Extraction and Environmental Injustices: (De)colonial Practices in Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were





oil extraction, epistemology, environmental injustice, Tropical Africa, decolonial, neocolonial, slow violence, Imbolo Mbue


Environmental degradation, climate crises, and ecological catastrophes effect the countries of the tropics distinctly from those of the Global North, reflecting the ramifications of colonial capitalist epistemes and practices that sanction extraction, commodification, and control of tropical lands and peoples. Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were (2021), set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, bears witness to the history and presence of ecological disaster in the African tropics through issues related to extractivism, environmental injustices, and structural racism that are ongoing under the mask of capitalist progress and development. Mbue, a Cameroonian-American novelist, recounts Kosawa’s decades-long struggle against the American oil company Pexton. This article focuses on the critical aspect that Mbue’s discourse reveals—that there is a need to map environmental injustices with other forms of structural injustices and the prevalence of neocolonialism and its manifestations through racial, economic, and epistemic practices. The article further explicates how the ordinary people of Kosawa become subjected to “slow violence” and “testimonial injustice” and foregrounds the necessity of “epistemic disobedience” demonstrated in the novel through the madman’s intervention and Thula’s sustained resistance to the exploitative agendas.


Author Biographies

Goutam Karmakar, University of the Western Cape, South Africa

Goutam Karmakar is an NRF Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Education at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His research interests are South Asian Literature and Culture, Women and Gender Studies, Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies and Environmental Studies. As a researcher from the Global South working on epistemology and decolonial ecology, he seeks to foster ethical ecological practises that can contribute to the advancement of planetary sustainability. His engagement with decolonial studies stems from his observations concerning the social, political, ontological, epistemic, and environmental injustices experienced by communities in various regions of the global south. Through his research, he seeks to transform marginalized spaces into arenas that foster resistance as well as solidarity.

Rajendra Chetty, University of the Western Cape, South Africa

Rajendra Chetty is Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. Rajendra Chetty's scholarship is underpinned by critical theory. His transdisciplinary research leans on postcolonial and social justice ideas on academic activism. He has engaged extensively with the decolonial turn in the humanities and curriculum transformation in the area of English studies.



Agathangelou, A. M. (2021) On the question of time, racial capitalism, and the planetary. Globalizations, 18(6), 880-897. https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2021.1906006

Andreucci, D. and Zografos, C. (2022) Between improvement and sacrifice: Othering and the (bio)political ecology of climate change. Political Geography, 92, 102512. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2021.102512

Andrews, N. (2015). Digging for survival and/or justice? The drivers of illegal mining activities in Western Ghana. Africa Today 62(2), 3-24. https://doi.org/10.2979/africatoday.62.2.3

Ayelazuno, J. A. (2014). The ‘new extractivism’ in Ghana: A critical review of its development prospects. The Extractive Industries and Society, 1, 292–302. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2014.04.008

Bacon, J. M. (2018). Settler colonialism as eco-social structure and the production of colonial ecological violence. Environmental Sociology, 5(1), 59-69. https://doi.org/10.1080/23251042.2018.1474725

Bullard, R. D. (1996). Environmental Justice: It’s more than Waste Facility Siting. Social science quarterly, 77(3), 493-499.

Bullard, R. D. (2008). Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality. Avalon Publishing-Westview Press.

Carel, H., & Kidd, I. J. (2021). Institutional Opacity, Epistemic Vulnerability, and Institutional Testimonial Justice. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 29(4), 473-496. https://doi.org/10.1080/09672559.2021.1997393

Chakraborty, D. (2022). Planetary Humanities: Straddling the Decolonial/Postcolonial Divide. Daedalus, 151(3), 222–233. https://doi.org/10.1162/daed_a_01940

Chao, S. (2022). (Un)Worlding the Plantationocene: Extraction, Extinction, Emergence. ETropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 21(1), 165–191. https://doi.org/10.25120/etropic.21.1.2022.3838

Faber, D., & McCarthy, D. (2003). Neo-Liberalism, Globalization and the Struggle for Ecological Democracy: Linking Sustainability and Environmental Justice. In Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World (pp. 38–63). MIT Press.

