Commentary: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism, Part I

Lithography of a painting by A. Salm.

*A commentary on Part I of our Engagement thematic series, Life on the Frontier.

By Zoe Todd, Carleton University §

If we take seriously the work of Indigenous scholars on the Indigenous legal-governance systems of territories across what is now Canada, and if we pay close attention to the ways that Indigenous legal orders and traditions incorporate the nonhuman, more-than-human or other-than-human constituents of these territories (and beyond), we are left with the serious task of engaging with the complex ecologies and environmental impacts of settler colonialism. Though much scholarship and political discourse in the western canon has tended to the human dimensions of settler colonialism, there is a growing body of work examining the ways that more-than-human beings are entangled in settler colonial projects.

Each post in this series draws out a fascinating, searing, and necessary facet of environmental relations in settler colonial contexts around the planet. Taking Patrick Wolfe’s argument that settler colonialism is a structure, not an event (Wolfe 1999:2)—that is, it continuously reproduces the ideologies, laws, stories, relationships and physical terrain of colonialism as an ongoing imperative—we are left with the responsibility to query the ways that this structure (and/or its structures) co-opt, implode, violate and, in some cases, try to weaponize more-than-human relations and beings in the expansive and eliminatory logics of the settler colonial project. The ‘technologies of Empire’ which Rubaii explores in this thematic series become very important as nodes of reproduction of a particularly virulent order of being. Understanding how the more-than-human and environment are employed to reproduce a settler colonial order is crucial to mobilizing strategies to disrupt the settler colonial project and its attempts to violently reproduce the entire planet in its image. Drawing on the political theory of Audra Simpson and her work on ethnographic refusal, I contend here that our ability to refuse settler colonialism depends on our ability to insist on relationships that center and attend to myriad human responsibilities to more-than-human beings and worlds, and to manifest relationships which acknowledge land, water, plants, animals and other more-than-human beings as political agents in their own right.

In her seminal text Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, Audra Simpson reminds us that “much of the political work that Native people do is structured by the claims that settler colonialism places upon their land, their lives, and their aspirations” (Simpson 2014: 178). Indigenous land, life and futures are deeply entangled and co-constitutive. As Piergiorgio Di Giminiani reminds us in his contribution to this thematic series, the “two key processes behind colonial expansion in southern Chile [are] land concentration among settlers caused by market deregulation, and the displacement of indigenous groups justified through the infamous principle of terra nullius”. With these statements and the arguments of other decolonial and anti-colonial scholars in mind, one thing that I teach my students in courses on human-environmental anthropology and Indigenous Studies is that when we are discussing the how and why of particular government policies or strategies regarding Indigenous peoples in Canada — be it pipelines or reconciliation – “it all comes down to ‘land’ (and/or ‘territory’)”. And by this I mean that the issues of who claims land, who lives within it, whose laws animate it, and which agents constitute political beings within it are all matters at stake in the settler colonial state’s (illegal) assertion of domain over lands, waters, atmospheres, territories and even temporalities (because settler colonialism and empire do not claim only space but also time). In this sense, paying careful attention to how settler colonial states conceive of, relate to, and lay claim to land and water is crucial in providing us with the conceptual and practical tools to refuse and refract the state’s understandings of its own doctrines and destinies.

Here, I reflect on each of the articles that comprise Part I of this thematic series. These contributions examine not only past and present entanglements and paradoxes of the environmental facets of settler colonialism, but also give us tools with which to apprehend (Simpson (2014)) and (hopefully) disrupt the settler colonial project as it attempts to terraform other worlds (be they the deep sea or outer space) and reconstitute itself in new ways in what some argue are the accelerating (or, I contend, re-circulating) violences of the 21st century.

Let me turn now to specific reflections on each of the essays in Part I of this series.



