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Colonialism and the environment

Decolonization under the Trusteeship Council was finally concluded on November 1, 1994 after the last UN trust territory Palau gained independence. However, almost two decades later, colonialism still haunts various indigenous communities.

During COP15, nations agreed to meet the global biodiversity framework’s target of conserving 30 per cent of the earth by 2030. But they have neither established the Global Biodiversity Fund nor recognized the conservation of indigenous peoples’ land so far.

Colonial-era laws obstruct the implementation of environmental laws. Imperialism had allowed industrialized nations to claim resources and raw material by displacing indigenous population, destroying their ecosystems, and controlling them by institutionalizing inequality and discrimination.

Law, religion and science criminalized several communities and glorified others. This is how ethnocentrism, racism, nationalism, and xenophobia were scientifically justified. Scientific traditions backed Nazi Germany’s racial and biological policies and led to the Holocaust. Genetics is still used to criminalize communities, while ignoring socioeconomic causes.

The Catholic Church, under the Spanish Requirement 1513, permitted colonializing by force, but Bartolome de las Casas defended indigenous peoples’ rights regarding self-determination and their lands, and opposed their enslavement.

The people of the Subcontinent traded their freedoms under the Indenture System to work at overseas plantations as a cheap alternative to slavery. This has led to modern-day bonded labour in Pakistan’s brick kilns, forcing families to work for generations. It is good to note that such places are now being closed by the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency.

The Criminal Tribes Act 1871, allowed the British to criminalize indigenous tribes, the transgender community, and nomads or ‘Waddar,’ commonly called ‘Od’ or ‘Odde’. It restricted the Waddar community’s movement, hampering its manual labour search.

It criminalized individuals for their gender identity which, under Islamic law, is a personal decision, without any interference from the state, courts or medical officers, because jurists (imams) and juristic interpretations (fiqh) are integral for legislation. According to ‘Inheritance in Islam: Hanafi and Shia Laws’ by Imdad Hussain Minhas, any individual whose gender cannot be decided from predominant characteristics, will belong to the gender who inherits the smaller share in estate.

The martial race theory by Lord Roberts declared Sikhs, Gurkhas, Dogras, Rajputs, Pathans and Jats as fighting races, and others as inferiors. India denounced the martial race theory for recruiting soldiers, and denotified criminal tribes, but the Habitual Offenders Act replaced it.

The Mandal Commission in 1979 identified socio-economically and educationally backward communities, while the Gram Nyayalaya Act, 2008, implemented native informal justice system. The Tribal Forest Protection Act, 2004 and the Forest Rights Act, 2006 recognized the rights of the forest-dwelling tribes on their ancestral lands for sustainable use, biodiversity conservation, and maintaining ecological balance.

Inheriting land was one of many causes for the War of Independence, 1857. The Rani of Jhansi could not adopt a child, nor could Nana Sahib, the last Peshwa’s adopted son, receive his adoptive father’s pension. Several laws were also blamed for the war. The Religious Disabilities Act, protected the inheritance rights of someone renouncing his/her religion, allowing Dalits to change their religion.

Other laws included the Caste Disabilities Removal Act, the General Service Enlistment Act, the Widow Remarriage Act, and banning the burning of widows (Sati), which addressed social injustices and discrimination by natives. Even Mahatma Gandhi’s racism towards South African natives was highlighted by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed.

Nearly half a million Dalits joined Dr Ambedkar and converted to Navayana Buddhism. In 2018, around 300,000 Dalits celebrated the defeat of the Peshwas of the Maratha Empire by the British in 1818.

Sikhs trusted neither Muslims nor Hindus, and supported the British in the War of Independence, alongside some Muslims of Punjab. According to history professor and former principal of Federal Government College Bahawalpur Mirza Asad Humayun, this was because Punjab and its feudalism flourished under the British Raj, while the people of Bengal were deprived of their lands under the Permanent Settlement laws, and could not get them back for bidding poorly in auctions. He further explained that Sikhs stopped trusting the British when they fired on protesters at the Jallianwala Bagh in 1919.

Bengal paid heavily for colonialism during the 1943 Bengal Famine , killing around three million people.

On April 11, 2023 Human Rights Watch demanded Pakistan to stop the forcible eviction of thousands of farmers for constructing the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project and to enforce environmental protections and reform colonial-era land acquisition laws.

Fortunately, the Balochistan High Court in the Sher Zaman case and the Peshawar High Court in the Noorani Gul case have declared that unsettled land belongs to indigenous communities.

Although the conquests of Alexander, Arabs, Afghans and Persians have adversely affected the Subcontinent’s environment, the colonial legacy still haunts indigenous people and their land.

M Shahrukh Shahnawaz, "Colonialism and the environment," The News. 2023-06-15.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social injustices , Backward communities , Colonialism , Feudalism , Mirza Asad Humayun , Noorani Gul , Pakistan