The harmful legacy of colonialism in natural hazard risk

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Here are excerpts from Jazmin P. Scarlett’s “The harmful legacy of colonialism in natural hazard risk” (published in Nature Communications 13, 6945, 14 November 2022). As Jordens points out, “the article mentions, among others, the example of St. Vincent, which was the subject of the author’s PhD dissertation in 2020.” Read full article with notes at Nature Communications.

The legacies of the colonial practices of geoscience in creating long term vulnerabilities to natural hazards is often neglected in discussions of how to live with natural hazards today. Here, I explore the ongoing consequences of colonialism, along with actions that could improve future response to hazards by more fully acknowledging the impact of colonial pasts to improve our understanding of natural hazard risk.

The geosciences are rooted in colonial practices. Geosciences’ historical agenda was to aid the growth of colonial empires’ wealth, often at the expense of the local population via surveys and exploitation of landscapes 1,2. The outcomes of these exploitative networks and practices have recently been through the lens of indigeneity and its influence on understanding and response to biodiversity 3,4. Here, the focus is on natural hazard processes, which are an integral part of many landscapes around the world with varying degrees of risk for local populations. Colonialism and its harms are sometimes neglected in natural hazard research within geoscience. This comment considers the influence of colonial practices in several ways. They have acted to place local populations in locations of greater vulnerability to multiple hazards, with historical legacies resonating in the current day 5. The relentless pursuit of economic resource has amplified vulnerabilities by the destruction of naturally available mitigations (such as forest cover), and finally the creation of knowledge around natural hazards is dominated by western understandings and practices. I explore ways in which diversifying understandings of natural hazards and acknowledging the colonial creation of risk can improve future preparedness and response.

History and legacy of colonialism in geoscience

[. . .] Historically, local indigenous populations were intellectually and socioeconomically exploited to gain access and extract natural resources that benefitted the colonial powers, usually in violation of indigenous peoples cultural understanding and significance of a site to them 11,12. Sometimes the lack of understanding led to violence. In St. Vincent, in the Caribbean, the surveying of volcanic fertile soil in areas that were originally “reserved” for the indigenous peoples led to obtaining land through encroachment, voluntary sale and military force. This eventually resulted in two civil wars (The First and Second Carib War), and the forcible removal of the Garifuna to present-day Honduras. Subsequently, the land was used for some of the largest sugar plantations on the island, using enslaved African labour to produce sugar, molasses and rum to meet the demands of the British Empire in what we now know is in the high-risk zone of the volcano La Soufrière. The establishment of these plantations that turned into settlements’ post-emancipation that endure today, and this forced land settlement has led to greater risk from a variety of natural hazards, including volcanic eruptions, landslides, flooding and tropical storms 13. Former colonised nations’ interactions with natural hazard processes within the exploited landscapes are part of the colonial legacy.

Colonialism and natural hazards

With the overextraction of resources from the landscape, alongside this was the creation of a social hierarchy that marginalises particular social groups who are made vulnerable to natural hazards in a variety of ways, such as limited accessibility to resources to recover from natural hazard events and disasters. Often, marginalisation forces those who are not as socially, economically and/or politically mobile into high-risk areas such as floodplains, due to marginalised/low productive land, uneven development, economic barriers and natural hazard susceptibility 14,15,16. This creates an environment where ‘resilience’ building has also been created under – and are thus a reproduction of — colonial and post-colonial strategies 17. [. . .]

Actions for the future

Colonialism continues to block local geoscientists from researching natural hazard phenomena that they live with. This is done by removing agency in their own knowledge and understanding of natural hazard phenomena, the lack of resources to train homegrown geoscientists and to support the research of local geoscientists, who in some cases, must rely on the collaboration of overseas partners to access the funding. [. . .]

There are multiple approaches to address the colonial legacies in geoscience, such as through teaching, research, strong collaborations. One would be to implement teaching the next generations of geoscientists to break the cycle – to have courses, lectures and resources like Geocontext 10Geocontext provides resources that integrate topics on racism, colonialism, imperialism, environmental damage and exploitation of natural resources into subjects commonly taught within geoscience programs. Whilst these resources are aimed for the US curriculum, inclusion of Geocontext studies can also be supported more broadly, especially since many geoscientists work overseas. This is starting to be addressed in the UK by acknowledging the lack of diversity in geoscience in scientific special interest groups, research and approaches to decolonising the geology curriculum 22,23,24. [. . .]

[. . .] An additional approach is the acknowledgement that the historical development of geoscience and the people that conducted it, should no longer be separated and importantly, that it is okay to change. For example, the University of Glasgow recently acknowledged and renamed a building originally named after the geologist John Walter Gregory, who documented the East African Rift (also known as the Gregory Rift), after learning he supported white supremacy and called for racial segregation 27. In depth work can be done not only on Gregory’s contribution to geology, but also demonstrating the social and political contexts that shaped Gregory’s views.

Another option is to recognise and avoid parachute science (the practice of side-lining local researchers on field studies conducted in their own countries 28) by working meaningfully with local knowledge. The ideologies of colonialism ran deep and touched all aspects of society that are both tangible and intangible, and therefore require the same level of scrutiny into understanding how people have lived and continue to live with natural hazards. [. . .]

It may be easy to dismiss colonialism as something that ‘happened in the past’. But for many people living in once occupied locations, it is generational trauma that cannot be so easily forgotten, as there is a continued perpetuation of colonialism. Being complicit to these knowledge systems touched by white supremacy and imperialism is violence. There is no shame in acknowledging the tainted roots of our disciplines and there should be celebration in wanting to do and be better, as that is a benefit for all, not just the privileged few.

[Scarlett, J.P. The harmful legacy of colonialism in natural hazard risk. Nat Commun 13, 6945 (2022).]

[Unrelated photo of St. Vincent’s La Soufrière above by JEAN-MARC LECERF//GETTY IMAGES. See]

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