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Investigating Contemporary Environmental Injustice: The Enduring Reality of Terra Nullius in Land Expropriation and Degradation
For the purposes of this essay, colonialism shall be understood as the ‘cultural geographical possession of land’ (Said 1994:78) for access to resources. Understanding environmental justice as ‘protection from extraction, production and disposal of hazardous wastes and poisons that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water and food’ (First National 1991), this essay investigates the expropriation of indigenous land and the waste trade as environmental injustice. The essay seeks to reveal how the continued erosion of political, cultural, economic and environmental self-determination is justified through constructions of subaltern lands as empty and underdeveloped. In exploring how categorisations of terra nullius result in both degradation of land and persons, this essay reveals how structures of inequality are deliberately maintained and reproduced through processes of dispossession. Therefore, this essay argues for an understanding of contemporary environmental injustice to be situated within a historical context of colonialism in order to reveal the underlying colonial structures that continue to prejudice conceptions of land and people.
Indeed, colonial logics continue to inform neoliberal ideologies of extractive capitalism which are often couched in the language of development. Discourses of economic development used to justify land-grabbing are rooted in the colonial discourse of discovery, which set in motion processes of accumulation by dispossession (Zambakari 2017:196). The categorisation of land as terra nullius continues to shape assumptions regarding the ‘regenerative capacity and processes of the earth’ (Shiva 1997:46 in Hendlin 2014:156), promoting extractivism based on the central fiction that nature is ‘limitless and replaceable’ (Klein in Willow 2016:2). By devaluing indigenous lands as “wastelands” empty of sovereignty, terra nullius continues to designate indigenous land as unproductive and to dehumanise the native inhabitants encountered, justifying their dispossession and exclusion from equal rights (Hendlin 2014:156). In exploring the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) as a product of extractive capitalism, Presley suggests that DAPL is not an anomalous product, but a representative project of settler exploitation wherein ‘indigenous rights are replaced by corporate investments in the petroleum industry’ (2019:45). The progressive erosion of Sioux territory must be understood to go hand in hand with the logic of terra nullius, which framed land in the Americas as “empty” in order to justify settler colonisation. Extractivism is thus a contemporary manifestation of settler colonialism insofar as the demand for resources by the capitalist state necessitates the elimination and erasure of indigenous peoples (Whyte 2017:168 ; Presley 2019:18) to gain access to these resource-rich territories. Since Standing Rock was used by the Sioux as a burial site, the use of land was deemed unproductive, justifying their dispossession. Moreover, the re-routing of the DAPL from a location further away from the tribe due to threats to the water quality of the settler city of Bismarck (Whyte 2017:164) reveals how potential harm to the tribe is ignored and deemed inconsequential, violating the right of the tribe to clean water and threatening tribal sovereignty. This significantly illustrates how terra nullius continues to inform racist perceptions of land and personhood with tangible consequences for the environment and people. The rhetoric surrounding the Standing Rock protests is thus squarely situated at the ‘precarious intersection of settler colonialism, environmental racism, and extractive capitalism’ (Presley 2019:77). The current environmental degradation and commodification of nature hence reveals the ‘objectification, commoditisation and degradation of people and environments’ exported by colonial logics (Reed 2009:30-31). Therefore, capitalism’s constant demand for resources effectively displace and dispossess indigenous bodies in a pattern of accumulation by dispossession through the logic of terra nullius inherited from colonialism.
