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Earth Day: The role of colonialism in the overexploitation of natural resources

The scope of the environmental destruction has increased drastically in recent years, mainly due to man's fault, including the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Other industries such as gem and mineral mining are also destroying the ecological stability of the world, leading to deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats. Much of this traumatic exploitation of natural resources has its origins in colonialism

Author: Joseph McQuade, Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for South Asian Studies, School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

Miners in the Kimberley diamond mine in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. Photo: from Wikipedia - public domain
Miners in the Kimberley diamond mine in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. Photo: from Wikipedia - public domain

 

We are currently experiencing the worst environmental crisis in human history, including the global extinction of wildlife and grave risks to the future of human civilization.

The scope of the environmental destruction has increased drastically in recent years, mainly due to man's fault, including the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Other industries such as gem and mineral mining are also destroying the ecological stability of the world, leading to deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats. Much of this traumatic exploitation of natural resources traces its origins to colonialism.

Colonialists saw "new" territories as places with unlimited resources to exploit, with little regard for the long-term effects. They took advantage of what they considered an "infinite border". In the service of the modern state and capitalist development.

To understand our current ecological disaster, described as "a world in which food shortages, fires, and the disappearance of coral reefs will worsen as early as 2040, we must examine the role of colonialism in its roots."

This study does not constitute a discussion of whether colonialism was "good" or "bad". Rather, it is about understanding how this global process caused the creation of the world we live in today.

Since the 15th century, the Indian Ocean has been the main medium of world trade. Colonialism was not only built on local economic systems, but also built and shaped the large industries and processes that exist today in many parts of the world.

Thus, for example, the British colonialists turned the Malay Peninsula into a plantation economy, to meet the needs of Great Britain and the other industrialized countries, including meeting the demand for cheap rubber during the industrial revolution.

Thousands of Indians were brought in as contract workers to work in various Malayan rubber coins. The Indian Malaysian dilemma / Janaki Raman Manikam

Colonial exploitation of the British in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, limited the economic possibilities of poor settlers, Indians and Chinese. These workers were increasingly forced to clear large areas of the rainforest for their white employers to make a living at the expense of local ecosystems.

Meanwhile, more than half a century after the end of colonial rule in the Malay Peninsula, overexploitation of local resources continues apace. In the past Malayan tigers were common today they are in critical danger of extinction partly due to loss of habitats. Deforestation in the Malaysian part of Borneo continues to accelerate, largely due to the continued global demand for palm oil and wood.

Export to global markets
In Myanmar (formerly Burma), the trade in raw materials has been going on for centuries. Under colonial rule, the export of minerals, timber and opium was greatly expanded, placing an unprecedented strain on local resources.

The annexation of areas north of the Irrawaddy River basin to the colonial state of Burma drastically increased the economic integration between large areas rich in natural resources while massive capital was injected from Europe and China. Today, despite billions of dollars in revenue, these areas are among the poorest in the country and a place where people are exploited and their rights are violated and environmental disasters occur.

The human cost of the diamond trade in West Africa and South Africa is relatively well known. Less known are the devastating effects on Africa's environment due to the massive mining of natural resources such as diamonds, ivory, bauxite, oil, timber and natural minerals. This mining serves global demand for minerals and gems.

The intensive mining operations needed to supply diamonds and other precious stones or minerals to world markets weakens the soil, harms air quality and pollutes local water sources. The result is a total loss of biodiversity and significant environmental impacts on human health.

Between 1867 and 1877, there was a discovery digging for diamonds along the Val, Hart and Orange rivers in South Africa that brought a huge influx of miners and speculators in search of fortune. In 1888, the South African diamond industry was monopolized when the De Beers Mining Company became the sole producer.

Around the same time, miners on the nearby Witwatersrand discovered the world's largest goldfields, spurring the spread of new mining industries. When the European powers shaped the continent in the so-called "scramble for Africa" ​​at the end of the 19th century, commercial exports came to replace slavery as the main economic driving factor instead of direct colonial occupation.
New transportation technologies and economic growth fueled by the Industrial Revolution created global demand for African exports, including gems and minerals that required extensive mining operations to produce. In the years 1961-1930, the diamond industry in Sierra Leone played a crucial role in shaping and defining colonial government strategies and scientific expertise throughout the region.
Liberia was never a colony of any power, and was established as a homeland for freed African-American slaves. But American slave owners and politicians saw the republic primarily as a solution to limit the "corrupting influence" of freed slaves on American society.

To "help" Liberia repay the debt to Great Britain, in 1926 the American Firestone company gave the African country a loan of 5 million dollars in exchange for a 99-year contract on a million acres (4 million dunams) used for rubber plantations. This loan was the beginning of direct economic control over Liberia's affairs.

Unequal power relations
The report shows that Africa is on the verge of a new mining boom driven by demand in North America, India and China, which will only worsen existing ecological crises. The demand for minerals such as tantalum, a key component for electronics production, is the main driver of current mining operations.

Our understanding of colonialism is often limited to simple ideas of what we think colonialism looked like in the past. These ideas hinder our ability to recognize the complex ways that colonialism shaped and continues to shape the unequal power structures of the 21st century, as the anthropologist and historian Ann Laura Stoler argues in her book "Predators".

Unequal power relations between developed and developing countries continue to define the causes and effects of climate change. A clearer understanding of the source of these problems is a necessary first step to solving them.

People in prosperous countries are unaware that the garbage they throw away every day is often sent around the world to become someone else's problem.

While people debate whether climate change should be taken seriously from the comfort of their air-conditioned homes, hundreds of thousands of people are already suffering the consequences.

to the article on The Conversation website

More of the topic in Hayadan:

One response

  1. Interesting and important
    Only that it is appropriate to be precise in the translation:
    - It is written "Dalkim" in Hebrew there is no inflection of plurals
    Therefore it is appropriate to have fuel.
    It says "Malay tigers" not "tigers" but tigers.
    It says "garbage" should mean trash or waste.
    It is worth paying attention to the correct translation into Hebrew.

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