“Not only does [concrete] threaten biological diversity, but as a technology of empire, it also displaces life-ways and culturally specific bodies. But concrete is an also an agentive being, with a toxic liveliness that impinges on the arrangements of multispecies sociality” – Kali Rubaii

Rubaii’s work draws our attention to the multiplicities, contradictions, and paradoxes of material entanglements. Concrete is manipulated and employed by humans on all sides of the conflict in occupied Palestine. The relationality between human and nonhuman agents in settler colonialism becomes a site through which to examine the contradictions and paradoxes of human/nonhuman engagements. And this forces us to look closely at some of the less obvious ways that conflict, violence, dispossession, and erasure are carried out. The very nature of concrete is one of its contradictions. It is marked by incipient violence against the constituents that comprise it, crushing and mixing things together to form a malleable substrate for contemporary building. And yet, this may be repurposed to refuse settler colonial erasure. As Rubaii points out:

“The village mayor talks about how concrete is comprised of both indigenous rock bodies and an invasive lifeway, highlighting a debate among scholars and architects on how to frame the threats to Palestinian society.”

So how do we make sense of concrete and its simultaneous complicities in, and resistances to, settler colonial and imperial domination in Palestine? As Rubaii demonstrates:

“From the perspective of the ecologist, concrete may be hostile to life: from the perspective of the anti-colonial nationalist, concrete is life. And in Palestine, it is strangely, both. Concrete offers not an impasse but a set of productive contradictions. Valuing lifeways is not simply about the connections between species or things, but about the ability to choose the terms of how those connections are made and changed”

These ‘productive contradictions’ are important for how we envision meaningful political engagement against settler colonialism. Tending to concrete, and understanding its own internal contradictions, is necessary in order to formulate and mobilize lasting and dynamic responses to settler colonial structures.


Haciendo Patria

One of the great challenges of making sense of settler colonial expansion and domination of lands is to be able to disentangle the complex assemblages which form between humans, lands, waters, and other-than-humans in colonized landscapes. Piergiorgio Di Giminiani provides us with a snapshot of complex relationships between Mapuche and colonos in the Coilaco valley of the southern Andean region of Chile.

“One can read and hear about the significance of forests in Mapuche society, where mawida forests, are populated by forces beyond human control that need to be approached with respect (respeto or yewen). Forests are vital yet dangerous places that should be put to use in careful ways. Settlers’ engagement with forests is usually placed on the other side of the spectrum. Forests are spaces to be cleaned (mantener limpios) through dedication and hard work regardless of any risk of causing detrimental effects on water cycle and soil depletion.”

Di Giminiani’s writing demonstrates a clear tension between Mapuche and settler understandings of how the forest operates, and how one must tend to and engage with it. This tension also bears out in the relationship between re/producing ‘frontier’ and ‘homeland’ (hacer patria) in Coilaco. And yet, the relationality between peoples who now share space, time, and stories is unavoidable. This is because, as Patrick Wolfe (1999:2) reminds us, in settler colonialism, the colonizers come to stay. As Indigenous peoples refuse the eliminatory logics of settlement (Simpson 2014), a resultant ongoing negotiation across sameness and difference is required to navigate the new landscapes of settlement, market exploitation and reformed human-environmental relations. This evokes the work of Paspaschase Cree scholar Dwayne Donald (2009), who urges us to consider the ‘ethical relationality’ between settler and Indigenous peoples, philosophies and legal-political orders in Canada. As Di Giminiani demonstrates, within this context of settlement at the frontier-homeland of Coilaco, we see contradictions and complexities emerge as communities relate to one another. Paradoxically, as Di Giminiani points out:

“difference emerges in the very act of sharing history, in particular, in those shared experiences of “making homeland.” In other words, of being the unintentional historical actors of nation-building in spatial terms. Looking at this shared history of making homeland while acknowledging its diametrically opposed consequences for settlers and indigenous people, victims of both the ecocides and genocides that took place in southern Chile, can help us in understanding the multiple histories of formation for the many frontiers of colonial and capitalist expansion giving shape to our world.”

Tending to these ‘multiple histories of formation’ that Di Giminiani describes is incredibly important in understanding the complexities of settler colonialism as a project.


