Q. What do you understand by Ecological imperialism? How it caused the destruction of ecology and encroachment upon traditional rights of the people leading to the popular resistance during the British period? 

Q. What do you understand by Ecological imperialism? How it caused the destruction of ecology and encroachment upon traditional rights of the people leading to the popular resistance during the British period? 


Ecological imperialism is the theory advanced first by Alfred Crosby with respect to the destruction of ecological destruction of colonised area by European settlers.©

Madhav Gadgil and Ramchandra Guha applied the same idea to India in their famous book- “This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India”.

  • Prior to British arrival, forest land was a common property resource.
  • Before the inception of the Indian Forest Department in 1864, there was, by and large, little state intervention in the management of forest areas, which were left in the control of local communities.
  • The takeover of large areas of forest by the colonial state thus constituted an important watershed in many ways:
    • Political watershed:
      • It represented an enormous expansion of the powers of the state, and
      • a corresponding diminution of the rights of village communities.
    • Social watershed:
      • By curbing local access it radically altered traditional patterns of resource use.
    • Ecological watershed:
      • The emergence of timber as an important commodity was to fundamentally alter forest ecology.
  • Destruction of ecology:
    • The colonial state controlled the forest and destroyed it also.
    • British intervened and radically altered existing food producing systems and their ecological basis.
    • British empowered zamindar to tax and control indigenous communities and encouraged local communities to clear forest for cultivation.
    • The imperatives of colonial forestry were largely commercial.
    • There was large scale commercial logging and deforestation because of colonial demands.
      • Use of timber in railways led to the destruction of ecology.
      • Teak trees were felled to build ships.
      • Diversity of Aravali ridge disturbed in Delhi due to several factors like introduction invasive trees like vilayati kikar trees native to Mexico.
      • Replaced forest trees of Uttarakhand from borad-leaf oak to pine trees (it is one of the major reasons of forest fire).
  • Encroachment on customary rights:
    • British policy encroached upon the customary rights of traditional people. They restricted several cutomary rights like use of forest produce by local tribes, shifting cultivation but used trees for themselves.
    • Indian Forest Act, 1878 and 1927:
      • It sought to regulate movement and transit of forest produce and restricted several traditional rights in the Reserve Forest for e.g. right over land, right of pasture, right to forest produce etc.
    • Popular resistance:
      • A significant consequence of ecological imperialism was the intensification of social conflict between the state and its subjects.
      • Almost everywhere, the takeover of the forest was bitterly resisted by local populations for whom it represented an unacceptable infringement of their traditional rights of access and use.
      • Hunter gatherers, shifting cultivators, peasants, pastoral nomads, artisans – for all these social groups free access to forest produce was vital for economic survival, and they protested in various ways at the imposition of state control.
      • Apart from forest laws, new restrictions on hunting for local populations (while allowing freer hunting for sport by the British) were another contributory factor in fueling social conflict.
      • Popular resistance to state forestry was remarkably widespread and sustained.
        • In 1913, a government committee in the Madras Presidency was struck by the hostility towards the forest department, which was the most reviled government agency.
        • In the Garhwal Himalaya, a British official wrote at almost the same time that ‘forest administration consists for the most part in a running fight with the villagers’.
      • Popular resistance to state forestry embraced forms of protest that minimized the element of confrontation with authority, such as covert breaches of the forest law, as well as organized rebellions that challenged the right of the state to own and manage forest areas

Hence ecological imperialism led to the popular resistance to state environmental policies in the colonial period which also inspired post-independence environmental movement in India.©

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