Postcolonialism and the Environment: An Introduction

by Shauna Molloy

The two fields of postcolonial and eco/environmental studies have merged into a seemingly contradictory pair. The issues of colonising land in a manner that provides an ecoconscious perspective and practice are diverse and intricate. The complications involved in defining and combining the two fields are many. However, it is being done, and there is a great need for the two systems to make amends with one another.

The Chipko movement in the 1970′s, wherein the “peasant” or mainly working class population of Northern India protested against the practice of commercial forestry (Tiffan and Huggan),  is a prime example of where the two fields of postcolonialism and environmental studies have merged together. The phrase “tree-hugger” actually originates from the Chipko movement.

The women who worked in the forested area of Northern India protested the removal of the trees by embracing them, in attempt to prevent industry workers from cutting them down. The term “Chipko” comes from a word that means “to embrace.” In the practice of non-violent resistance as introduced to the people of India by Muhatama Ghandi, the people of India who became involved in the Chipko movement achieved the victory of saving much of the Himalayan forests from being destroyed, and the resources being taken from the indigenous people and outsourced for profit. The Chipko movement is an integral example of where postcolonialism and environmental concern come together and create an area for further awareness of integrity in the treatment of the land, and of the people and animals who live from that land.

It is necessary to take into account several of the intricacies when considering the fields of postcolonialism and environmental awareness/studies.  Such themes as dualistic thinking, ecological imperialism/biopiracy, and environmental racism, as outlined by the ecofeminist author Val Plumwood,  provide a framework from which to expand the concepts of fairness and integrity in cohabitation of the land with its natural inhabitants, of any and all species. Plumwood makes an argument on the very notion of humanity, as understood by the western culture–the culture that is responsible for the colonisation and abusive use of land and the original inhabitants found there–is “dependent  on the presence of the non-human: the uncivilised, the animal and animalistic. European justification for invasion and colonisation proceeded from this basis, understanding non-European lands and the people and animals that inhabited them as ‘spaces,’ ‘unused, underused or empty.’” (Plumwood). This is the basis of dualistic thinking, and marks a point where racism and speciesism as aspects of colonialism and abuse of environment can begin to be understood as aspects in postcolonialism and environmental studies.

The concept of the ‘human,’ (that is as the European/western culture has defined it, according to Plumwood), interest being given priority over the practice of equality and compassion for the well-being of all species and individuals involved in the commencement and progression of society and modern life is the essence of postcolonialism and environmental studies. The treatment of indigenous peoples and animals, (and the environment being lived in itself), even in regard to hunting practices between cultures ,and how they differ and which methods have historically been considered more respectable/respectful, are incredibly prominent in the discussion of how a balance can be achieved that is healthy for all inhabitants of the planet. There have been many wrongs in the progression of colonialism and the environment, and it is said that the first step to achieving the balance and finding a place of integrity to live from is in acknowledging the mistreatment that has occurred, as it is understood from the framework of equality.


“Ecology is permanent economy.”

-Sunderlal Bahaguna

“[Environmental Racism] is the connection, in theory and practice, of race and environment so that the oppression of one is connected to, and supported by, the oppression of the other.”

-Deane Curtin

“What do the forests bear? Soil, water, and pure air.”

-Chipko slogan

“The solution of present-day problems lie in the re-establishment of a harmonious relationship between man and nature. To keep this relationship permanent we will have to digest the definition of real development: development is synonymous with culture. When we sublimate nature in a way that we achieve peace, happiness, prosperity and, ultimately, fulfilment along with satisfying our basic needs, we march towards culture.”

-Sunderlal Bahuguna

“Passive resistance, unlike non-violence, has no power to change men’s hearts….What is to be done to convert the poison into nectar? Is the process possible? I know that it is, and I think I know the way too. But whereas the Indian mind is ready to respond to the effort at passive resistance, it is not receptive enough to imbibe the lesson of nonviolence which, and perhaps which alone, is capable of turning the poison into nectar.”

-Muhatama Ghandi

Discussion Questions/Topics:

Are there areas of your own daily life–reader of this blog–that you can pinpoint wherein you could practice more nonviolence?

How do we, the general American culture, continue to perpetuate the concepts of speciesism in our daily lives? How have we integrated a sense of equality with other species?

Are there still instances of colonialism being enacted in the world today, or are we truly ‘post’ the movement?



-Excerpt from Sudesha, a documentary on the Chipko movement.


About envirolit

Professor of Environmental Literature
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