A Future Named “Ayiti”: Thinking Decolonial Ecologies from the Caribbean World



To begin this issue, we wanted to provide a theoretical framework to think about this vision of decolonial ecologies. Few people could help us more for this than Malcom Ferdinand, whose work is dedicated to articulating this vision from the Carribean of the Taínos and the Maroons to the entire world.

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Léopold Lambert: Your book, Une écologie décoloniale (2019) — that directly inspired our issue’s title — takes the last 500 years of history in the Carribean (in particular Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Cuba) as a site to articulate an argument about colonial ecocide, colonial ecology, and decolonial ecology, which you name after Haiti’s indigenous name, Ayiti. Could you talk to us about the importance of the Caribbean space in your argument?

Malcom Ferdinand: It is true that the Caribbean holds a very central place in my work. But it is also a starting place, a place from which you conceptualize the Earth, the world, the people, the human, and non-human. And besides the fact that I was born and raised in Martinique — a Caribbean island, one of the French creolophone, “overseas territories” — the Caribbean has a very special place in the history of modernity. Of course, 1492 was not just the date when the so-called “Old World’’ met the so-called “New World.” But it’s also the time when the Earth was conceptualized as one, as a totality, which then makes it possible to envision finite resources. Following various ecofeminists, such as Carolyn Merchant, Vandana Shiva, I found that this colonial constitution of modernity has been absent in a number of environmental theories, the latest being the Anthropocene concept.

This absence is both surprising and not. It’s surprising, because there is a huge body of literature available in the field of environmental justice, of political ecology, of African Studies, and so on and so forth. But if you look at how consistently the imaginary of France and Europe has relegated the history of slavery to the background, it’s not surprising that within academia, and within its theoretical contributions, there’s been also an invisibilization, of what the formerly enslaved and colonized people have contributed to the world. Facing that, I decided to start from the Caribbean in order to think of ecological issues — but in a worldly way. This means I’m not confined to the boundaries of the Caribbean — I wouldn’t know where to place these boundaries anyway. But I have taken a stance to look at the world through this history and from this imaginary.

The way I like to express my position is by making two comparisons, one is with Henry David Thoreau, and the other Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who are two thinkers commonly presented as the founders of ecological writings. But if you look at the context from which they wrote, and the spaces from where they thought about the environment, most of the time, they are spaces that are both post-colonial, post-slavery, but yet not necessarily acknowledged as such. Thoreau and Rousseau are individual white men, well-educated in these post-colonial, post-slavery societies, and they are unbothered — they are Free men — and able to write the way they want. What I found very important was to remind ourselves of the fact that at the same time in the 18th, 19th century, when Rousseau and Thoreau were writing their pieces about nature, there were men, women and children enslaved in slave ships. My thinking is that these people also had an idea of what it meant to inhabit the Earth, what it meant to be confronted with the injustices of the world. I wanted to situate myself from their perspective, from the hold of a slave ship, as a starting point, not from some so-called “virgin nature” around a beautiful lake.

LL: We could talk a lot about the murderous and ecocidal effects of colonialism in the Carribean from the U.S. bombing tests in Vieques, Puerto Rico to the chlordecone in Martinique Guadeloupe, etc. But since it’s an issue dedicated to the envisioning of decolonial ecologies, I’d rather focus on that with you. Could you tell us more about “Ayiti?” What kind of new forms of relations (to use a concept coined by your fellow countryman Edouard Glissant) does it entail?

MF: The shift I suggested to make, in my book, produces a number of things. One is different concepts and a different imaginary of the ecological crisis. So I’m in constant dialogue with what I refer to as the classical genealogy of environmentalism. Now, if you look at the works of Michel Serres, James Lovelock, Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and many other environmental philosophers, there are major themes that come up. One is the metaphor of Noah’s Ark. Another is the name “Gaia,” as a means to refer to the Earth, which is a name that the Greeks gave to a goddess: Gaïa. Recognizing Gaïa would then entail a number of actions of care, protections and organizations geared towards the Earth and its various ecosystems. And that is perfectly fine. I mean, it’s a beautiful name, a beautiful story… “You like it? Good, keep it, no problem!” However, in my opinion, calling the Earth “Gaïa” poses a number of hidden problems, problems that the enslaved and insurgents of the Haïtian revolution have directly confronted. It is because of these that, aside from the Gaïa hypothesis, I suggest the Ayiti hypothesis. Let me explain.

Naming a place, much less the entire Earth, has never been a neutral practice. It carries a political aspect. Yes, in this case, it may be an attempt to alert people to the necessity of stopping destructive modes of inhabiting the Earth. But, who gets to do the naming? Who gets the right to name the entire Earth? To whom is this name directed towards? And why should this name be the most common one adopted in environmental philosophy? In my opinion, this name, which echoes the ancient Greek imaginary, might make us overlook what really happened in 1492: the colonial erasure of names used by Indigenous peoples around the world. Indeed, let us not forget the renaming practices that accompanied the colonization of the Earth, which resulted in colonizer names that were simply imposed on the landscape of the world, through the European imaginary: from New South Wales in Australia to New Caledonia, or Saint-Domingue (the former French/Spanish colony of Haïti). Colonization is not just the domination of one group of people over other groups of people, not just the land-grabbing of Indigenous territories, it was really an imposition of the way that we inhabit the Earth. This means that in the process of colonization, you impose your own imaginary through giving names to the land and the people — some enslaved people were given Christian names and could not practice their religion, their songs, etc.

