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Buried Epistemologies: The Politics of Nature in (Post)colonial British Columbia

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Postcolonial theory has asserted the need to carefully consider how present-day social and cultural practices are marked by histories of colonialism. This paper explores representations of the ‘rainforest’ and ‘nature’ in British Columbia, Canada, and traces a series of ‘buried epistemologies’ through which neocolonial relations are asserted in the region. Drawing upon recent representations of the forest proffered by the forest industry and the environmental movement, and the historical writings of a prominent nineteenth-century geologist and amateur ethnologist, the author shows how ‘nature’ (‘wilderness’) has been constructed as a realm separate from ‘culture.’ He locates in this the possibility for contemporary practices that abstract and displace the ‘forest’ from its cultural surrounds and relocate it within the abstract spaces of the market, the nation, and, in recent ecological rhetorics, the biosphere and the global community. By so doing, the author contests assumptions that colonialism is only an ‘ugly chapter’ of Canadian history and argues instead that colonialist practices and rhetorics remain present but unthought in many of the categories, identities, and representational practices that are deployed today both in public debate and scientific management of ‘natural landscapes’ and ‘natural resources.’ Thus, amid the current popularity of notions like sustainable development, biodiversity management, ecosystem restoration, and so on—which risk abstracting natural ‘systems’ apart from their cultural surrounds—it is essential to recognize the colonial histories and neocolonial rhetorics that continue to infuse ‘commonsense’ categories and identities like ‘nature’ and ‘resources’.
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Keywords: cultural politics; environmentalism; nature; postcolonialism

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 March 1997

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