Contradictions of a Settler Garden in South Africa

“The forests were not a site of settler production but a site of recreation: a handful of local whites had built holiday cottages, one of which had been developed by a Scottish immigrant, E. Reid, as a boarding house called, “the Haven.””

Derick Fay shows us that, in settler colonialism, colonizers may weaponize plants as agents through which landscapes are re-imagined and re-configured in order to eliminate Indigenous worlds. Gardens, often imagined as a generative space of renewal, can also become weapons through which settlers reinforce specific orders of existence. The introduction of guava and other non-Indigenous plants in the Dwesa and Cwebe forests in South Africa in the 20th century, as part of an effort to build a tourism industry, produces an interesting outcome. The work of conservation, in the case study Fay outlines for us, hinges on the removal of the alien plants introduced by settlers in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, this removal itself is in opposition to the creative co-optation of these weaponized plants by local residents. In creatively co-opting guava, local peoples refuse the logics of conservation applied by state actors. This is itself a generative site or node through which to engage with the contradictions and complexities of human-plant and human-environmental relations as they unfurl through time.  In other words, the gardens and forests themselves yield narratives of entanglement which are difficult for conservationists to grasp and grapple with. Within this entanglement and the contradictions it produces are vital modes through which to refuse and refract settler colonialism as we understand it.


Tar Sands

In her ethnographic description of harvesting metal and materials from an abandoned work camp in Alberta’s boreal forest with Nehiyawak friends, Janelle Marie Baker brings readers into a set of socio-environmental relations often overlooked in our conversations about the wastelands[1] produced by large scale oil and gas extraction in Canada. Specifically, she examines the relations and meanings produced as people dismantle, reshape and repurpose the buildings and materials left behind by oil and gas companies once they close down the myriad work camps built throughout the Alberta boreal forest:

“They are mentioned in environmental impact assessments, but are dismissed due to their impermanence – they are there to temporarily house transient workers who construct projects and not necessarily maintain general operations, so the camps are considered to be a short stage in the “life” of the project. In spite of such claims, work camps require a large clearing in the forest, site drainage, and all forms of human waste disposal. They attract bears and power generators are loud and contribute to oil and gas spills. Disturbed soil becomes the perfect place for invasive plant species to colonize.”

In the way that Wolfe (1999) cautions us to think about settler colonialism as a structure, not an event, Baker here illustrates the fraught and dishonest framings by oil and gas project proponents of tar sands work camps as ‘impermanent’. My colleague Chris Andersen reminds me that settler colonialism can also be thought of as a structure that produces events – that is, through its structuration, it produces ongoing relationships, imperatives and encounters which shape the fleshy and lived experiences of people within colonial states (Andersen 2017, personal communication). Tar Sands work camps, which flourish during oil booms, are themselves both a structure and event; the structuring that these two elements co-constitute is re-shaping forest, muskeg, and more-than-human life across northern Alberta as we speak. Andersen and Baker’s insights are helpful here in thinking through the ongoing impacts that a supposedly ‘impermanent’ event-structure – the work camps which flourish in the boreal forest like a ring of fungi in a lush green yard – can have on socio-cultural and political-ecological relations and governance in northern Alberta. Perhaps it is here that we can note: settler colonialism has lasting effects on the very socio-physical landscapes which it clears, implodes, orders, rationalizes and, even, abandons. How, then, do Indigenous peoples reclaim these invading structures, to produce relationships and praxis which reassert laws and stories which tend to these spaces with care? Baker’s discussion helps us to understand how people are purposefully re-ordering these camps in order to mitigate their impacts on existing life and livelihoods.


Weed Ecology

In the final post in Part I of the series, Timothy Neale examines the ways that weeds were and are employed as a kind of colonial technology which deliberately implodes and ruptures existing plant-land and human-plant relations in Australia. As we have seen from Fay’s post, gardens can be spaces of colonial reformation of ecological relations. So, too, can weeds be employed to re-order lands and their constituents. As Neale points out:

“By trying to transform the north to their ends, settlers have transformed fire, which has for millennia been a relatively benign ecological agent in the savannah, into a hazard to multiple forms of life. As of yet, we have little grasp of the consequences of this invasion in terms of biodiversity losses. We do know that a spreading blanket of Gamba grass now covers 20 percent of Litchfield National Park. Almost none of the bushfire practitioners I work with in the area believe the invasion can be reversed, let alone arrested. A landscape of dispossession is now shifting into a novel monoculture.”

