Decolonising our ecologies

A man stands waving Algerian flag on the streets of Oran as a mass  of protestors approach.
Yasmin Dahnoun
Breaking free from colonial approaches to ecology is the first step towards creating a regenerative economic system.

Young people played a pivotal role in driving this revolution, exhausted by the corrupt old politicians who are mere remnants of Algeria's colonial past.  

I want to start with my experience of Algeria’s Hirak movement back in 2019, when I stood in the street in Oran, the hometown of my family, amongst millions of people shouting to get old, oil-greedy politicians out of power. 

This article is based on the speech to be given by Yasmin Dahnoun on the opening panel, 'experiencing the crisis' at the SMALL IS THE FUTURE event being held in Bristol on Saturday, 17 June 2023. Online tickets are available here until 9am that morning. 

When the then president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced his fifth term in office and a total of 20 years in power, enough was enough. The streets erupted. It took two weeks of protests to prise control out of hands of this man, who it transpires was terminally ill. 

And this was just the start of the eruption of a long set of demands, questions and grievances that had been bubbling away in the Algerian population for decades.  


The Hirak movement was a largely peaceful movement - Hirak meaning "the revolution of smiles".  It was a way of looking towards a future for Algeria that was not ruled by old, half-dead politicians who knew nothing about running a country other than pumping oil out of the ground to provide Algeria’s main export. This is despite the land being blessed with an abundance of desert and enough sun to power the entire world several times over. 

Young people played a pivotal role in driving this revolution, exhausted by the corrupt old politicians who are mere remnants of Algeria's colonial past. Just as a disclaimer, I am speaking as a second generation British Algerian born here in Bristol. The experience of my cousins just across the Mediterranean is far different from mine.  

Some of them have made hapless attempts to make it across the sea to Spain, or to go to Qatar, where they become exploited hotel workers, coming home only half the person they were when they went out. This is the real lived experience of people whose talents, skills and dreams are squandered on a society that sells its oil to the very countries who exploit its migrant workers. 

What I have witnessed first hand the failed attempts my dad makes to grow trees on his arid Algerian land, while forest fires get worse every single year. Last year, just across the border in Morocco, I experienced startling heatwaves of up to 50 °C. Anyone who has experienced this type of heat knows just how oppressive this feels. For me it felt like just a taste of what is to come.  


I guess this is why just a few months ago I decided to take on an internship at Sunseed Desert Technology, a British charity that established a self-sufficient community in the abandoned farming village of Los Molinos in southern Spain following the oil crisis of the 1970s – parallels with which are now being felt with the current oil crisis.

Young people played a pivotal role in driving this revolution, exhausted by the corrupt old politicians who are mere remnants of Algeria's colonial past.  

I wanted to learn about how we can adapt practically to a dramatically changing climate. The community thrives on self-sustainability, its members cultivating their own food and harnessing power through solar panels. Living out in the desert, they definitely aren’t short of sun. But during the winter months they could be left without power for days.  

This means adapting life according to the weather cycles, with devices being off-limits on cloudy days, and this requires creativity, imagination and invention. One of my favourite inventions was the washing machine that you have to pedal like a bike. 

Other inventions include a heavily insulated hay box, which maintains the heat in a pot of food and can keep it cooking overnight so that it’s ready by the morning. The beating heart of the village is a self-acting ram pump, which uses pressure alone to keep the water supply flowing. These are just a few of the many examples of creative adaptation. But the community isn't free from its own environmental justice struggles, which are felt by the entire village.  

The pristine Río Aguas, which runs through Sunseed, supplies water to 40 villages in the province of Almería, and is now threatened by super-intensive monoculture olive plantations. Despite the plight of the river being recognised by the European Tribunal for the Rights of Nature as ecocide, the local council has failed to fulfil its responsibility of safeguarding the wellbeing of households, small farms, and the region's cultural and ecological richness. 


The process of planting olive trees involves stripping the land bare with bulldozers, flattening the soil, and using laser technology to insert each plant, which is then followed by an intensive herbicide treatment that pollutes the water feeding back into the aquifer. These short-term gains come at a significant cost.  

Ancient olive trees are magnificent. I was lucky enough to visit some of the centuries-old ones on the coastal plains and in the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus. With so many of the younger generations abandoning their farming villages for a more affluent life in the cities, olives aren’t being picked, and pruning is no longer taking place. 

Having evolved to become so old with the help of human hands, without intervention these olive trees die. Luckily the forestry commission has stepped in and now takes care of some of Cyprus’s oldest olive groves.  

In stark contrast, after just 10 years of intensive cultivation in Spain, the olive trees now reach maximum efficiency at only 5 years. Almería's olive farmers attempt to meet the demands of large international buyers by producing larger fruits throughout the year, resulting in unsustainable water consumption of approximately ten litres per olive tree per day. 


In Andulusía alone there are roughly 70 million olive trees, stretching out in every direction of the sparse and depleted land, with not a flower or a butterfly in sight. Anything other than the cash crop is considered by the farmers as a mala hierba - a bad weed.  

Since Spain opened itself up to European markets three decades ago, Almería has transformed into a vast expanse of plastic polytunnels, earning it the nickname 'the salad bowl of Europe'. But this phrase paints a romantic image of something very ugly that only benefits a privileged few. 

