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Decolonising the Climate

Disha A Ravi

Disha Ravi

Youth Climate Activist and Founder, Fridays for Future, India

The systems interacting with climate change are often older and more deep rooted than even the industrial revolution. In this article Dish Ravi, an Indian youth climate change activists explores how colonialism and climate change have caused floods in Bengaluru.

In September last year, Bengaluru (anglicised as Bangalore) experienced 131.6 mm of rain, breaking the records of the last 34 years. For a long time, I did not understand why my landlocked city, Bengaluru, was flooding. Was it heavy rainfall? Was it bad drainage? Turns out, it was both.

Britain’s Colonial Legacy

Parts of Bengaluru are built on stormwater drains, lakes, and wetlands. Covering up the city’s waterways was started by the British when they established themselves in Bengaluru in the early nineteenth century. 

When the British moved to Bengaluru at the beginning of the 1800s, the ancient tank-canal systems stopped being used as a way to get water for irrigation in the city. Lewis Rice, an Orientalist who was sent to study the area in 1897, complained that Bengaluru’s tanks weren’t enough to meet the needs of the British officers stationed in the east, let alone the needs of the growing number of ‘natives’ in the western half of the city (the city was racially segregated along an east-west axis). When it became clear that the new tank, built by the British engineer Sankey in 1882, would not be enough to provide water for the civil and military station (the British area), let alone for all of Bengaluru, colonial officials started looking for more distant state-engineered alternatives to fuel the growing textile industry.

To facilitate this, the British Government sought to divert water from the rivers in the region and divert them to the city’s canals. Combined with the clearance of vegetation for expanding industries and the previous destruction of drains, lakes, and wetlands, this amounted to an assault on the city’s drainage systems. Rivers and canals were no longer a sufficient buffer to protect the city from flooding.

The colonial approach to the development of my city, the focus on short-term profits, the hierarchy imposed on different areas, and the failure to plan for the long term are now exacerbating the effects of climate change. It is an approach we can see around the world, particularly in societies that were colonised.

Decolonising the Environment

This is why we need a decolonial approach to development and conservation. At Fridays For Future India, we are focused on unlearning colonial habits and practices and incorporating decolonial practices that are radically inclusive.
To us, decolonial conservation is an approach to conservation and environmental stewardship that seeks to undo centuries of colonial oppression, reclaim indigenous knowledge of land management and reinstate indigenous rights to control their environment.

Decolonial conservation recognises that colonial policies, practices, and exploitative economic systems have disproportionately impacted Indigenous communities. It calls for the recognition of indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, and the need to undo and redress the legacies of colonial oppression.

As we have seen, colonial decision-making has often destroyed systems it has not understood and ignored the wisdom of indigenous solutions. Decolonial conservation recognises the unique role that indigenous communities have in understanding and protecting their traditional land and culture, and it seeks to create spaces for meaningful participation in environmental decision-making. We must undo the deep-seated biases in conservation that privilege non-indigenous knowledge and approaches to land management. This includes developing indigenous-led initiatives, such as the Indigenous Land-based Management System, which seeks to integrate both indigenous and Western science in land and resource management.

To avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, decolonial conservation focuses on the recognition of the rights and role of Indigenous peoples in conservation and environmental protection, empowering them to co-manage the land and its resources. A decolonised mindset places a strong emphasis on the need for meaningful and mutually beneficial partnerships between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

Decolonising the UK

What does decolonial conservation mean for the UK? There are two important points to make – Britain must deal with her colonial legacy and apply the lessons of decolonial conservation within her own borders.

Britain’s legacy as a colonial power means that the UK has a special responsibility to nations formerly colonised, both formally and informally. Global inequality arises from a history of colonialism and will mean some nations are well equipped to adapt to climate change and some are not. Recognising this, the UK should lead the rich world in living up to their pledges to contribute financially to the decarbonisation and adaptation of nations in the global south. 

While the UK has not been colonised, many of the forces of colonialism have long been in effect within the UK. Recognising the rights of residents, prioritising natural protective measures over short-term profits and ensuring equality, be it racial or regional, can help the UK as much as it can help India.

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