Ferguson, J. (2005). Seeing Like an Oil Company: Space, Security, and Global Capital in Neoliberal Africa. American Anthropologist, 107(3), 377-382. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2005.107.3.377

Frame, M. L. (2023). Ecological imperialism, development, and the capitalist world-system: Cases from Africa and Asia. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429261305

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198237907.001.0001

Fricker, M. (2020). Institutional Epistemic Vices. The Case of Inferential Inertia. In I. J. Kidd, H. Battaly, & Q. Cassam (Eds.) Vice Epistemology (pp. 89–107). London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315146058-8

Ford, J. D., King, N., Galappaththi, E. K., Pearce, T., McDowell, G., & Harper, S. L. (2020). The resilience of Indigenous peoples to environmental change. One Earth, 2, 532–543. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2020.05.014

Greco, E. (2020). Africa, extractivism and the crisis this time. Review of African Political Economy, 47, 511–521. https://doi.org/10.1080/03056244.2020.1859839

Grosfoguel, R. (2007). The epistemic decolonial turn. Beyond political-economy paradigms. Cultural Studies, 21(2/3), 211- 223. https://doi.org/10.1080/09502380601162514

Hallowes, D., & Butler, M. (2002). Power, poverty, and marginalised environments: a conceptual framework. In D. A. McDonald (Ed.), Environmental justice in South Africa (pp. 51-77). University of Cape Town Press.

Hallowes, D., & Munnick, V. (2016). The Destruction of the Highveld Part 1: Dig¬ging Coal. Groundwork.

Harvey, D. (1989). The Limits to Capital. University of Chicago Press.

Harvey, D. (2005). The New Imperialism. Oxford University Press.

Iheka, C. (2018). Naturalizing Africa: Ecological Violence, Agency, and Postcolonial Resistance in African Literature. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108183123

Ikuenobe, P. A. (2014). Traditional African environmental ethics and colonial legacy. International Journal of Philosophy and Theology, 2, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.15640/ijpt.v2n4a1

Kaufman, J. D., & Hajat, A. (2021). Confronting Environmental Racism. Environmental Health Perspectives, 129(5), 1-2. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP951

Klare, M. (2012). The race for what’s left: The global scramble for the world’s last resources. Picador.

Lowe, L. (2015). The Intimacies of Four Continents. Duke University Press.

Lundberg, A., Regis, H., & Agbonifo, J. (2022). Tropical Landscapes and Nature-Culture Entanglements: Reading Tropicality via Avatar. ETropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 21(1), 1–27. https://doi.org/10.25120/etropic.21.1.2022.3877

Malin, S. A. (2015). The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice. Rutgers University Press.

Malin, S. A., Ryder, S., & Lyra, M. G. (2019). Environmental justice and natural resource extraction: intersections of power, equity and access. Environmental Sociology, 5(2), 109-116. https://doi.org/10.1080/23251042.2019.160842

Mann, C. C. (2007). America, Found & Lost. National Geographic, 32–55.

Mbembe, A. (2003). Necropolitics. Public Culture, 15(1), 11–40. https://doi.org/10.1215/ 08992363-15-1-11.

Mbembe, A. (2021). Out of the Dark Night. Columbia University Press.

Mbue, I. (2021). How Beautiful We Were. Canongate Books Ltd.

McGee, J. A., & Greiner, P. T. (2020, March 6). Racial justice is climate justice: Racial capitalism and the fossil economy. Hampton Think. https://www.hamptonthink.org/read/racial-justice-is-climate-justice-racial-capitalism-and-the-fossil-economy

McGregor, D., Whitaker, S., & Sritharan, M. (2020). Indigenous environmental justice and sustainability. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 43, 35–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2020.01.007

McMichael, P. (2017). Development and social change: A global perspective. (6th edition). Sage Publications.

McKay, B. M. (2017). Agrarian extractivism in Bolivia. World Development, 97, 199–211. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2017.04.007

Medina, J. (2013). The epistemology of resistance: Gender and racial oppression, epistemic injustice, and the social imagination. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199929023.001.0001

Mezzadra, S., & Neilson, B. (2019) The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism. Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781478003267

Mignolo, W. D. (2009). Epistemic disobedience, independent thought and decolonial freedom. Theory, Culture & Society, 26(7–8), 159–181. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276409349275

Mignolo, W. D. (2011a). Epistemic Disobedience and the Decolonial Option: A Manifesto. Transmodernity, 44-66. https://doi.org/10.5070/T412011807

Mignolo, W. D. (2011b). THE GLOBAL SOUTH AND WORLD DIS/ORDER. Journal of Anthropological Research, 67(2), 165–188. https://doi.org/10.3998/jar.0521004.0067.202

Mignolo, W. D. (2012). Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking. Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.23943/princeton/9780691156095.001.0001

Moore, J. W. (2017). The Capitalocene, part I: On the nature and origins of our ecological crisis. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44(3), 594–630. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2016.1235036

Mitchell, C. M. (1993). Environmental Racism: Race as a Primary Factor in the Selection of Hazardous Waste Sites. National Black Law Journal, 12(3), 176.

