The car bumps and shakes along the winding dirt road that has been degraded by logging trucks.
On either side of the dusty track lie the remnants of old trees on a deathbed of pine needles — their stumps stretch out in perfect rows over the rolling hills. I am with Mphatheleni Makaulule, an International Indigenous Women’s Forum Global Leadership Award winner. She leads a community-based organising group called Dzomo La Mupo, meaning in Tshivenda the “voice of creation,” that is involved in a struggle for political and cultural resurgence.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” she says in anguish. Pines are not indigenous to this area of South Africa’s Limpopo province and what we’re driving through is a man-made plantation, one of many that sprang up during apartheid, replacing indigenous forests. Typically, forestry officials will wait until a pine tree is 20 to 30 years before felling. There have likely been two or three crops planted and harvested here since the timber industry emerged during apartheid.
The plantation’s recent clearing has nonetheless exposed a swath of indigenous forests about a kilometer away. It has taken these forests millennia to obtain their rich biodiversity and, where they survive, dog-sized grey Samango monkeys grunt in the treetops while brightly coloured purple-crested turaco hop from branch to branch. Other animals, such as the elephants and lions that some elders at Tshidzivhe say once roamed here, are now confined to South Africa’s nature reserves, such as the Kruger National Park.
Around fifty five square kilometres of indigenous forests and housing was destroyed around Tshidzivhe: an ecocide of localised yet epic proportions. I was told that bulldozers flattened the area and authorities forcefully relocated entire communities, while killing off disorientated animals. This loss, owing to capitalist expansion, is brutal but it is not unique. Only three percent of world ecologies are intact, owing to habitat and species loss. About three-quarters of the Earth’s surface has been “significantly altered” through land use changes, capitalist exploitation of organic life and the ever-deepening climate crisis, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The Global South is now the target of many of these changes and they have significant community and climate psychological implications.
Climate psychology has attended to the topic of loss, particularly around the concept of ecological grief, the psychological response to loss associated with ecological destruction. Here I write in the spirit of the decolonial turn within community psychology, which criticises aspects of the coloniality — a term used to describe the living legacy of colonial social orders, meanings and knowledge in today’s world — within psychology and society.1
Making loss invisible
Although the ecological crisis is rooted in the global rise of colonial capitalism,2 decoloniality does not mean state decolonisation, but rather is focused on dismantling how coloniality is constructed and delegitimises non-western knowledge and how this logic regulates social systems (i.e., capitalism and extractivism) that cause profound loss for communities in the Global South. Today, coloniality operates by privileging Euro-American life, ways of living and knowledge while imposing marginality, inferiority and degrading other life and lifeworlds - the relationships, practices and knowledge systems that make up a particular person or community’s world.
Extractive systems — such as the forestry, mining and agricultural industries — are the new colonial outposts in the South. To operate, they require that an extractive worldview proliferates and that indigenous lifeworlds are suppressed or erased. Land must be converted for industrial or infrastructure projects that continue to support transnational extractive projects. Imposing inferiority on the more-than-human world is part of the process of converting and commodifying forms of life into ‘natural resources’ — a term associated with western thought and extractive worldviews. Fundamentally, the degradation of lifeworlds is not framed as loss by extractive systems, but is rather championed as progress, development. Those who demonstrate any behaviour or thought that is perceived to threaten the totality of western knowledge and the practice of accumulation of wealth are deemed backwards and anti-progress. In South Africa, for instance, anti-apartheid activist and black consciousness leader Bantu Steve Biko explained: “To justify its exploitative basis, the Anglo-Boer [settler colonist] culture has at all times been directed at bestowing an inferior status to all cultural aspects of the indigenous people.”
In the Limpopo province’s Vhembe district, we see how the devaluation and suppression of indigenous lifeworlds and the destruction of ecologies helped the establishment of the pine plantations. The apartheid regime forcefully removed the area’s first peoples through policies of racial segregation that, in turn, allowed for the rich forested areas to be deforested and converted into pine plantations. Thus, racial segregation and the degradation of the more-than-human world went hand-in-hand with capitalist accumulation. For capitalism to sustain itself, it requires that any form of relationship that counters an extractive logic is erased. However, Boaventura de Sousa Santos clarifies the position of those in the Global South to these histories: “We are not victims; we are victimised and offer resistance.”3
The decolonial turn in psychology is not only against the colonialiality, but fundamentally for the flourishing of different lifeworlds, what Arturo Escobar refers to as a pluriversal politics.4 This means supporting different and diverse struggles that are no longer linked to the logics of coloniality to build a plurality of ways of living and communal organization. This is fundamentally important for psychology within the decolonial turn.
In Tshidzivhe, nestled on the edge of that pine plantation, Makaulule and I collected community testimonies of the significance of local ecology, histories of loss as well as the resurgence of the relationship, practices and knowledge to place through community-based actions.
Extractive industries’ use of land is inextricably linked to the climate crisis. Engaging in loss and documenting historically what has taken place is an important part of countering erasure and drawing attention to the coloniality underpinning climate change. In 2019, we visited four villages in Vhembe district and tracked some of the tragic histories, but also the connections to the more-than-human world that drives community-based actions: “Mupo is Life”: Intergenerational community identity and safeguarding sacred natural sites in Limpopo province, South Africa.
Community members are resisting erasure through the resurgence of indigenous practices, including relationships with the indigenous forests and sacred natural sites — known as Zwifho — by these sites’ guardians. The resurgence of traditional knowledge systems plays a central role in decolonising relationships with the more-than-human world and building solidarity. For instance, Dzomo La Mupo is engaged in a continuous struggle that recollects the past and builds solidarity through seed sharing, opposing extractive industries and strengthening traditional governance structures. Resurgence struggles such as these counter erasure by turning away from extractive knowledge, relationships, and practices. This allows for re-centering the production of knowledge on life-giving and generative relationships with human and more-than-human communities.
Prior to working together, Makaulule conducted ecological mapping of areas in Vhembe in which members from different villages gathered to recollect the intergenerational relationships with place. Together, participants would recall, while walking the land, for instance, the original paths of rivers, the types of plants and animals that they used to encounter and the significance of places along the way.
Makaulule’s work reveals that this ecological mapping - of what had been destroyed by forestry and agricultural industry and what remains threatened by the system - can be re-ignited and further developed through struggle. It also communally articulated the importance of the forests, sacred natural sites and community practices that are central to Dzomo La Mupo’s struggle today. Thus, engaging in loss through providing space to remember and grieve was essential for the various actions taking place.
The radical ecopsychologist Andy Fisher explains that for us to overcome the challenges of our time, including the modern disconnection of the psyche from the more-than-human world, we need to be engaged in a recollective exercise that is critical of coloniality.5 In my interpretation, this means both rejecting erasure by resisting and drawing attention to processes of marginalisation, delegitimisation and degradation that are underpinned by coloniality, and promoting and re-existing life-giving practices and knowledge.
Climate psychologists can help weave together experiences and interrelationships of loss, resistance and resurgence that make up multiple lifeworlds and re-exist others to resist the erasure of loss. I believe this includes paying more attention to various localised relationships, be they human or otherwise, by witnessing the inalienable personal and communal value of these multiple lifeworlds that exist within the “cracks and fissures” of coloniality.6 I also believe that climate psychologists have a role in articulating that an injury to one localised world is an injury to all. Since the rise of colonial capitalism there are indeed many reasons to grieve the cumulative losses that are found within our personal and intergenerational relationships with the more-than-human world. Grieving loss is, as I have learnt from Dzomo La Mupo, a fundamental part of the process of recollection and resurgence.