While driving through Almería, I witnessesed the stark contrast between the illegal immigrant workers, mainly from worn-torn parts of Africa such as Mali and Sudan, living in slums, and the wealthy hacienda owners cruising around in expensive sports cars.  

I was informed that these workers gather on roundabouts at daybreak, hoping to be picked up for a shift. If they are not chosen, they return home empty-handed. This exemplifies the level of disposability of a workforce whose human rights are routinely stripped away – many have been trafficked, exploited, harrassed and sexually violated. These are the hands that pick the fruit and vegetables from which UK supermarkets profit.  


In stark contrast, Sunseed nestles within an oasis that fosters non-formal education on low-impact living and organic gardening. There are groups there who are working to help migrant workers specifically, but I don’t have enough experience of working alongside such groups to talk more in depth about them.  

We worked across various pilot plots of land to experiment with techniques for rejuvenating the arid and degraded soil. We began by working with native species of shrubs and grasses, which serve as a succession layer in any ecosystem, stabilising the soil and providing shade and protection against the elements for young trees.  

One of my favourite shrubs there was esparto, a grass that transcends cultures and continents from North Africa to Spain. Esparto was historically woven to make ropes, clothes and paper, and its roots are able to literally stick the land together. 

EF Schumacher, the author of Small is Beautiful, recognised the profound value of craftsmanship, and the spiritual, creative, economic and social value that these skills hold, contrasting with the capitalistic, robotic and disposable workforce that wastes the sheer imagination and creativity of the human mind.  

And yet, as the tradition of esparto dies out, so does esparto itself, and the land becomes more prone to degradation. Like Cyprus’s ancient olive groves, this grass has successfully co-evolved with humans. Harvesting it allows regeneration, with fresh shoots growing strongly from beneath. 

It demonstrates the collaborative relationship between humans and nature, as described by Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass, where she draws upon the reciprocal nature of Potowatomi culture and the ‘gift economy’ that is sustained by genuine care for the Earth. This approach is mutually beneficial, devoid of extraction and destruction, and founded on a collaborative approach of seeing no separation between humankind and the natural world.  


It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the dichotomy between the western human psyche and the natural world occurred, but it is thought to have been around the time of the industrial revolution, a separation only deepened by the hyper-convenience of modern cities. 

In turn, Nature has become something external, something to be objectified, quantified, exploited and extracted from. Regarded merely for its economic value. This level of disconnection is what infiltrates our extractive economies, our policies, and our daily choices as individuals.  

I’m not saying that we have to go back to being forest dwelling, esparto weaving, olive picking communities. Instead, what I’m saying is that we need to reintegrate parts of our past, and honour the knowledge of our ancestors, in order to adapt for the future. 

A big part of rekindling this connection means healing the wounds of colonialism, which severed the connection between people and their land – from the Amazon, where the Spanish invaders destroyed the food forests to create monoculture plantations, to Algeria, where the Indigenous people were seized from their land by the French. And even just a few years ago, bearers of the Amazigh flag during the Hirak movement were punished.  

This type of separation of people from their land constitutes ecological divide and rule. This is why it is essential to challenge the Euro-American-centricity, dispassion, racism and power imbalances prevalent in ecological research, which in turn feed into our environmental and economic policies. I believe that embracing Indigenous and localised knowledge as expertise opens us up to a vast pool of wisdom previously untouched by western ecologists. 


This paradigm shift allows us to move away from approaches like fortress conservation, which forcibly removes Indigenous people from landscapes in favour of wildlife reserves, as seen in the eviction of the Maasai from the Serengeti. 

Policies such as rights of nature, granting legal personhood to ecological landscapes, are gaining traction across the world. Stemming from the Indigenous perspective of sumak kawsay (meaning ‘good living’) in Ecuador, this recognises Nature as a living entity deserving of rights. 

In The Problem of Production, the first chapter of Small is Beautiful, Schumacher discussed the environment movement's prevailing utilitarian ecology approach, whereby the environment is protected because it is useful and beneficial to human beings. Schumacher's alternative was a call for us to care for the environment out of a deep reverence.


Without an understanding of the natural world, how can we expect politicians, policy makers, economists, biologists, ecologists to make decisions that will genuinely help protect the planet from further harm? If a future generation is growing up without seeing that nature is part of them, and they are part of nature, how can we expect them, too, to care? 

We need to deconstruct colonial and exploitative narratives, and we can start here by deconstructing the current conventional narrative of economics, which is so out of kilter with what Satish Kumar often reminds us the word ecology really means – the management of our household, our home.

I think humanity is now in the process of unravelling, deconstructing and breaking down the very power structures that are keeping us caught in a dangerous cycle of devastation and destruction, so that we can look towards a smaller and more beautiful future.  

This Author 

Yasmin Dahnoun is assistant editor at The Ecologist and manages the Ecologist Writers' Fund. This article is based on the speech to be given by Yasmin Dahnoun on the opening panel, 'experiencing the crisis' at the SMALL IS THE FUTURE event being held in Bristol on Saturday, 17 June 2023. Online tickets are available here until 9am that morning.

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