Why We Must Decolonise the Environment

Written by Jonas Jungwoo Lim

Edited by Jess Hannah

Illustration by C.L. Gamble

Ecology in the DMZ

Growing up in the borderlands of South Korea, I was trained by ecologists before I came to be trained by historians at university. In my town of Paju—which is closer to the border than to the capital—I had the privilege of being able to spend time acquainting myself with the ecology of the streams, the vegetation, and the rice fields nearby. This was the case even, at times, in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that separates North Korea and South Korea.

The DMZ is probably the most natural space that most Koreans can imagine. The DMZ, which has supposedly remained untouched by humans since 1953, has provided a habitat for endangered species to flourish (Korea Ministry of Environment, 2011). Throughout my years of South Korean public education, I grew up listening to narratives about the DMZ as an unexpected treasure left over from the war, and one which could exist only by way of the strict separation of humans from the natural environment (Korea Ministry of Culture, 2022). 

From the other side of the Civilian Control Line, however, it was apparent how flimsy this narrative was. Many of the natural parts of the DMZ unmistakably bore signs of human influence in the most unexpected places. Birds migrating from the North could fly over the DMZ and the soldiers standing guard at its checkpoints effortlessly. Farmers, granted permission from the government, cultivated dozens of rice paddies that influenced the lives of different amphibians and aquatic insects. 

The first thing I remember seeing in the DMZ was an abandoned rest stop full of swallow nests (20 May 2017). Barn swallows and red-rumped swallows used this rest stop for their breeding seasons before migrating down to Southeast Asia for the winter.

Further in, we would see stretches of rice paddies cultivated for human use (Top, 27 May 2017). The picture below was taken at an ‘irrigation pond,’ an artificial pond that provides watershed for rice-paddy agriculture in the DMZ (Bottom, 12 May 2018). Irrigation ponds also provide a flourishing habitat for some endangered aquatic insects, such as the Lethocerus deyrolli observed in 2015 (Kim, 2015). In the picture, the author is collecting specimens for research.

Sometimes, we encountered unexpected creatures in these ponds. This picture shows a golden-spotted pond frog, a vulnerable species found in an irrigation pond (Left: 23 June 2018, Right: 25 August 2018). Due to their weak jumping abilities, these frogs have decreased in numbers as rice paddies block them from migrating for food (Ra, 2010). Even in the DMZ, populations are declining due to habitat fragmentation by agriculture.

Every now and then, we would pass by a sign warning about the presence of mines within the DMZ left over from the Korean War (20 May 2017). To this day, the DMZ remains one of the most densely mined places in the world (ICBL, 2018).

One thing was apparent from my observations of the DMZ: the environment was a much less clearly defined space than I had otherwise imagined. After all, the ostensibly natural space of the DMZ was, in fact, a distinctly artificial one, its existence itself a remnant of the human influence of Western powers during the Cold War. The question that inevitably followed was: who had the power to define the environment?

The Environment in Environmental History

Long treated as a ‘peripheral’ concern, questions of environment have only recently been introduced to undergraduate history curricula in the UK. R.G. Collingwood’s renowned statement that ‘all history is the re-enactment of past thought in the minds of historians’ nicely distils how historians have seen their study foremostly as a humanist discipline (Collingwood, 1946). According to this definition, history is a humanist undertaking that deals with human action and thought. 

The environment has, as a result, been a mere backdrop to the study of human-made historical events in our curricula. When it is brought to our attention, it is often a singular, de-humanised entity like climate, landscapes, and deep structures that limit human activity. In short, the environment in history curricula tends to be defined simply as that which is not human.

The problem with this definition is that environments are rarely so ‘natural.’ Our perception of nature as wild and neatly separable from humans comes from a mystified view that has its roots in Western colonialism. The ‘natural’ environments that Western explorers have often romanticised are, in reality, cultivated landscapes densely populated by sophisticated networks of indigenous societies. The image of an untouched wilderness may look excellent in theory, but the history of how those landscapes came to be devoid of humans deserves to be told.

