships with nature and non-human living beings. This is plainly false. Everywhere we look there are people, mostly indigenous peoples, and campesinos, who have a non-destructive way of living on the earth. We see them fighting against large extractive companies, risking their lives, trying to explain to the West that the earth is our mother, that it is a subject, that it lives, thinks, dreams, and suffers as we do.
This is not romanticism, it is knowledge! So recognizing and trying to learn from indigenous knowledge is a very concrete way of addressing climate change.
According to a WWF study, a remarkable 91% of the ecosystems managed by indigenous peoples are in good or moderate ecological condition. Likewise, the FAO, the UN and ECLAC have all recognized that indigenous peoples are the best guardians of the planet’s last remaining forests; no small matter if we consider that the necessary absorption of CO2 and the production of oxygen, as well as global water, depend on forests, and therefore on their guardians.
The women leading climate and social justice movements in many parts of the world today are particularly prominent examples of such guardians.
Despite the importance of these people to the survival of life in general on the planet, environmental, indigenous, and Campesino leaders are subject to persistent violations of their human, territorial and cultural rights, so much so that being a defender of nature today is considered a "high risk" activity. In 2020, it was revealed that more than 200 environmental leaders around the world were killed for their territorial defense activities.
Today, two hundred years after the unleashing of the environmental catastrophe caused by the industrial revolution, Latin America celebrates the bicentennial of the founding of its national republics; those that emerged alongside the ideology of industrial capitalism, those that excluded large parts of the population that did not meet modern standards of existence: 200 years of racism, sexism, classism, and death….
After 200 years we declare: enough is enough!!!! We desperately need new ways of relating to nature and to each other, not as equals but as different, and therefore valuable! Let us walk a collective path to decolonization and recognize that, on this journey, the knowledge of indigenous peoples is key to building new forms of existence on the planet.