Je voetafdruk

Colonialism and climate

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  • Q&A
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  • 1. Why did you choose a map as your research object?

    We often think that all maps aim to represent reality. But that is not the case. Maps, especially colonial maps of conquered territories, often had other aims. Among them were legitimizing ownership and conveying a sense of order and control. Thus, maps served the imperialistic goal of expansion, meaning they were not neutral in their depictions. On the contrary, how an area is represented on a map can tell us a lot about the period in which the map was made, as well as the views of both the person who made the map and the person for whom the map was made. This is also true for this map, which was created at the request of the Society of Suriname, the organization that governed colonized Suriname.

  • 2. Can we also see those other aims on this map?

    Absolutely! The border of this map shows us that it is not an objective, truthful representation of Suriname. The border is bombastic and emphasizes the natural riches that the country had to offer. It emphasizes the fertility of the land and what it could yield for the Netherlands. The Dutch coats of arms intertwined with the plants reflect the idea that Surinamese nature was meant for Dutch economic gain. Additionally, the indigenous Surinamese population is depicted in a stereotypical manner. These colonized people had no say in whether and how they would be depicted. Yet, they are shown as if they were part of what the Surinamese land had to offer to the Netherlands. The power to decide on this representation did not lie with them. All of this shows us that many ideas are embedded in this map—ideas of imperialism, power dynamics, white superiority, and privilege. And this is only the border, not yet the map itself!

  • 3. Why did you choose to focus on the water on this map?

    Good question! Water is not actually the central focus of this map. The map was created to chart the plantations and provide a better overview of the Surinamese territory as a whole. Yet, water has a prominent presence on the map. This is what makes it so interesting to examine the depiction of water on this map. The natural richness depicted in the border would not be possible without water. The plantations would not be productive if they were not situated along the fertile riverbanks. The transport of products, weapons, and people would not have succeeded without the waterways. Water is the natural element that the Dutch used to control the rest of the natural environment in Suriname. Since this map is so old, it does not show the dams and canals that the Dutch later built in Suriname. But they were most certainly built. The knowledge of controlling and using water helped the Netherlands drastically alter the Surinamese landscape for their own interests and motives. That is why I chose to focus on water.

  • 4. What is meant by the cultural role of water in the Netherlands?

    When I say that the Netherlands has a long history of seamanship and water management, no one will disagree with me. The idea that water poses a threat to the Netherlands, due to rising sea levels, is intertwined with the national self-image. Dams, canals, and polders, built to keep the water at bay, have shaped the landscape. Therefore, water has a cultural role in the Netherlands. But this image is incomplete. There is no reflection on how the Netherlands has used their knowledge of water to their own advantage, particularly during the colonial period. The knowledge of water and water management was used to conquer territories, oppress people, and extract resources. The Netherlands used water precisely to achieve their own goals. This is still the case today. The water management industry in the Netherlands generates a significant amount of money. It has become an export product, with other countries seeking advice from the Netherlands on how to control and manage water. The climate crisis increases the threat of flooding worldwide, and the Netherlands receives more requests for advice on how to combat this. Thus, the Netherlands is still profiting from their history of controlling and using water today.

  • 5. What is the importance of this historical context for us in the present?

    It is important for us to realize that the past influences the present. The way we interact with nature today is based on ideas that have developed over time. We now consider this way of thinking normal, but we must also dare to question our culture. We can only address the climate crisis if we are willing to change our relationship with nature. We must learn to coexist with nature, rather than seeing it as an object to be controlled. This is not just a story about the past, as colonialism and its disastrous consequences are still ongoing today. Think about what is happening in Congo, Sudan, and Gaza.

Continue to watch, listen and read


  • TEDx Talk “Patriarchy, racism, and colonialism caused the climate crisis” by Jamie Margolin >> LINK


  • Groene Gesprekken podcast: Episode about the indigenous perspective on climate change (NL) >> LINK


  • Article “A Sinking Empire” by Mikki Stelder (EN) >> LINK
  • Article “‘Op de knalmaart van de bylen’. Geweld en verzet in de Surinaamse plantagepoëzie van P.F. Roos” by Charlotte Kießling and Marrigje Paijmans (NL) >> LINK
  • Book “Capitalism and Cartography in the Dutch Golden Age” by Elizabeth Sutton >> LINK
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