I was born in 1985 in Martinique. Along with Guadeloupe, Saint-Barthelemy, and Saint-Martin, Martinique is one of the remaining islands of the French colonial empire in the Caribbean. These islands have seen the decimation of their Indigenous population, the destruction of their ecosystems, the domination of people from Africa via the transatlantic slave trade, and the pursuit of colonial slavery until 1848. The plantation system continued the domination of the formerly enslaved and of migrants from Asia and China via indentured labor. Since 1946, Martinique and Guadeloupe have changed status, moving from French colonies to “French overseas departments,” marking the promise of equal French citizenship that, to this day, has yet to be fulfilled. I was socialized and educated in a land that was shaped both ecologically and politically by colonial slavery.
The ruins of colonization seemed fresh in minds, in discussions, in the socio-racial differentiation between those who represent the state and workers, between the major holders of economic capital and most of the population. The ruins of colonization were also evident in the very organization of the land, which had not changed much. While the massive colonial sugarcane fields had dwindled in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because of the competition by European beet sugar, recentering their production around rum, this colonial inhabitation was maintained via a new export crop. Banana plantations sprouted like a never-ending skin rash in the 1950s, replacing the slavery plantations, in the very same locations, along the very same export routes that ultimately led to mainland France. They were still run mostly by White creole owners belonging to a group that claims to be the descendants of slaveholders.
At the turn of the millennium, the inhabitants of Martinique and Guadeloupe discovered that the compulsive use of pesticides had permeated every part of the islands’ ecosystems, including our bodies. In particular, one compound called chlordecone—both a carcinogenic agent and an endocrine disruptor—became the center of attention. Used against a banana weevil at the root of the banana plants from the 1970s to the 1990s, this compound has caused a harmful contamination of the islands that may last for centuries. The waterways, the aquifers, the fish, the meat, the birds, the humans and their umbilical cords, and the land are, in parts, contaminated. In addition to the induced cases of prostate cancers, and the delays in the motor, cognitive, and visual development of infants, this contamination also prevented some farmers and fishermen and women from continuing their professional activities. I was born on the scene of an ecocide.
As I moved around and grew up on the island, I came to conceive of these political and environmental ruins of colonial slavery as two distinct issues. Historical and anthropological scholarship on slavery, its abolition, and its aftermath has largely been centered on humans and sociopolitical relations, with a persistent masculine gaze, while the destruction of ecosystems, the unsettling of ecological equilibriums became mostly an environmental affair. I was baffled both in Martinique and Guadeloupe and in mainland France and the rest of Europe as to how environmental thinkers and movements could be so far from anticolonial and antiracist thinkers and movements. Both sides were engaging in a critique of modernity as if they were living on two different Earths, inheriting two different “modernities.” In my new book, Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World, I have termed this divide the “double fracture of modernity,” a divide that, to a fault, separates environmental histories, theories, and issues from the histories and theories of colonialism and slavery and their resistances. I argue that facing environmental issues such as ecocide requires moving beyond this double fracture both in the present and in the past. One cannot effectively preserve the environment without engaging with the long historical logics that cause its destruction, and vice versa. One cannot think about the emancipation process without looking at how the uses of the environment in turn exacerbate the suffering of the dominated. What does it mean to be free from slavery if this freedom is to be lived in a toxicant-ridden island or an unbreathable city?
To envision what justice could mean in the wake of colonialism and slavery, I think there is a need to also recognize slavery and colonization as forms of ecocide for at least three reasons. First, doing so compels us to acknowledge the continuity between the enslaved and the land, between humans and nonhumans. The colonization of the world by European imperial powers implied both the subjugation of people and the plundering of the ecosystems of the Earth. More precisely, the domination of Indigenous and enslaved people were the conditions for the exploitation of so-called nature and vice versa. Second, slavery as ecocide recognizes the damages done to Indigenous and enslaved people as an integral part of the ecosystems themselves. Since humans are not separate from nature, the plundering of human bodies via the transatlantic slave trade, the so-called ebony wood can also be understood as a form of deforestation on the continent of Africa, and a destruction of the web of life in the Americas. Third, slavery as ecocide means that we need not accept justice or emancipation from slavery solely as a politics of the human, as the breaking of chains and the granting of social and political rights.
Of course, the abolitions of slavery were important milestones, achieved at great cost via the struggles of the enslaved themselves. However, the continued domination of the newly liberated in plantation economies, such as Martinique and Guadeloupe, shows that it is misleading to think that freedom and equality can be achieved in a society entirely geared toward the plundering of the Earth. Echoing the steps of environmental justice movements in the United States, local collectives in Martinique and Guadeloupe have highlighted this connection, denouncing both the pollutions and the racist and misogynistic dehumanization their communities have endured. A similar junction is currently being brought to light in Paris, where alliances are increasingly being made between climate movements like Alternatiba and antiracist movements like the Adama Traore Collective. Recognizing slavery as ecocide allows us to recognize that whatever form justice takes, it is only via renewed relationships to the Earth that one can deconstruct this history of dehumanization and rediscover their own humanity. This is the horizon sought by a decolonial ecology.
Ferdinand, Malcom. 2022. Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World, trans. Anthony Paul Smith. Cambridge: Polity Press.