“Weeds, like settlers, are problems in place; problems of disproportionate power amongst others; problems of counterproductive ends amongst others. Settler colonial ecologies are sites of entanglement; sites of lively emplaced articulations; sites in which the terms of belonging are, for better or worse, open to agonistic contests.”

The antagonistic contests which Neale describes are a perfect phrasing to capture the contradictions, paradoxes, and, to borrow a word from Anna Tsing (2005), friction, produced by the ecological frontiers of settler colonial assimilation and elimination. Neale draws our attention to the ‘exploitative social relations’ of settler colonial ecologies. The framing of ‘exploitative social relations’ is a powerful tool for us employ as we disentangle the way settler colonial landscapes, plant-scapes, relations and stories are weaponized and mobilized in order to naturalize and normalize invasion in its many iterations. These weaponized and exploitative relations are material and visceral – the Gamba grass Neale studies is complicit in the intensification of fire-cycles. In shifting plant relations, settlers also shift myriad other ecological presences, beings and outcomes. So, as Neale shows us, the work of decolonizing settler plant-relations centers on our ability to make sense of and work through the ways that plants may simultaneously operate as antagonists and accomplices across various geographies.



These essays contribute nuanced, place-specific examinations of the various ways that settler colonialism manifests in diverse geographies and temporalities. It is important to bring the careful and detailed labor of politically-informed ethnographic work to bear on the environmental specificities of settler colonialism, as this gives us the capacity to see the paradoxical ways in which settler colonialism, as a structure, manages to reproduce itself faithfully across many different spaces and times. At the core of these essays is a deep tension between the ‘sameness and difference’ of settler colonialism in its many manifestations. In turn, how we refuse, refract, resist, and re-story settler colonialism will necessitate our labor in holding these tensions together – building solidarities where necessary, but also making space for acknowledging the specific experiences of the many different peoples and relations that settler colonial states and governments have tried, so forcefully, to eliminate.

Within this complex work across moments of sameness and difference in colonized environments, there is a powerful tension that can animate meaningful political engagement within, between and across many communities. This series offers us insight into how to identify the ways settler colonialism co-opts our more-than-human kin in its insidious reformation of environments. In turn, these essays give us tools with which to refuse the weaponization of various kin, relations, stories and terrains by settler colonial forces. Understanding how settler colonialism structures itself in the lands, waters, and atmospheres that it invades gives us the power to refract its efforts and assert something liberatory in its place.


[1] See Lee 2016 for a generative discussion of Indigenous relations to wastelands in Saskatchewan.

Works Cited

Andersen, Chris. 2017. Personal communication.

Donald, Dwayne. 2009. “Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Metissage: Imagining Decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts.” First Nations Perspectives 2 1: 1-24.

Lee, Erica Violet. 2016. “In Defence of Wastelands: A Survival Guide.” GUTS Issue 7.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wolfe, Patrick. 1999. Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: the Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. London: Cassell.

Zoe Todd (Métis) is from amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), which is located in Treaty Six Territory in Alberta, Canada. She is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University. She researches fish, colonialism and legal-governance relations between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian State. In the past, she has researched human-fish relations in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, and has conducted work on Arctic Food Security in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Her current work focuses on the relationships between people and fish in the context of colonialism, environmental change and resource extraction in Treaty Six Territory (Edmonton, amiskwaciwâskahikan), Alberta. Her work employs a critical Indigenous feminist lens to examine the shared relationships between people and their environments and legal traditions in Canada, with a view to understanding how to bring fish and the more-than-human into conversations about Indigenous self-determination, peoplehood, and governance in Canada today.

This post is part of our thematic series: Life on the Frontier: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism