The Windigo Disease of Resource Capitalism and Global Dispossession of Indigenous Peoples

ReconAfrica in Southern Africa

This is a version of a speech given outside the headquarters of ReconAfrica in Vancouver BC on Water Day — March 22, 2021.

We are on stolen CS?wx?wú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:l? and S?l?i?lw?ta?/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) and x?m??k??y??m (Musqueam) land and what is happening here today, the assault of Indigenous peoples and the invasion of their territories by Canada, its corporations and economic elites is also happening to the San people in Southern Africa. In a recent petition by activists we have learned that: “ReconAfrica has been given permission to drill for fossil fuels in the Kavango basin between Namibia and Botswana and the Kalahari Desert extending to the south eastern banks of the Okavango River and Delta. This area includes numerous areas of international significance, but for the San indigenous people who live there this is their sacred and ancestral ‘homeland’. The San people are the rightful current inhabitants and have been the custodians of this land for thousands of years. They have never been consulted, nor have they given their consent to any entities to prospect for oil and gas in their lands. By pursuing oil and gas development in the are the governments of Botswana and Namibia, and the Southern African region contravene their commitments to various international declarations an agreements as well as their own national laws. The oil and gas drilling operations will ruin roads, damage Indigenous livelihoods, deplete water resources and negatively impact biodiversity within the precious region. The Kavango Basin, which includes the Okavango Delta, lies beneath one of Africa’s most biodiverse habitats. It is home to a myriad of bird and megafauna species—including the largest herd of African elephants and African wild do populations—as well as many other threatened and endangered species. Potential impacts to local people and ecosystems include: massive water resource depletion, human induced earthquakes, disruption of avian species communication, breeding and nesting.”

Sounds familiar? This is because it is.

San hunter-gatherers walking across the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. (Courtesy of L.K. Marshall and L.J. Marshall. Copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum #2001.29.390.)

The struggles of the San people connect with the struggles of Indigenous peoples here in settler Canada. We should remember that despite the fact that we are separated by different colonial contexts and most importantly by continents and oceans the history of colonization in the two continents is very similar even though the trajectories are different; and what happens here also happens there. Because in a globalized world we are all interconnected and what we do here has a violent impact there. As Ina-Maria Shikongo, a climate activist from Namibia states: “The problem with this whole deal is we can really see what is happening all around the globe, it is a total take over of the oil industries of the last reserves of the green spaces that we have. They don’t care about the people, the animals, nothing! They just care about the money. We can all see that the weather patterns are changing drastically and we are still talking about digging up fossil fuels when we should stop.”

ReconAfrica is a Canadian-US corporation whose headquarters are based here in so-called Vancouver, that is on stolen land. And I can’t help it but notice the irony that this Canadian company on stolen land is set to seize the land of the San people in Southern Africa. The theft might affect different peoples but bears the same racist and colonial violence. The theft follows the same patterns of white supremacy and environmental racism that has devastated First Peoples and their sacred territories around the globe.

ReconAfrica does not come out of the blue. It continues the early legacies of racist colonialism and racial capitalism, systems that are 500 years old but have now mutated into resource capitalism spurred by oil and gas corporations and new forms of land grabs. The very country this company operates from, (Canada), is itself a petro-state, that often behaves as a corporation and has a violent and non-consensual relationship with its own Indigenous peoples. Canada consistently props up the mining and fossil fuel industries and together state and industry break treaties, invade Indigenous territories without their consent and often with the help of militarized police and the criminal justice system, pillage their lands, criminalize land defenders and throw them in prisons. By displacing them from their land, Canada and its corporations systematically destroy their cultural and food systems and subject Indigenous communities into abject poverty, homelessness, and food and water insecurity, all in the name of profit. Canadian companies either wreck the homes of Indigenous peoples here domestically or the homes of First Peoples there, internationally. The game and the pattern are the same: there is no corner of the earth and no people that resource capitalism will not ravage.

Let there be no mistake: ReconAfrica is an extension of the colonial project that began in Europe 500 years ago and has morphed today into local and global extractivism. Since the emergence of capitalism in the 16th century European extractivism intensified and ran rampant during colonialism through the extraction of materials such as minerals, gold, silver, timber, furs, fish an so on. Naomi Klein tells us that before Canada became a nation it was an extractivist company, the Hudson Bay Company trafficking in furs, and pelts. Recon’s greed for oil follows in the footsteps of the Hudson Bay Company. Through Recon the Canadian model of unbridled extraction and devastation of ancestral Indigenous land and livelihoods is being now exported from this continent to the African continent and the ransacking of its First Peoples, the San people.

And like the Hudson Bay Company, ReconAfrica is genocidal: it is a symptom of toxic colonial land grabs that some commentators link to the industrial genocide of Indigenous peoples. Original peoples across the globe have experienced genocide since the moment the European colonizers arrived uninvited on their territories. By pillaging their land, reducing it to commodities whose goal was to flow into and eventually industrialize Europe, the violent eviction and systematic extermination of Indigenous peoples became the very foundation of the wealth of Europe and settler states such as Canada. Indigenous peoples not only lost their land and thus their sustenance, and their livelihoods, they impoverished, relocated into reserves, starved, and their children were abducted, abused and experimented upon in residential schools to be assimilated in settler society and their cultures to be ethnically cleansed. Their communities are still experiencing profound poverty, higher rates of incarceration, addiction and suicide, and lack of fundamental human rights such as access to health, education and clean drinking water. As Jason Hickel has forcefully claimed in The Divide the Western world including Canada are the developed and industrialized First World that they are today because they have methodically and brutally de-industrialized and underdevelop the rest of the world.

In other words, their industry and wealth are not some sign of good luck or ingenuity or innovation owed to European and Western superior genes of civilization; rather it was built on the violence of colonialism and stolen from Indigenous peoples. Western industrial “progress” has been made on the backs of First peoples and what is happening today to the San people is an iteration of that earlier colonial and genocidal project. It is fair to say that the economic prosperity of Canada and its corporations depends on the racist violence that is about to be inflicted onto the San people. And it is also fair to say that ReconAfrica’s money is nothing but blood money. And it is also fair to say that some prosper on the death of others and the destruction of their homes. And it is also fair to say that our energy greed is built on the devastation of people, lives, homes, ecosystems, the planet. I don’t know what you call Recon but to me they sound like parasites and scavengers of lives in pursuit of profit.

In fact, ReconAfrica is guilty of environmental injustice that is racist, white supremacist and colonial. In “Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World,” Naomi Klein argues that environmental injustice is also directly connected to environmental racism through the process of othering of sacrificial and disposable people. For ReconAfrica and the political and local elites of Namibia and Botswana the San people are not people but just obstacles to their drilling goals and so called economic development of these countries. Their land and entire rich ecosystems are simply impediments and the groundwater, the aquifiers, the endangered species are nothing but hindrance to the oil and gas that lie beneath.

Recon and economic elites have so dehumanized and othered the San people and their land that they do not count and therefore they can be removed or poisoned, or pillaged or destroyed. Who cares if the groundwater is contaminated through the drilling and mining operations? Who cares if this impacts the health and food security of the San people? Economic development and profit matter more than Indigenous peoples’ lives. As Klein further reminds us othering is also directly connected to notions of racial and civilizational superiority because in order to have other and disposable people you need to have people and cultures that they count so little for their exploiters that they deserve sacrifice for the ever expanding energy needs of the Global North. And in contrast, you need to have people that see themselves as superior, as uniquely human and thus deserving of having it all, excessive lifestyles at the expense of those other thought of as subhuman.

Our economic elites think of our culture as superior because we are developed; we arrogantly call ourselves the “developed world,” and we call the cultures we ravage and dehumanize “underdeveloped,” “not yet advanced,” “primitive savages” that just sit on oil and precious metals used for our laptops and electronic devices. And we arrogantly think that all we need to do is remove them to get to that black gold. In the early colonization of the so-called Americas, Indigenous peoples often were completely shocked to see the deranged behaviour of the Spaniards lusting after gold. And there is an urban legend that tells the story of how some Original peoples of this continent thought of gold as the “excrement of the devil.” Who would have thought that Recon continues the legacy of the Spanish conquistadores in its frenzied greed after the excrement of the devil we now call black gold, oil.

Klein also cautions us that toxic colonialism justifies the sacrifice of people and dispossession of land through virulent intellectual theories that Western culture has harnessed to legitimize their destruction. Colonialism has always been aided by scientific racism and its cousin, Social Darwinism, theories that are fraught with racist ideas about the superiority of Northern races destined to rule weak Southern races economically, politically, culturally. Again we might want to remember that we call Northern cultures “developed” and Southern cultures “under- or un- developed.” And we keep saying to ourselves the patronizing and self-serving myth: “They do not know their own good, they can’t understand the wealth they sit on and if only they let us develop them. This is also called the “White man’s burden” that the Northern nations have to bring civilization in the form of economic prosperity to Southern peoples living in the dark ages. We are the advance and they are the barbaric.

But my friends, I know of no other barbarism than the one Western economic elites inflict in devastating the home of First peoples, driving the climate crisis and destroying the planet. The eviction of the San people is a barbarity and those who do it are the barbarians and the savages. The climate crisis is a barbarity, not progress, and certainly not civilization. The collapse of the planet is a barbarity and those who are responsible for it are criminal and genocidal. Our economic institutions, our corporations and our economic elites are driving us all to destruction; not development. They are a threat to all Indigenous peoples across the globe and the existential annihilation of all life on this planet. I call them profiteers of death.

As Bay Street depicts the Kavango Basin (green patch)

What is happening in the Kavango basin is not just outright racism. It is also the story of commodity frontiers and capitalist expansion and is an extension of the colonial principle of the “doctrine of discovery” or in the words of some commentators “the doctrine of Native genocide.” You may know that when Europeans arrived here they thought of it as empty land that they had just discovered. Of course, what is really arrogant and foolish about it is that “you can’t discover something that is already the home of Indigenous peoples living here.” For Europeans the doctrine of “Discovery” served to remove the Original people to settle on their land, commodify it, exploit it and eventually degrade it, cut down its forests, toxify its watersheds, poison the soil, overfish it, kill its buffalo, endanger and eclipse multiple species. Here in so-called British Columbia, settler culture is wiping out the salmon along with countless plant and non-human animals. But I’m digressing. The doctrine of discovery serves the capitalist desire for a never ending expansion and growth. As land is being exhausted in one place and its peoples are driven out, “new” land needs to be “discovered and thus occupied.”

