The Climate Crisis is a Colonial Crisis

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“There is not a single document in this country that does not start with ‘Bangladesh is the most vulnerable country to climate change,” quipped one European donor to me in 2014. Whether it’s true or not, it certainly reflects the ubiquity of narratives surrounding climate change and its threats to Bangladesh, particularly among the development industry and government. But what are the politics of these claims? What kind of political demands do they facilitate? What kind of alliances do they validate or neglect?

Among global climate activists, Bangladesh is regarded as a “hotspot” of climate vulnerability and action. This status is nurtured by Bangladesh’s own “climate mafia,” a loosely organized collective of researchers, policy makers, and advocates whose prominent role in global climate negotiations draws attention to the threat of rising seas particularly to the country’s vulnerable coastline. Their concerns reverberate in domestic development policy, in the English-language daily newspapers, and in demands made by the government for sovereignty in the expenditure of climate finance. But where do these concerns intersect with the Bangladeshi environmental movement? These international climate activists have been largely silent on the demands of Bangladeshi social movements for political and economic equity. These social movements have in turn largely been silent on the question of climate change.

It is no coincidence that these different scales of Bangladeshi environmental politics – the global climate negotiators and the local environmental activists – have largely ignored one another. While the global climate advocates have drawn attention to the vulnerability of many countries of the Global South to climate change, these advocates have also failed to articulate their demands alongside the broader political economic concerns with which Bangladeshi social movement activists are most concerned. Yet, their interests are not fundamentally at odds with one another.

Many global narratives about climate impacts in Bangladesh would have us believe that this climate vulnerability is the unhappy accident of low elevation and frequent tropical storms. But if Bangladesh is more vulnerable to climate change than any country of the Global North, then this vulnerability is not natural. It is fundamentally shaped by a global political economy of development dating to the colonial period. As several environmental historians of Bengal have written, British colonial governance shaped the Bengal delta and the tidal geography of its coastal region, as well as the agrarian communities that continue to inhabit it, in profound and enduring ways.

This colonial history and its legacies have written profound inequality and vulnerability directly into the landscape and ecology of Bangladesh. Unequal agrarian structures today are the direct result of land tenure arrangements designed to maximize the colonial extraction of taxes and resources. This inequality, magnified through the failures of post-colonial land reform, has compounded the unequal agrarian class structure that shapes ecological vulnerability of the majority of the region’s inhabitants. The post-independence Bangladeshi state has been characterized by a neoliberal development apparatus that has further entrenched these inequalities. They have in turn intensified vulnerabilities to ongoing ecological change – both those caused by climate change as well as those caused by other dynamics shaping the delta region.

These political regimes have also shaped the physical landscape in ways that have intensified these physical challenges. For example, artificial land reclamation under Raj-era zamindars led to the obstruction of natural drainage that continues to manifest today as chronic waterlogging. After Partition, the construction of the polder embankments in the coastal zone further exacerbated these waterlogging problems, with land subsiding at a faster rate than it can be built up thanks to the impeded natural flow of tidal sediments. The Farakka Barrage combined with a variety of irrigation schemes and large upstream infrastructures have reduced the flow of fresh water to the Southwest to such an extent that the Gorai river and countless tidal channels have dried up, while the saline front has travelled further and further inland, contaminating drinking water and the soils of agricultural lands. All of these are dynamics that have long been attributed to climate change and which will indeed be exacerbated as the threats of climate change increase in the future. Yet their political basis cannot be ignored.

Bangladesh, in short, is more vulnerable to climate change because it has been multiply-colonized.

Of course, many social and environmental activists in Bangladesh have addressed the political foundations of these environmental concerns directly. They have done so without reference to the climate crisis. These groups address local political dynamics and power relations directly in order to avoid depoliticizing them by claiming they are the result of climate change.

For example, the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports has led advocacy efforts against the Rampal coal-power plant, which poses an urgent threat to the Sundarbans. As the country’s primary coastal barrier against the cyclonic storms that will become more frequent and more severe as the oceans warm up, the Sundarbans are a critical natural defense against vulnerabilities caused by climate change. The National Committee also highlights the need for sovereignty over Bangladesh’s power and other mineral resources, citing the vested interests of Indian banks and other multi-national financiers in Rampal, as well as the Phulbari open-pit coalmine, and other fossil fuel projects. Collectively, these demands highlight the imbrication of human rights abuses in Bangladesh with threats to both climate change adaptation as well as mitigation.

