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ecological imperialism

  A term which attempts to link environmental ideas, practices and processes — for example environmental determinism, conservation and deforestation — with the genesis of a world system (beginning with the European expansion of the fifteenth century) and the proliferation of imperialism in its multiplicity of forms. Ecological imperialism was employed by Alfred Crosby (1986) to describe the traffic in crops, diseases and environmental destruction associated with mercantile expansionism. However, green imperialism has been employed by a number of authors to understand the complex relations between environmental change, colonialism, conservation and globalization broadly construed (Grove, 1995).

There are two main strands to the thesis of ecological imperialism that ecological destruction and conservation has attended colonial expansion and the genesis of the European-dominated world system. The first is that European mercantile expansion represented and facilitated the transnational movement of plants, animals and disease. The Great Dying which accompanied the first age of Iberian imperialism in the New World was in some senses ecological in character (the accidental introduction of Old-World pathogens for which the absence of local resistance and patterns of vulnerability generated by the dislocations of forms of livelihood at the hands of the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors, produced enormously high mortality rates in indigenous communities). The global traffic in plants and animals — for example, the introduction of New World maize into Africa, of Southeast Asian rubber into Brazil — had tremendous ecological as well as social consequences, often unintentional in their extent and scope (for example, the diffusion and proliferation of New World grasses). Indeed, as Grove (1995) has pointed out, the earliest explorations were Edenic (and therefore green) in impetus (see Prest, 1981). The origins of the botanical garden as a storehouse of tropical germ plasm is not only a form of imperialist plunder and collection but also rooted in the European notion that the gardens and rivers of Eden might be found in the East. In this sense the \'commercial and utilitarian purposes of European expansion produced a situation in which the tropical environment was increasingly utilised as the symbolic location for idealised landscapes and aspirations of the western imagination\' (Grove, 1995, p. 3). This is as true for the significance of the hunt in colonial (and postcolonial) Africa as it is for the power of island paradises in the European imaginary (Prest, 1981; McKenzie, 1988; Miller and Reil, 1996). The green imperialism by which Kew Gardens became a botanical collecting station for Britain has now been displaced by the worldwide collection of germ plasm by seed and biotechnology companies and the United Nations global seed banks (Shiva, 1996; Perkins, 1997). The green revolution which developed high-yielding varieties on the basis of germ plasm collected globally — often from local varieties invented and reproduced over millennia by local peasants and farmers — is an instance of twentieth-century green imperialism in the sense of First World corporations (in tandem with multilateral development institutions) simultaneously developing profitable \'miracle seeds\' and perpetrating ecological destruction through genetic erosion and loss of biodiversity (Kloppenberg, 1988; Shiva, 1991).

A second theme concerns conservation and its relationship to the imperial mission. Grove (1995) has shown how western conservation is \'imperial\' in several senses (see also Prest, 1981). On the one hand, the global expansion of trade and economic exploitation after 1500 had direct and deleterious consequences for tropical environments. But on the other, the very idea of western conservation can be traced to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century destruction of tropical habitats, particularly on islands such as Mauritius, St Helena, the West Indies and the Canary islands, and to the complex scientific, colonial and indigenous amalgam of ideas — what Grove (1995, p. 12) calls \'a highly heterogeneous mixture of indigenous, Romantic, Orientalist and other elements\' — which went into the formation of the first conservationist ideology 400 years ago. Processes of deforestation in the island communities, and subsequently in India, figured centrally as indeed did some incongruous scientific communities (for example, the medical services of the East India Company). Of course these colonial conservation movements were complex and contradictory, constrained by the needs of the colonial state and later, in the nineteenth century, became the basis for authoritarian and coercive regulation of local communities. The ways in which the colonial state in Africa, for example, used conservation as a way of legitimating land seizures, of compelling forced resettlement, and of promulgating neo-Malthusian views of the inept African farmers is now well documented (Beinart, 1984; cf. Malthusian model). Conservation in turn became an object of struggle and conflict for subjugated colonial peoples (Guha, 1988).

Green or ecological imperialism should not therefore be understood in terms of the untrammelled powers of colonialism or globalization (in its late twentieth-century incarnation). Ecological destruction and conservation involved a two-way trafficking of ideas, knowledge and practice. Western mercantile expansionism and the first Age of Imperialism was capable of generating an incipient western sense of conservation at the same time that the same colonial presence unleashed ecologically destructive forces. The colonial state embodied the contradictory tendencies of wanting both to exploit and to conserve, of wishing both to facilitate resource extraction for imperialist companies and to ensure political stability of colonized communities which ecological destruction and authoritarian conservation strategies did little to promote (cf. hegemony). Neumann\'s (1998) account of the National Park system in Africa is an instructive instance of the global and local forces and resistances surrounding green imperialism. He shows both the global origins of the very idea of the National Park as it was imposed in Tanzania (for laudable goals), the imagery, politics and practices which entered into its constitution in Africa, and the frictions and struggles which went into the appropriation of the National Park itself. The question of land rights among communities who were expelled from the Arusha National Park and the ways in which the state and the Park Service attempt to police the park\'s borders are central to any understanding of why parks in Africa have so often failed in their attempt both to preserve endangered species and to elicit the support of peasants and communities along the borders of the park itself. (MW)

References Beinart, W. 1984: Soil erosion, conservation and ideas about development. Journal of Southern African Studies 11 (1): 52-83. Cosby, A. 1986: Biological imperialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Grove, R. 1995: Green imperialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Guha, R. 1988: Unquiet woods. Berkeley: University of California Press. Kloppenberg, J. 1988: First the seed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Mackenzie, J., ed., 1988: The empire of nature. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Miller, D. and Reill, P., eds, 1996: Visions of empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Neumann, R. 1998: Imposing wilderness. Berkeley: University of California Press. Perkins, J. 1997: Geopolitics and the green revolution. London: Oxford University Press. Prest, J. 1981: The garden of Eden. New Haven: Yale University Press. Shiva, V. 1991: The violence of the green revolution. London: Zed Books. Shiva, V. 1996: Biopiracy. London: Zed Book.



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