Today the global capitalist economy and financial markets of which Recon is a symptom continue to “discover new land” to grab. They might not call these “discovered territories” but they have invented highly elaborate euphemisms that mean exactly the same thing. They now call “discovered land” “new market opportunities” or “land investments” or “economic development.” We must see these new terms for what they are: “the emperor has no clothes” because the naked truth is that the global empire we call capitalism continues to treat the entire world as a frontier of conquest and terra nullius, or empty land to satisfy larger economic interests that are specifically located in the Global North. And that entails genocide of traditional peoples that live on those lands.

The truth of the matter is that African countries since colonization were “discovered” by European powers only to be harnessed to the global economy and serve as the economic satellites of the Global North. African countries have always been used as exporters of raw materials including human enslaved labour to Europe and later its colonies and even later what we call the Global North. In parallel, African nations have been importers of manufactured products from the North. This condensed history of unequal economic relationships mired in brutal exploitation must not also omit the violent legacy of the slave trade in which millions of Africans were abducted from their ancestral homelands to work in what is euphemistically called plantations—but were actual death camps—in the American continent and industrialize its economy. And there we have it again: the enslavement of humans that gave rise to the economic prosperity of this continent is not separate from the enslavement of land and nature through the extraction of energy and raw materials for the enrichment of corporate elites in the Global North.

African American scholar, Cedric Robinson calls this phenomenon racial capitalism. This is an economic system that on the one hand was built on the exploitation of the free labour of African people who were once Indigenous to the African continent; and on the other racial capitalism thrives on the genocide of First peoples in the American continent that are displaced from their ancestral homelands. Racial capitalism is also a system that treats the world as a storehouse of endless commodities or commodity frontier ever expanding to amass more land. As Robinson suggests, capitalism “emerged within the European feudal order and flowered in the cultural soil of a Western civilization already thoroughly infused with racialism and racial hierarchies about superior people and inferior others whose land and labour can therefore be exploited. Capitalism and racism, in other words, did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern world system of racial capitalism dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and Indigenous genocide.” Within this context, we can clearly see how ReconAfrica is a symptom of a larger disease: that of racial capitalism.

Let there be no mistake: when you treat the world and its Original Peoples as a frontier of conquest you establish with the earth an exploitative relationship based on ever expanding places to commodify and people to remove or enslave. And when that place is exhausted and its populations ethically cleansed the search begins again for another place, another frontier and another people to dispossess so long that your degradation of the “new” land and your crimes against the communities you displace remain invisible to energy consumers in the Global North. Out of sight, out of mind, none of us need to worry where did this energy or coltan for our electronic devices came from.

We see the logic of the frontier of conquest not just in the Kavango basin but here closer to home and the way domestic companies including the Crown corporation of TMX and foreign corporations have been stealing Indigenous land, breaking their treaties, dispossessing them from their territories, and fuelling the climate crisis, we are all subjected to today.

Windigo by Norval Morrisseau

Ojibwe activist and scholar Winona LaDuke calls this form of greed the Windigo disease: In Anishinaabe tradition understanding the need to avoid a culture of commodification, domination, exploitation, greed, consumption, and destruction of the planet is guided by the Windigo teachings. The Windigo is a cannibalistic being that is cursed with an overwhelming hunger that can never be satisfied, no matter how much it consumes. The Windigo wanders the Earth, destroys whatever it finds in its path, in an agonizing and unending quest for satisfaction, an unending quest for more land to pillage and more people to destroy in the name of profit and greed. ReconAfrica is Windigo. TMX is Windigo. Coastal Gas Link is Windigo. Line 3 is Windigo. Barrick Gold is Windigo. Enbridge is Windigo. Imperial Metals is Windigo. Anvil Mining Limited is Windigo. Suncor is Windigo. Teck Resources is Windigo. Canada and its extractivist economy are Windigo.

While Indigenous peoples across the globe have been treating the land as our sacred home corporations such as Recon have been treating it as a frontier of conquest. Unfortunately, we are running against severe ecological limits: this is called climate crisis and the collapse of living ecosystems as well as the extermination of Indigenous peoples across the world.

We denounce ReconAfrica and its crimes against the San people and the land. We denounce Recon’s environmental racism. We denounce the Canadian government’s complicity in allowing this company to exploit and potentially destroy million acres of the Kalahari Desert. We will resist along the San people who are the rightful custodians of their land against the Windigo disease called ReconAfrica. We will remain unwaveringly committed to Indigenous peoples in Turtle Island and their fierce resistance that began 500 years ago and still continues strong till they slain all the snakes of pipelines, and the Windigo of corporate greed in this continent and defend their land.

Litsa Chatzivasileiou is a sessional instructor at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia and teaches critical race, Indigenous, diaspora and gender studies. Read other articles by Litsa.