Similarly, several groups including Nijera Kori, the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, and the Association for Land Reform and Development have mobilized to demand restrictions on commercial shrimp aquaculture and the associated land grabbing that has facilitated it. Shrimp aquaculture has been implicated in a wide range of human rights abuses and the dispossession of the poorest coastal inhabitants. Activists cite concerns such as the use of violence against local residents by shrimp enterprises and their hired mastans, the loss of livelihood opportunities for landless laborers and sharecroppers, and broader patterns of dispossession in agrarian economies threatened by the extractive shrimp export industry. These groups demand an end to coastal zoning policies through which the government privileges the shrimp industry over agriculturalists, the fulfilment of khas land distribution guaranteed by the constitution, and greater transparency in the funding and promotion of shrimp projects by development agencies. They do so both at home and abroad, through advocacy campaigns in Europe and the United States, often working in solidarity with other communities throughout Asia and Latin America similarly threatened by aquaculture and the global shrimp trade. The ecological impacts of shrimp – water logging, soil salinity, declining biodiversity in fish and other aquatic species in and around the Sundarbans, as well as the structural weakening of flood control infrastructures that protect from tides and storm surges – are all thought to be the impacts of sea level rise and other threats associated with climate change. Yet by drawing attention to the political dynamics that shape these ecologies beyond climate change, they demonstrate how climate change intersects with contemporary and historical colonial power relations.

Fundamentally, the demands made by these environmental social movements are demands for decolonization. These activists center their analysis of environmental change on political dynamics that shape local ecologies. Furthermore, they identify unequal power relations from the local to the global scale that are implicated in these patterns of ecological change. By this I mean that they demonstrate how global capitalism and neoliberal economic development shape local landscapes alongside often authoritarian forms of state power as well as the exercise of power more locally such as through unequal agrarian class relations and gender inequality within communities. These movements seek fundamental transformations in power relations that have their roots in broader historical and structural dynamics that both predate and are embedded in climate change and its impacts. They are decolonial in the sense that they recognize the ways that they demand changes in these political and economic inequities that shape ecologies and landscapes.

The title of this article follows from the title of a chapter by British sociologist Leon Sealey-Huggins who in turn borrowed it from a video created by Black Lives Matter UK (BLM): the climate crisis is a racist crisis. Sealey-Huggins and BLM draw our attention to the fundamentally intersectional nature of the climate crisis. This means that climate change is not only a greater threat to those who are least powerful, but also that we need to understand how its impacts are entangled with the impacts of racism, imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism all over the world.

Increasingly, anti-racist, feminist, and decolonial scholars and activists are drawing our attention to these intersections in their demands for global environmental justice and human rights. Rather than seeing discourses of climate change as a depoliticizing and dehistoricizing distraction from substantive political issues, they see climate crisis as a racist and colonial crisis itself. In so doing, they reconfigure the ways we think about what the climate crisis is. They also show us how the work of decolonization is necessary to pursuing environmental justice, demonstrating that climate justice is not possible without it. This work opens up new possibilities for social justice and environmentalism together.

It’s time for social movements in Bangladesh to begin to see their demands for social, political, and human rights as part of a global climate justice movement. The climate crisis will only be averted through transformations to our political and economic systems that these movements are already demanding. The urgent environmental demands made by the movements described above – to cancel the Rampal Power Plant project, to end dispossession associated with commercial shrimp aquaculture, for energy sovereignty, for comprehensive land reform and recognition of land rights for landless workers – are all necessary to a truly intersectional vision of climate justice. While these movements have often avoided claims concerning climate change in Bangladesh as they distract attention from these urgent demands, recognizing the intersections of their own concerns with those related to climate change would allow them to articulate their local demands in relation to radical global struggles for social and environmental justice.

Similarly, it is time that Bangladesh’s long-standing community of international climate activists recognize that the climate crisis is a colonial crisis. Climate justice for Bangladesh will not be achieved through access to global climate finance alone. If demands for addressing climate change distract from the urgent political concerns demanded by these local social movement activists, they will leave these unequal structures of power intact. As two American scholars of decolonization have written, “decolonization is not a metaphor.” Drawing attention to inequity in the global distribution of funds for climate change adaptation, as so many Bangladeshi climate negotiators have done for decades, without simultaneously addressing these intersecting political crises, will leave the structures of colonialism intact. Climate justice will be achieved only through building alliances with these environmental social movements and recognition of the fundamental intersections of their demands.


Image: Piotr Fajfer, Oxfam International / Internet





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