University of Oxford

The Ecological and Political Impact of Colonialism in the Third World During the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries


Colonialism is a system in which a state claims sovereignty over territory and people outside its own boundaries ; or a system of rule which assumes the right of one people to impose their will upon another (Brett, 1973). During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, rich, powerful states, including Britain and other European countries, owned third world colonies. ‘Third world’ originally referred to countries that did not belong to the democratic, industrialised countries of the West (the First World) or the state-socialist, industrialising, Soviet Bloc countries (the Second World) (Chilton, 2004). This essay uses specific third world examples to summarise the main impacts of nineteenth and twentieth century colonialism, when colonial powers reached their peak. It focuses on European colonialism in Africa and India.

One view of development is that, at the level of the individual, it implies increased skill and capacity, greater freedom, creativity, self-discipline, responsibility and material well being (Rodney, 1972), which European colonial powers achieved through economic growth, by exploiting the natural and human resources of their colonies. Europe and Africa confronted each other in respective states of development and underdevelopment, the latter term being defined by Europeans in relation to the lack of African progress in the techniques required to sustain an advanced materialistic culture (Brett, 1973).

It can be argued that colonialism had some positive effects. For example, the British instigated irrigation networks in India: by the 1890s nearly 44,000 miles of canals and distributaries irrigated a quarter of India’s total crop area, increasing agricultural output. But this too had some negative effects, including waterlogging and salination of the canals and greater prevalence of malaria with more mosquito breeding areas (Arnold, 1996).

Colonialism was also supposedly beneficial because it provided infrastructure for economic development and some social services. However, this essay argues that the impacts of colonialism were overwhelmingly negative and infrastructure was provided solely to enable the colonial power to exploit the natural resources and workforce of the colony.

The main ecological impacts of colonialism relate to:

Land and forests: through deforestation and cash cropping;
Extraction and mining: through changes to the landscape and economic systems;
Introduction of animal and human diseases by colonial settlers.

The main political impacts relate to:

Destruction of local institutions;
Coercive and repressive state rule;
Development of artificial national boundaries;
Displacement of local populations

The examples will show that the impacts are intertwined. Political ecology assumes that politics and environment are thoroughly connected (Bryant, 1998), and the conclusion will draw together the key points.

Ecological impacts

Deforestation and Cash Cropping:

British colonialism exploited timber for Britain’s industrial revolution. Timber was used for shipbuilding, to fuel steam engines in industry and transportation, and to make railroad sleepers for India’s growing colonial rail network; by 1910 there were more than 32,000 miles of [rail] track (Arnold and Guha, 1995). Forests had to be cleared for the railways, which in turn enabled timber exploitation in deeper areas. Cleared areas were converted to agricultural land for revenue. Ecologically, deforestation resulted in soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, problems of salination, rising water tables; abandoned wells; drying or siltation of drainage channels, and the spread of malaria (Gadgil and Guha, 1992).

In the pre-colonial era, under the Mughals, it was non-timber products such as pepper, cardamom and ivory that were collected through centralised state control. Under the British, emphasis shifted to ‘scientific management’ of timber species such as teak, pine and deodar (Gadgil and Guha, 1992; Bawa 1992). At the same time as imperial foresters sought to eliminate competitor species to favoured tree species, they attempted to restrict alternative forest practices that might ‘interfere with official timber extraction and regeneration operations – shifting cultivation usually being a favoured target’ (Gadgil and Guha, 1992).

In Madagascar, French colonialism from 1896 created deforestation, pushing coffee cultivation over traditional rice harvesting, when it became apparent that [French] producers were able to generate large profits from the latter. This resulted in rice shortages, as early as 1911 . The net effect was an increase in shifting cultivation as people tried to grow rice to feed themselves and coffee as a cash crop. Forests were increasingly fragmented and either destroyed by burning or clear-cutting (Ward, 2002). The state prohibited shifting cultivation in 1909, imposing “rational forest resource management “, to reduce deforestation and allocate land for rice, but then opened up the island’s forests to logging concessions in 1921(1), increasing deforestation and illegal felling of trees. A combination of these detrimental government policies meant that “roughly 70% of the primary forest was destroyed in the 30 years between 1895 and 1925(1)”.

As a result of colonial policies, Madagascar became an importer of food. Local people were displaced and the state gained control over resources. Coffee plantations were notable for having erosion rates nearly twice as high as subsistence plots. Fertile land was cleared and replaced with a persistent monoculture, unsuitable for nearly all plant and animal inhabitants of the previous forest (Ward, 2002).

In Nigeria, the British forced local people to export palm oil to Britain, for use as a lubricant for railways, to make soap, cooking fat and pharmaceutical products. In 1900, palm oil constituted 89% of Nigeria’s total export (Aghalino, 2000). The subsequent decline of the industry due to competition from rubber and cocoa and palm oil from other colonies, undermined livelihoods.

Extraction and Mining:

Diamond mining in South Africa was lucrative for Europe. The colony provided a slave-type labour force to dig out diamonds, while value-added steps, such as cutting and polishing the diamonds, were conducted by a minority of whites in South Africa and in Europe (Rodney, 1972). Mining was harsh work and separated families, leaving women and children unsupported in government reservations. Appropriation of the lands of indigenous peoples resulted in massive displacements of people (Frick, 2002). Major ecological impacts included large-scale destruction of lands causing erosion, siltation, deforestation, desertification and flattening of mountains. Mining also caused pollution of soils and rivers with toxic chemicals used in the industry, as well as air pollution from the dust of bulldozing and transportation .