Furthermore, it can also be argued that the global waste trade, instead of being a neoliberal capitalist phenomenon, is rooted in colonial discourses regarding the peripheries. Since the 1980s, the management and disposal of hazardous waste has been an ongoing and escalating global problem, as large quantities of waste generated in the North are exported to the global South (Lipman 2015:256). On a global scale, waste — ‘as material object, as concept, as symbol, and as leitmotif’ — is a symptom of colonialism, and cannot be meaningfully understood detached from historical and ongoing forms of colonialism (Wilkes & Hird 2019). Contemporary toxic colonialism must be understood within the context of a longer history of colonialism. Indeed, the assumed entitlement to use ‘Land as a sink’ is embedded in colonial thought (Liboiron 2018) since colonialism not only assumes the right to extract, but also to pollute. The correlation between colonialism and the waste trade is based on perceptions of indigenous lands as terra nullius and hence expendable for Western wastes (Reed 2009:29). The waste trade is therefore driven by a racist and classist culture and ideology within Northern communities and institutions that view toxic dumping on Subaltern lands as perfectly acceptable (Pellow 2007:9). West African scholar, Mpanya argues that environmental racism and toxic colonialism is rationalised by perceptions of Africa as ‘a continent of immense jungles, populated by naïve people who are guided by corrupt and unintelligent leadership’ (in Pellow 2007:12), reinforcing notions of Africa and Africans as terra nullius. Thus, the harmful consequences of toxic dumping on the people and environment are considered inconsequential in light of the economic benefits reaped by both state and corporations. Neoliberal capitalist demands for territory for waste disposal are legitimised through terra nullius which continues to inform discourses on land, personhood and rights. Moreover, the unequal power relations that structure the waste trade also has its roots in colonialism which plundered the resources of the global South while enriching the North. The global waste trade therefore rests on the constant subjugation of the Global South as people and land to exploit, reproducing and reinforcing colonial logics that rationalise the degradation of land and people in the South.
Moreover, colonial logics and histories continue to inform the politics and ambitions of former settler states. Despite formal independence, settler states continued to cloak themselves in colonial discourses as they desired to ‘prove their mettle as states deserving of membership in the international community’ (Maybury-Lewis et al. 2009 in Hendlin 2014:148). The racist logics that informed the formation of the settler state continues to influence the relationship between the white settler and Indigenous peoples, serving to exclude the latter from civil society. In Australia for instance, the discourse of terra nullius continues to serve as the means through which a specific, white, Australian identity is manufactured and protected. During the 1942 Australia Day address, Prime Minister John Curtin declared, ‘This Australia…is a White Australia, and with God’s blessing we shall keep it so’ (Bridge & Fedorowich 2003:92). This identity was only made possible through the logic of terra nullius which denies Aboriginal presence at the time of European “discovery” (Mercer 1993:305), and continues to inform state-Aborigine relations. Aborigines remain excluded from civil society, and their demands for land rights continue to be ignored by the government in favour of political ambitions. The exigencies of international politics saw Aboriginal peoples forced from their traditional lands such that Britain and white Australia could pursue nuclear and missile defence strategies during the Cold War period (Gorman 2005:96). The South Australian desert was exalted as a largely uninhabited ‘vast open space’, and hence ideal for missile tests (Banivanua-Mar & Edmonds 2010:64). In reality, the restricted area overlapped with the Central Aborigines Reserve and was the traditional country of the Kokatha and Pitjantjatjara people (Wilson 1980 in Gorman 2005:94). Yet, Woomera was perceived as a treeless plain ‘scarcely capable of sustaining human life and thus fit to develop weapons’ (Gorman 2005:96), ignoring continued Aboriginal occupation of the land. Additionally, the potential harm resulting from nuclear testing and contamination of the desert on the livelihoods and socio-religious traditions of the Aborigines were deemed inconsequential (Palmer 1990:200), revealing the underlying logics of terra nullius in the dehumanisation and dispossession of the Aborigines. While no longer a launch site, Woomera remains a favoured place for the Australian government to locate unpopular installations, such as nuclear waste dumps and detention centres for asylum seekers (Gorman 2005:98). Woomera, emptied for political purposes, has become a site where threats to white Australia are contained, whether they be nuclear contamination or non-White refugees, allowing for the creation and maintenance of a white Australia. Colonialism therefore remains central to the self-fashioning of the state, serving to legitimise environmental injustice through the rhetoric of international politics and “national security”.
In the final analysis, in understanding how the terra nullius discourse continues to bias contemporary understandings of property rights, political sovereignty and personhood, this essay explores how colonial histories lay the foundations of contemporary environmental injustices. Colonial processes that labelled people “primitive” and “inferior” justified and enabled land degradation for political and economic purposes. In interrogating environmental degradation as reflective of political and economic injustice between and within nations-states, I argue that land expropriation for the purpose of extraction and pollution should be understood as a contemporary manifestation of colonialism. Therefore, the long history of colonialism is crucial in understanding contemporary categorisations of land along racial and regional lines, ultimately serving to justify environmental injustice through discourses of economic development, capitalist profit and national security.
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