As descendants of colonial legacies, it seems like everything we’re told about our heritage circles back to us being labelled “savage” and “backward”. We wake up every day to news of how “modern technology” and “great [white] minds” are single handedly going to save us from impending environmental disaster. Winter is coming and apparently only the pink people can save us.
Colonial and imperial environmental sustainability and conservation discourse have completely whitewashed and ignored the role traditional African practices can contribute. The history of our practices and their role in mitigating issues like overexploitation of wildlife species, habitat loss and their vast knowledge of the environment has been swept under the rug or erased.
Ecocolonialism is defined as the ways colonial practices have impacted the natural environments of its indigenous peoples. Colonial efforts were in part successful due to their ability to disrupt and rupture the native ecosystem.1 Colonists exposed indigenous peoples and lands to exotic species, hosts of new diseases, cleared land for industrialization, overharvested indigenous plants and restricted their ability to defend themselves and their land.2 Culturally significant plants have gone extinct in many former colonies, such as the Muiri tree popular among the Gikuyu for its astounding medical properties. The plant is used in cancer medication by European pharmacists and has been harvested to extinction.3
Conservation colonialism “… is based on the belief that biodiversity protection is best achieved by creating protected areas where ecosystems can function in isolation from human disturbance”. It assumes that natives use land in the most inefficient and wasteful way possible.4 Ironically, colonial and post-colonial greed and exploitation of the global South has destroyed our planet and depleted our resources.
If that’s not a slap to the face, “innovative” solutions to the climate crisis are looking mighty familiar to many Africans. For example, WASP 3D printing company in Italy recently 3D printed a house completely made out of mud. The prototype dubbed TECLA, combination of technology and clay, is being heralded as the future of eco-housing with a low-carbon production.5
You know who else makes homes out of mud? Go on I’ll give you a second… If you guessed almost every pre-colonial African community you guessed right. We all know that cliché image of a round mud hut with a thatched roof. It’s used in film adaptations to show the living conditions of poor unfortunate Africans. When a European and a nifty gadget do it however it’s the future of saving the planet.
Traditional African practices have often found themselves aligning with practices of environmental sustainability and conservation. This is especially due to cultural beliefs and practices which can be found in proverbs, taboos, myths and stories passed down. Cultural theorist Léopold Senghor argues that “As far as African ontology is concerned, too, there is no such thing as dead matter: every being, everything–be it only a grain of sand–radiates a life force, a sort of wave-particle; and sages, priests, kings, doctors, and artists all use it to help bring the universe to its fulfillment”.6
The Tigrinya people of Eritrea use every single part of the cow. The meat is cooked and eaten, the horn is used in medical practices for bloodletting or for decorations alongside the head and the hide is made into clothes, baby slings often decorated with cowry shells or mats for sleeping on. This practice of zero waste can be seen across the landscape. The Igbo people of Nigeria associate desecration of rivers and forests as a taboo and act of defiance against their spirits. This allowed them to safeguard them from pollution and overexploitation.7
The Tonga of Zambia are an agriculturally dependent tribe. They have lived there since 1100 AD and have managed to sustain their environment ever since. Fruit trees are a source of food and money but provide shade and minimize damage to crops from storms. The elders also decree it taboo to use the plants for firewood. Many of the plants are also used for medicine, as such it goes without saying their source of health and healing must be protected. Even then some plants are not wholly uprooted if the entirety of it is not needed.8
Ecocolonialism shows us that our way of life was already what Earth needed. We have no shelter from the black rain but we do have our ancestor’s knowledge. This knowledge is now being rebranded as modern-day eco-consciousness but for many it is still a way of life. Referring back to these ways may just save the planet from disaster and many from suffering.
Lara Domínguez and Colin Luoma, “Decolonising Conservation Policy: How Colonial Land and Conservation Ideologies Persist and Perpetuate Indigenous Injustices at the Expense of the Environment,” Land 9, no. 3 (February 25, 2020): 65, https://doi.org/10.3390/land9030065.