The Colonial Environment

The word ‘environment’ has taken on many meanings. From the eighteenth century, European explorers thought of themselves as frontiersmen of untouched lands in remote regions, often regarding the indigenous populations in their habitats as part of the uncivilised landscape (Grove, 1995). Mistaking distance in space for distance in time, these explorers believed that they were travelling back in time to see humanity in its primitive state of nature. In the words of Spanish explorer Alejandro Malaspina after his 1791 expedition: natives were ‘content with the situation in which nature placed them’ (Malaspina, 1791).

Embarkation of the Pilgrims (Robert Walter Weir, 1857) depicting English Puritans with William Bradford.

The most well-known case of this settler-colonialist perspective belongs to the English Puritan William Bradford, governor of the American Plymouth Colony, who described the New World as a land of ‘wild beasts and wild men’ (Bradford, 1632). The knowledge that America was a land ‘untouched’ by civilisation fuelled European immigration to the USA while driving indigenous people out of their homes. A century later, only when these indigenous populations were decimated and forcefully removed from these lands, the Western wilderness came to be seen as a pristine natural environment that needed to be preserved from human touch (Cronon, 1996).

Britain and its natural landscape are part of this same oppressive history. In the 1990s, anti-nomadic laws were passed to establish national parks in the New Forest of England (Department of the Environment, 1994). This legislation criminalised the nomadic ways of life maintained by Roma traveller communities that had lived in the New Forest for generations (Kabachnik, 2014). Although this policy claimed to promote the preservation of nature from human activity, in practice, it eradicated the lifestyles maintained by Roma travellers through oppressive removal. In essence, the environment was, and still is, a distinctly political concept deployed by those seeking to promote the separation of humans from nature.

Romani Camp in the New Forest, Hampshire (Reproduced 1976)

All humans shape and cultivate their environments. Indigenous people were no exception to this, unlike how Bradford had made of them in 1632. In 1933, Luther Standing Bear, Chief of the North American Oglala Lakota tribe, declared: ‘We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as “wild.” Only to the white man […] was the land “infested” with “wild” animals and “savage” people’ (Standing Bear, 1933). Contrary to Bradford’s statement, North American landscapes before colonial settlement were cultivated and shaped by a plethora of indigenous societies, but not necessarily in exploitative ways (Rockwell, 2010). The histories of indigenous peoples tell us that the nature-human dichotomy is an inadequate means for describing how non-white indigenous communities interacted with the land. 

Luther Standing Bear, Dakota chief, 1868-1939 (Library of Congress, 21 July 1891)

In this sense, the narrative that portrays nature as an untouched wilderness is a distinctly colonial way of thinking. As all humans engage with their environments to subsist, we must understand that no part of nature is necessarily untouched. To bring things back to my hometown experience, the reason why nature flourished in the DMZ was not because it was devoid of humans, but because humans had fostered the conditions necessary for natural ecosystems to regrow, albeit unintentionally. In other words, humans are not intruders or conquerors of nature. They are one of many members belonging to the ecological community who must strive to sustain it.

Decolonising the environment means we must rethink these conventional, often oppressive ways of thinking about nature and its politics. As students of history, we are trained to deconstruct and critique how power is justified in the social and cultural structures of our societies. However, we have yet to extend our critical outlook sufficiently to issues of the environment and climate change. 

It is necessary to ask: who has the power to define nature? How was nature used to justify racial and sexual oppression? What did environmental expansion mean for indigenous or enslaved populations? For history students, learning about the history and politics of nature illustrates that environmental problems have always been inseparable from issues of race, gender, and class. As some voices still mistakenly suggest that humankind as a whole is a species ‘parasitic’ on the Earth and its resources, historians can contribute by interrogating and specifying precisely who had and still has the power to define and shape the environment. Only by incorporating nature into intellectual studies will history curricula be able to produce solution-focused individuals to combat the current environmental crisis.

