Chicago professor speaks about colonialism and nature

Dr. Chris Boyer, Professor of Latin American Studies at University of Illinois in Chicago, presented research about colonialism.

Dr. Chris Boyer is a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He recently came to TU in order to deliver a presentation on his study of colonialism in Latin America, sponsored by the History Department and the Social Science Interest Group.

The talk, “How Colonialism Weaponizes Nature,” detailed the history of colonialism in Latin America, particularly in Mexico. Boyer argues that the natives’ natural environment has been repeatedly attacked and destroyed throughout the history of colonization and that this phenomenon has continued since independence.

This effect began with the European conquest of the Americas. The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was the leader in this colonialist action. Even in the early days of Spanish colonialism, Europeans were destroying the natives’ land. Colonizers’ sheep not only harmed the environment, but brought decimating diseases. Non-natives built gold mines that forced the relocation of many natives.

Boyer stresses the fact that this destruction of nature has been occurring for over 400 years and continues to occur today. Starting in the 18th century, many lakes were drained in order to create fertile land for economic development. In the 19th century, Americans used land to construct railroads through Mexico. In the 20th century, “developmentalism” created a drive to build structures like hydroelectric dams. Not only did all of these projects displace huge native populations, they also failed to create any large benefit to the native peoples. One dam built forced 30,000 natives to relocate but now produces only two percent of the electricity in its local area.

This all results in a phenomen Boyer calls “Neo-Colonial Echo-Displacement.” This may be less direct than older colonial model, but the results can be just as devastating. Even today, Mexico engages in “Neo-Extractivism” economic activity, consisting of harvesting gold and other resources from the land. These practices are still displacing natives, though protests are more frequent and have had some success in recent times.

There is often the excuse given that these displacements are a necessary sacrifice to make for valuable economic development. Boyer believes this to be fundamentally untrue; the “developments” made at the cost of the native populations often produce very little actual value, and that value practically never actually supports the people of Mexico.

It is difficult not to compare this to the United States’ treatment of natives and their land, which was possibly even more brutal. Also similarly to Latin America, this injustice is still present, embodied in the much-protested Dakota Access Pipeline.

One important aspect of colonialism that Boyer reiterated multiple times was the fact the these injustices don’t come from an inhuman or omnipresent force. They come as a direct result from specific decisions made by specific people at specific times. While forces like racism and capitalism are certainly accurate labels for these actions, the ideologies must be put into action by people making conscious decisions.
Boyer views this fact optimistically, believing that it means humanity can make different choices to eliminate injustices. There isn’t a hegemonic barrier to justice, we simply must find ways to ensure just decisions are made. This ease of change is incredibly important when studying any aspect of history, or even the humanities in general.

Post Author: Justin Klopfer