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52nd World Environment Day: Shedding the coloniser in us!

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By Praveen Gupta

· 7 min read


The top item in newly appointed Viceroy Minto’s (Earl of Minto) weekly dispatch of February 1906 to his boss, the Secretary of State Morley (later Viscount Morley of Blackburn): “Has killed his first tiger…”.  Killing a tiger was like being baptized the Viceroy of India. One of the most prized positions in all of the British Empire.

This was not a one-off act of ‘subjugating’ nature. It was an act deeply embedded in colonialism. Apart from what transpired between a viceroy and his immediate boss in London - there were regular updates from home department, government of India to the secretary of state. 

One such dated 24th November 1855 was addressed to “The Right Honourable Lord Randolph Churchill (father of Winston Churchill)" - Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for India. Informing his lordship about ‘’the action taken for the destruction of wild animals and venomous snakes during the year 1884.’’

In the appendix to the attachments were: full details for each district, of the number of persons and of cattle killed by the wild animals and snakes, the number of wild animals destroyed and the rewards paid for their destruction. Also included were: The total number of licenses to possess arms for the destruction of wild animals issued in the year under review.

This, for instance was an ‘Extract from the Proceedings of the Government of Madras, dated 19th June 1885’. Mind you, the Madras presidency was only a relatively small part of a sprawling Indian empire. Nor was it the most intensely tiger ‘infested’ jurisdiction.

  Number killed in 1884 Amount of reward paid (in rupees)
Elephants 6 328
Tigers 321 23518
Panthers and leopards 2195 81437
Bears 541 4064
Wolves 230 897
Hyenas 715 5089
Other animals 25 3

The other Indians

Let’s move the theatre to North America for a moment. In ’The Nutmeg’s Curse’, author and climate champion Amitav Ghosh provides a brilliant context to the colonisation of the Americas and, thereby the colonisation of its indigenous peoples. 

Ghosh alludes to active ecological interventions. One example he cites is the extermination of the buffalo herds of the Great Plains. This strategy was adopted by the US Army when it became clear that the highly mobile warriors of the Lakota- Cheyenne- Arapaho alliance could not be defeated in conventional battles. The Lakota scholar and activist Nick Estes, writes that “the frontier army sanctioned the mass slaughter of buffalo to shatter the will to resist by eliminating a primary food supply.” Between 1865 and 1883, American soldiers and hunters killed between 10 and 15 million buffalo, leaving only a few hundred alive. 

What makes the European colonisation of the Americas distinctive, Ghosh explains, is the sheer scale and rapidity of environmental transformation that accompanied it, radically altering more than a quarter of the Earth’s land surface in a few hundred years. That these transformations may even have contributed to planet-wide climatic disruptions suggests something of the scale and speed at which changes occurred, he believes. 

Settlers versus natives

The explicit aim of ecological interventions, writes Ghosh, was to turn territories that were perceived to be wastelands into terrain that fitted a European conception of productive land. Indeed, the settlers’ very claims to the territories were based on an idea that was essentially ecological: the notion that the land was “savage,” “wild,” and vacant, because it was neither tilled nor divided into property. 

But, of course, the land was neither unproductive nor wild in the sense of being free of human interventions before the arrival of Europeans. It was just that the potential of American ecosystems was harnessed in a fashion that was completely different from the European way. Their well-being - elaborates Ghosh - required extremely careful husbandry, not just of agricultural land but also of forests, where fire was used as an essential technology to control the undergrowth and create park-like habitats that facilitated hunting. 

Deforestation in India

“The landmark in the history of Indian forestry is undoubtedly the building of the railway network. The large-scale destruction of accessible forests in the early years of railway expansion led to the hasty creation of a forest department…” Writes historian Ram Guha in ‘The Unquiet Woods’. Uttarakhand remains one of the most brutalized Indian states in terms of treatment meted out to Nature ever since.

A prolonged debate within the colonial bureaucracy on whether to treat the customary use of forests as based on ‘right’ or on ‘privilege’ was settled by the selective use of precedent and the principle that ‘the right of conquest is the strongest of all rights - it is a right against which there is no appeal.’ The coloniser prevailed!

“For centuries, the dominant global powers have seen Earth - its plants, its animals, and its nonwhite peoples - as brute objects: mute, without agency, and available for the taking and killing. The solution to the climate crisis, Ghosh insists, is not injecting particles into the stratosphere to block the sun or even to build a bevvy of solar farms (as important as the latter is). Rather, the solution lies in re-engaging with the vital aspects of life, in all its capaciousness, and in doing so move past our long history of destruction and into true sustainability,”- writes author Naomi Oreskes, commenting on The Nutmeg’s Curse.

In conclusion

It was late evening as a friend and I walked towards a quiet corner of Bloomsbury, virtually on the edge of bustling St. Pancras in Central London. Suddenly, we were face to face with a fox. It stared at us for a moment. Perhaps wondering as to what we were up to. It is garbage hunting time for the fox, said my friend. It reminded me of the leopards from the neighbourhood forest, treading into Powai (north Mumbai) and looking for their favourite meal - stray dogs. Stealthily prowling through mountains of man-made waste and plastic. 

Laments Ghosh: “Much, if not most, of humanity today lives as colonialists once did - viewing the Earth as though it were an inert entity that exists primarily to be exploited and profited from, with the aid of technology and science. Yet even the sciences are now struggling to keep pace with the hidden forces that are manifesting themselves in climate events of unprecedented and uncanny violence”. 

If we were to consider the flora and fauna under relentless assault - as metaphors for Planetary boundaries - what have we made out of our beautiful abode? Is this the best we can leave behind for future generations? “Would that we consider those unborn generations as we trample our forests and pollute our skies in the name of progress and our present-day entitlement?” - Oren Lyons, Wolf clan.

Is there still hope? David King, Chair global Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG) has a prescription. Reduce emissions, build resilience, repair ecosystems, remove greenhouse gases: these are the four Rs that can save us. 

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Praveen Gupta was the second most-read author in the environment and sustainability space for illuminem in 2022, and the third most read in climate change during 2023. A former insurance CEO and a Chartered Insurer, he researches, writes, and speaks on diverse subjects. His blog captures much of the work.

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