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Green Colonialism, Greenwashing, and the Many Technologies of Exploitation PART 1

Author: Felipe F. Castro, Staff writer Published: 13 Nov 2023

Green colonialism

“Ecology without class struggle is gardening”, as the legendary Brazilian ecologist and trade unionist Chico Mendes once said. While facing harsh climate conditions and environmental collapse worldwide, part of our society have finally decided pursuing a different path. A greener path, as they put it. Our planet seems to have fallen steeply into what specialists have been calling the “Anthropocene” for a while. This means that our mega industrial predatory activities are biting us back real hard. By destroying nature, we have been dooming ourselves for generations, although some might believe we differ from the very balance that makes humanity possible.

When looking deeper into climate collapse, especially from a transdisciplinary point of view, we can easily understand why many are calling “green colonialism” or “environmental imperialism”. Although we are facing a set of common global issues, some suffer much more than others. While the wealthy western portion of the world can afford to acclimate themselves with potent heaters and/or air-conditioners, have easy access to food, water, and a well thought waste management system, while the 99%, mainly located in the Global South, have been through hell. The worst part is that climate change only accounts for a fraction of the problem here, and we can understand, then, what Chico Mendes meant by class struggle being the crucial element when talking about ecology.

An ontological threat to indigenous communities

Ontologically speaking, traditional communities in countries like Brazil, such as ribeirinhos, quilombolas, and many indigenous peoples and groups are deeply connected with the idea of being within and inside nature. While the Western society differentiated itself from nature when increasing exploitative activities, the rest of the world, albeit in varying in intensity, kept their connection with what we could call a Spinozian idea of nature, humanity, and a higher power. For the Dutch-Portuguese philosopher Baruch Spinoza, God and nature are one unified thing that he calls substance. Everything that exists is an expression of this substance: rocks, trees, rivers, and human beings. The fact is that for thousands of years traditional communities have been carrying the same philosophical perspective onto their own sociopolitical and religious organization, and even more: this is what defines who they are and how they exist. Thus, this is what is called an “ontological threat”, a menace not only to their subsistence, their way of living, but to their basis of living itself. For many of these groups, when a river becomes polluted, they are poisoned too. When large fires devastate the land they were born in, where they grew, became adults, and had their children, it means that their life was taken away. The suicide rate among indigenous people, especially the young, is alarming. And for many of those peoples, suicide means ending their natural cycle forever.

' Ontologically speaking, traditional communities in countries like Brazil, such as ribeirinhos, quilombolas, and many indigenous peoples and groups are deeply connected with the idea of being within and inside nature.'

Young indigenous men are targeted by miners, drug dealers, and corrupt police enforcement officers, who approach their communities either through direct or indirect violence. When these youngsters aren’t executed, they are enticed and even groomed with the chance of making enough money to help their families, or simply leaving their misery behind. Most end up trapped into semi-slavery with rich farmers or big company leaders (being from local powerful families, or from the Global North). Their communities are driven into famine, disease, and insecurity due to constant attacks from mercenaries, miners, loggers, predatory fishing groups, and even off-duty police officers. Either through logging, burning, or direct chemical pollution, the environment suffers horrific consequences, and traditional communities are the secondary victims of those vicious assaults after the fauna and the local flora. They have no access to clean water, no game to hunt, unable to plant, gather, trading, and even buying what they might need. Diseases such as malaria and dengue strike hard in these conditions, aggravating the situation even further.

Green colonialism

Expelled from their own land, being through direct violence, or the destruction of their subsistence means, those traditional communities are easily ethnically cleansed, exterminated, or migrate to highly populated urban areas while having no conditions to maintain themselves properly. Equally, urban lower class communities, and groups formed by people of colour (especially black, multiple indigenous peoples, and latinxs) are targeted by unequal housing opportunities and deliberate attacks to their well-being because of industrial waste. Places where there is a lower density of white inhabitants are commonly targeted by polluting companies, and even public inaction. From unclean water, to radioactive sites, these communities are constant targets of not only being marginalized, dispossessed, and expelled, but are also slowly being exterminated by diseases and long term implications of living in dangerous zones. When talking about the Global South, though, some places are fully transformed into regions like that. Sites inside urban regions have become so heavily polluted that people even live among the garbage and industrial waste.