Works Cited

Primary Sources:

Bradford, William. (2006) [original 1651]. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 : the complete text  (ed.) Morison, S. Eliot; Knopf, Alfred A.

Standing Bear, Luther. (1933). Land of The Spotted Eagle. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Department of the Environment. (1994). Circular 1/94: Gypsy sites and planning. London: Department of the Environment.

International Campaign to Ban Landmines. (2018) ‘Korean Symposium on NGOs & The DMZ’ (accessed 07/03/2023 through http://www.icbl.org/en-gb/news-and-events/news/2018/korean-symposium-on-ngos-the-dmz.aspx)

Kim, K.B. (2015) ‘DMZ에서 멸종위기 “물장군” 발견’ (Translated title: Endangered ‘Lethocerus deyrolli’ found in the DMZ) in Khan (accessed 14/03/2023 through https://www.khan.co.kr/environment/environment-general/article/201509232029101)

Korea Ministry of Culture. (2022) ‘생태학자 최재천이 말하는 비무장지대 DMZ! 대한민국 동물의 80%가 이곳에 산다?!’ (Translated title: Ecologist Choe Jae Chun speaks of the DMZ! 80% of Korean Wildlife Live Here?!) (accessed 02/01/2023 via https://www.korea.kr/news/mediaNewsView.do?newsId=148902880).

Korea Ministry of Environment. (2011) ‘DMZ의 생태·환경 가치, 세계에 알린다’ (Translated title: Communicating the DMZ’s Ecological Value to the World) (accessed 14/03/2023 via http://www.me.go.kr/home/web/board/read.do;jsessionid=pPzrlG6WGtaNcx6DdXbZm1x1Bc1tgNve1MZ0wyTS327XDt4ug6xtQS3CIvBcGPCe.meweb2vhost_servlet_engine1?pagerOffset=3700&maxPageItems=10&maxIndexPages=10&searchKey=&searchValue=&menuId=286&orgCd=&boardId=179132&boardMasterId=1&boardCategoryId=39&decorator=)

Malaspina, Alejandro. Report from the Malaspina expedition, 1791.

Secondary Literature:

Collingwood, R. G. (1961). The Idea of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cronon, W. (1996). “The Trouble with Wilderness; Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Environmental history 1(1), 7–28.

Grove, R. (1995). Green imperialism : colonial expansion, tropical island Edens and the origins of environmentalism, 1600-1860. Cambridge University Press.

Kabachnik, P. (2014). “Where can we put our homes?” Gypsies and Travelers in the English Green Belt. Journal of Cultural Geography, 31(3), 280–303.

Ra, N.Y. (2010) Habitat and Behavioral Characteristics, Captive Breeding and Recovery Strategy of the Endangered Gold-Spotted Pond Frog. Kangwon National University.

Rockwell, S. (2010) Indian Affairs and the Administrative State in the Nineteenth Century. University of Cambridge Press.


Image 1~4: Nine photos taken in the DMZ (respectively 20 May 2017; 20 May 2017; 20 May 2017;27 May 2017; 12 May 2018; 23 June 2018; 25 August 2018; 20 May 2017; 20 May 2017)

Image 5: Wier, R. W. (1857) Embarkation of the Pilgrims, oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum.

Image 6: New Chapter Press, (1976). ‘Romani camp, New Forest, Hampshire’. Reproduction of an early 20th century postcard in the Short family collection (accessed 02 January 2023 through https://www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/13520566493/in/photostream/).

Image 7: Library of Congress, (1891) ‘Luther Standing Bear, Dakota chief, 1868-1939’.

An aspiring historian, Jonas Lim studies how past humans have engaged with their natural environment. He is interested in the scientific and political institutions humans have built out of the environment, and his current project focuses on how U.S. government science played a role in Western expansion. Currently, he is a BA History student at University College London.

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