That is where the case of Haiti/Ayiti becomes important. Of course, Haiti has a special place in modernity, especially regarding the slave trade since it was the first Black Republic that overthrew slavery. But I was particularly moved by the linguistic or naming practice that insurgents adopted — they had renamed the country with the Creole term Ayiti. Ayiti comes from the Taínos, who gave name to the whole piece of land and that refers to it as “the land of high mountains.” It is from these high mountains that the Maroons have pushed out the colonialists. So this struggle is for me encompassed in the name Ayiti. But this practice of renaming also happens in many other places, in order to give space to the character of the mountains and of the non-human. So many places were renamed to acknowledge the struggle of Maroons, the fugitive slaves, and in an effort to pay attention to the land, so that the land itself can take part in the naming process.

Now there are at least two important lessons to be gained from the “Ayiti” event, which is important to the Ayiti hypothesis. Firstly, it was very interesting to realize that the Mother Earth, Ayiti, is not self-evident. It is not enough to just say “Ayiti,” for this land to be named Ayiti. This name is not self-evident for the enslaved people in Haiti, rather it is the linguistic reconnection with Mother Earth that came from the struggle against colonialism and imperialism. That means it is only through this struggle that you can reconnect with the land. Contrary to the environmentalist perspective that is only focuses on the way different physical, chemical, and biological dimensions of the ecosystems fit together as if they were one being (Gaïa), Ayiti brings this sociopolitical component — in particular an anticolonial and anti-slavery one — into the mix. In other words, it is only through acting together within both environmental and socio-political spheres of the world, that the Earth can become Ayiti. Ayiti is never given, it is the horizon, a common struggle for a world.

Secondly, the name “Ayiti” in the Ayiti hypothesis contains intrinsic claims of equality and postcolonial emancipation. Naming the Earth “Gaïa” says nothing of the equality (or lack of) between the “children of Gaïa.” The Haitian revolution took the claims of freedom and equality of the French revolution to its logical conclusion — to seek the equality of the enslaved. It means that Ayiti can be Ayiti only upon the condition of equality within its inhabitants. In other words, the Earth can only truly be Mother-Earth when there is an equality in dignity of freedom, of care and love within its various inhabitants. It may certainly be wishful thinking to envision a worldwide equality, in light of the disastrous conflicts, devouring capitalism, patriarchy, social inequity and biased world justice. But the Ayiti hypothesis provides an horizon of inhabiting the Earth, of reclaiming a Mother Earth where the preservation of ecosystems and world biodiversity cannot be distinguished from claims for equality in the wake of colonialisms and imperialisms — as Césaire put it, “the Earth would not be the Earth.” As such, even though the Ayiti hypothesis emerged from the Caribbean, it is truly a worldwide aspiration.

Ferdinand Funambulist
Monument to the heroes of the Batay Vètyè (the 1803 battle of Vertières during the Haitian Revolution) in Cap-Haïtien. / Photo by Alex Proimos (2012).

LL: As a last question, I would like to talk about what you call a: “decolonial habitat” (habité décolonial), which relates to what this issue is trying to do. Could you tell us more about it?

MF: I actually didn’t use the term “decolonial inhabitation,” but I did use the term “colonial inhabitation,” to describe what the colonization process does to the way we think of ourselves on the Earth. And there are a number of things that it does. First of all, it doesn’t allow you to live with someone that is not of the same group, the same clan, the same color skin, the same religion: it is a way of inhabiting the Earth that doesn’t recognize the other as a co-inhabitant of the Earth. That’s a huge oversight, and it goes for both humans and non-humans. In this sense, we have this spirituality that is taken away. The most absurd example of that is the wilderness concept that partially developed from the United States context. On the ashes of Native American genocide, this invented idea of a virgin free nature gave new origins to the colonialist. Now, what would be called a decolonial inhabitation is not just the reversal of that, or the opposite of that, but rather it’s about preparing the ground for other possible relations, both with the land, the people, and with the different ways you want to spiritually reconnect with the non-human.

For example, the plantation is one form of extreme domination, extractivist exploitation of the land, humans and non-humans. It is a system of inhabiting the Earth that does not take care of the people nor of the land. So to me, a decolonial interpretation of the plantation will not just be the overthrow of this colonial inhabitation but also to present an alternative, a different way. Instead of this monoculture crop, trying to find a lot of, let’s say, food crops. And it is not something that is new. It is not something that I’m inventing. This is what Indigenous and enslaved peoples have been doing for hundreds, if not thousands of years — it is just that the way that we’re relating to them has been wiped out or were tried to be wiped out. What we see today in the Caribbean, at least in Martinique and Guadeloupe with regards to Chlordecone scandal, is the same form of a violent inhabitation of the Earth, even though we do not have slavery anymore, we do not have “colonization” per se, where we still do not take care of our own bodies, of nature and the non-human. So, if I were to give a more succinct answer, there must be a different mode of cultivation, of inhabiting, that allows one to reconnect with Mother Earth, to inhabit the Earth with different people, people of different color, creed, and clan, but also with the astounding diversity of animals, plants, non-humans, in ways that allows us to take care of one another. ■