Bustling cities like Port-au-Prince (Haiti), Delhi (India), and Maputo (Mozambique) are major examples of how neocolonialism, interventionism, and uneven wealth relations created densely populated pockets of impoverished populations that lack the basic access to water and waste. The struggle against urban mismanagement and outdated urban layouts of the colonial time only worsen the situation. This can also be seen in American cities: In North Richmond, for example where 97% of the population comprises Latinxs, Blacks, and Asians, there's an evident and troubling history of environmental racism, unfair treatment, and urban segregation. Inequality manifests even in the unincorporated status of this small region from the rest of Richmond. This segregated space concentrates dumping sites and dozens of highly polluted pockets. Despite efforts to address the situation, numerous other places grapple with similar issues. For instance, Flint, Michigan, struggles with a lack of access to clean water; East Chicago, Indiana, contends with heavy pollution, predominantly affecting low-income Hispanic and African American communities; and in South Bronx, NY, overwhelming air pollution and a scarcity of green spaces contribute to elevated rates of avoidable respiratory diseases. Conversely, in predominantly white neighbourhoods, management is much more effective, leading to cleaner spaces, well-maintained parks, stricter industrial waste management environmental fiscalization, and abundant green areas. At the same time, we cases like Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city. Here, the collective focus has been directed to the ongoing enhancement of the urban experience and fostering equitable resource distribution. A standout initiative, the Green Corridor plan, made waves for its departure from the global norm. While temperature rose everywhere, Medellín went through a noteworthy 2ºC temperature dip, accompanied by improved air quality, a flourishing urban ecosystem, and a cascade of other positive transformations.


What is green colonialism?

Here, we finally come full circle: what is, then, green colonialism and/or green imperialism? Although packed with specific nuances, both refer to a concept in which environmental conservation efforts or green initiatives disproportionately impact indigenous communities, people of colour, or marginalized groups. It often involves the exploitation or dispossession of their lands and resources under the guise of environmental protection. This term highlights the power dynamics and injustices in environmental policies that mirror historical colonial practices. Many of these dynamics happen as a direct consequence of taking a greener path. Misery is kept under different discourses, especially when facing harsh situations.

The greener path discourse is part of something called “greenwashing”. Greenwashers resort to deceptive marketing or PR strategies while having no intention to change their ways or improving how they deal with nature, indigenous communities and workers rights.

The main goal is improving their public image, especially at highly exploitative circumstances, by selling an image of eco-friendly, socially responsible, and preoccupied with the environment while making small to zero effort about it. Some might believe that actually doing something would be cheaper, faster, and better. But while it keeps being part of a well-structured system based on oppression and control narratives, they most likely will never change – especially because this kind of discourse is built around two guidelines: i) cultural complicity, and ii) PR/Media distortions.

Green colonialism

Cultural complicity

Cultural complicity is built around wrongfully depicted carbon footprint logic, massive ecological crimes, and sponsorship from gas and oil companies (involving celebrities, journalists, and cultural productions). Culture has become more than textual signs or everyday practices, as Toby Miller puts it. "More than objects of subcultural appropriation and re-seginification. It offers important resources to markets and nations - reactions to the crisis of belonging and economic necessity occasioned by capitalist globalization" (MILLER, 2018). The carbon footprint logic, for example, is used when companies, public institutions, and organizations lie about their efforts, manipulating and exaggerating about their efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Sometimes they present only part of their overall emissions, using deceptive language and expressions, selling results that were never actually there. Aside from that, the general population is too gaslit to forget about how their massive and recurrent ecological crimes are devastating our world constantly at a higher pace that we could ever imagine. By shifting blame to other parties, governments, and pointing fingers at endangered communities that are typically the victims of those crimes. The perpetrators can direct the public attention, and even when taking responsibility, hardly doing anything to deal with the damage or avoid possible reoccurrences. Part of this is done by investing small portions of social capital and money itself in international meetings, cultural events, media projects, and even paying artists to become their representatives while trying to keep their image as clean as it can be.

PR and Media distortions

This kind of practice leads directly to PR/Media distortions, combating science, and encouraging groups of content creators that can undermine proven facts, evidence, and change the public opinion about something. One of the most infamous cases involved the tobacco industry and the Edelman group, that carried out international campaigns to discredit scientists and activists, produce cultural shifts on whole industries, like music and cinema, making billions of people believe that smoking could be both sexy and elegant - and that throat, tongue, neck and pulmonary diseases, such as cancer, were fabricated.

Felipe F. Castro is a foreign affairs analyst, holding a BA in International Relations by the Federal University of Sergipe, in Brazil. Felipe is also a socio-environmental activist with over a decade working within the Third Sector. He researches power and colonialism.


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