Diseases (human and animal):

The nineteenth century introduction of steam power enabled shipment of live cattle by rail and sea in numbers previously impossible (Daszak et al., 2000). In Africa, rinderpest, a European livestock disease, killed off between 90% and 95% of all cattle in Africa between 1889 and the early 1900s, also killing other grazing animals. African tribes dependent on livestock lost their livelihoods. By one estimate two thirds of the Masaai population in Tanzania died as a result of rinderpest (Nelson, 2002).

The absence of grazing animals also resulted in growth of grassland vegetation, changing landscapes to better suit the tsetse fly. In Uganda, an estimated 200,000 people died between 1902 and 1906 from sleeping sickness spread by new hordes of tsetse flies (Nelson, 2002). In South Africa, livestock diseases were accompanied by a lung sickness epizootic, which hit in the mid-nineteenth century (Ross, 1999). Colonial settlers also brought smallpox, to which Africans had no natural immunity (Nelson, 2002). Diseases, both animal and human, caused the death and impoverishment of local people.

Political Impacts

Destruction of Local Institutions:

In many cases, pre-colonial societies had acquired skills and basic capital, and were developing in their own way. India, for example, was a major player in the world export market for textiles, but lost most of its domestic and export market under British colonialism. Britain raised its protective duty against Indian textiles to a massive 85% in 1813, with major impact on the Indian market. In 1815, the total
value of Indian cotton goods exported to Britain amounted to £1.3 million in value, falling to a mere £100,000 by 1832. Through protectionism and the establishment of the exploitative (British) East India Trading Company, Britain destroyed the Indian textile market and developed its own prosperous textile industry (2).

While India produced about 25% of world industrial output in 1750, this figure fell to only 2% by 1900. This de-industrialisation, which can be defined as movement of labour out of manufacturing and into agriculture, was accompanied by the creation of a poorer, more rural society in India (Clingingsmith and Williamson, 2004). In 1810, 40% of Indians lived in towns, by 1900 only 10 percent did (D’Amato, 2003). Contrary to myths about colonialism being a time of ‘heroic progress through Westernisation,’ the actual narrative [now] should be one of recovery (Cronon, 1983).

Artificial National Borders:

By 1914, frontiers of the African States, which were to emerge at independence in the 1960s had already been laid down on European maps (Clapham, N.D.). Borders restricted pastoral communities and created conflicts among ethnic groups. By one estimate, belonging to Asiwaju (1985), no less than 177 African cultural or ethnic groups are partitioned across borders, representing on average 43% of their country’s population (Englebert, 2001).

In Sudan northern Muslim Arabic speakers had regarded southern non-Muslims as sources of slaves. The creation of Sudan enclosed the two groups, exacerbating conflicts and causing civil war . In other countries there have been conflicts over resources in boundary areas. For example, armed clashes between Burkina and Mali in 1971 and 1985 over the Agacher Strip, which was rumoured to hold oil (Englebert, 2001). There are claims over Ethiopian and Kenyan territory inhabited by ethnic Somalis (Boyd, 1979). Thus, colonialism, through the establishment of inappropriate borders, created (ongoing) political instability.

Coercive Colonial State Rule:

Colonial states exploited local people by imposing high taxes. The average tax burden in India, for example, was twice that of contemporary England, although average income there was 15 times greater at that point in time. The burden of taxation was not counterbalanced by expenditure on infrastructure or human development (Murshed, 2003).


The examples from the third world have shown interconnectedness between political and ecological impacts. For example, Indian colonial railways enabled widespread deforestation and increased disease transmission; for example, the spread of bubonic plague in the 1890s and influenza in 1918-19 (Arnold, 1996). These ecological impacts displaced and killed indigenous peoples and gave the state control over resources, enabling further exploitation to serve a political agenda.

The legacy of colonialism remains. In India for example, the state organised system of ‘scientific forestry,’ established under British rule, has remained unchallenged since independence in 1947, serving the political and economic interests of colonial and postcolonial regimes alike (Bryant, 1997), taking resources away from local people.

The dependency created by colonialism continues. In the 1980s neo-liberal structural adjustment programmes pushed ‘free’ trade on third world countries, based on the idea that markets work best. Trade is unequal. Richer countries subsidise their own producers and supply chains make small-scale producers compete to sell low price produce to richer countries, who capitalise on the value added (Vorley, 2003).

Colonialism was a period of monopoly capitalism, driven by major resource exploitation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as colonial powers industrialised. Europe established plantations to grow cash crops, mines, and transport systems to facilitate the extraction of resources; rails and roadways were designed for commodity export, and not for economic interconnectedness and development within colonies. People were forced by taxes and coercion to work in colonial enterprises in
which they were overworked and underfed; agriculture suffered, food production declined, and hunger, famines, and disease followed. (Podur, 2002)

Many global inequalities can be traced to colonialism. In addition to unequal trade, the creation of borders and states created conflict between ethnic groups, and an unstable third world political system. The scale of unsustainable environmental exploitation could not be controlled by newly industrial nations who were in many cases economically weak. Third world countries have less capacity to cope with resultant environmental problems, but the scale of ecological impact, stemming from colonial practices and exploitation, affect the whole of humanity. Ex-colonial powers can never abrogate their responsibility for what the world has become.



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(1) Accessed 1 February 2005

(2) Accessed 7 February 2005

Accessed 7 February 2005

(4) Source: WRM’s bulletin No. 66, January 2003 Accessed 7 February 2005

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