Mohai, P., Pellow, D., & Roberts, J. T. (2009). Environmental Justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 34, 405–430. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ -082508-094348

Mushonga, T., & Ogude, J. (2022). Introduction: The Intractable Problem: Africa and the Pitfalls of Resource Exploitation in a Globalising World. In J. Ogude & T. Mushonga (Eds.), Environmental Humanities of Extraction in Africa: Poetics and Politics of Exploitation (pp. 1-22). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003287933-1

Mwangi, O. (2007). Hydropolitics, ecocide and human security in Lesotho: A case study of the Lesotho Highlands Water project. Journal of Southern African Studies, 33, 3–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057070601136509

Nixon, R. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.4159/harvard.9780674061194

Ngũgĩ, wa T. (2009). Something torn and new: an African renaissance. Basic Civitas Books.

Obeng-Odoom, F. (2021). The commons in an age of uncertainty: Decolonizing nature, economy and society. University of Toronto Press. https://doi.org/10.3138/9781487513900

Oulu, M. (2016). Core tenets of the theory of ecologically unequal exchange. Journal of Political Ecology, 23(1), 446-466. https://doi.org/10.2458/v23i1.20251

Peša, I. (2023). Anthropocene Narratives of Living with Resource Extraction in Africa. Radical History Review, 2023(145), 125-138. https://doi.org/10.1215/01636545-10063818

Pohlhaus Jr, G. (2020) Epistemic Agency Under Oppression. Philosophical Papers, 49(2), 233-251. https://doi.org/10.1080/05568641.2020.1780149

Pellow, D. N. (2018). What Is Critical Environ-mental Justice? Polity Press.

Popović, N. A. (1996). Environmental Racism in the United States and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights, 14(3), 277-287. https://doi.org/10.1177/092405199601400303

Pulido, L. (2016). Flint, Environmental Racism, and Racial Capitalism. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 27(3), 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2016.1213013

Quijano, A. (2007). Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality. Cultural Studies, 21(2/3), 168-178. https://doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2016.1213013

Robinson, C. (2000). Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. University of North Carolina.

Schlosberg, D. (2013). Theorising Environmental Justice: The Expanding Sphere of a Discourse. Environmental Politics, 22(1), 37–55. https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2013.755387

Scott, D., Oelofse, C., & Guy, C. (2002). Double Trouble: Environmental Injustice in South Durban. Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, 17(52), 50–57. https://doi.org/10.2307/4066473

Smith, L., & Archer, A. (2020). Epistemic Injustice and the Attention Economy. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 23, 777–795. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-020-10123-x

Walker, G. (2009). Beyond Distribution and Proximity: Exploring the Multiple Spatialities of Environmental Justice. Antipode, 41(4), 614–636. https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.2009.41.issue-4

Watts, M. J. (2021). Hyper-Extractivism and the Global Oil Assemblage: Visible and Invisible Networks in Frontier Spaces. In J. Saphiro & J. A. McNeish (Eds.), Our Extractive Age: Expressions of Violence and Resistance (pp. 207-248). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003127611-16

Wilk, R. (2007). It’s about time: A commentary on guyer. American Ethnologist, 34(3), 440–443. https://doi.org/10.15251ae.2007.34.3

Voskoboynik, D. M., & Andreucci, D. (2021). Greening extractivism: Environmental

discourses and resource governance in the ‘lithium Triangle.’ Environment and planning E: Nature and space, 5(2), 787-809. https://doi.org/10.1177 /25148486211006345




How to Cite

Karmakar, G., & Chetty, R. (2023). Extraction and Environmental Injustices: (De)colonial Practices in Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were. ETropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 22(2), 125–147. https://doi.org/10.25120/etropic.22.2.2023.3970