Environmental Apartheid as a Structure

Environmental Apartheid as a Structure


Statement of Intention 

I am writing this paper anonymously due to the fear of academic retaliation at a time of the extreme silencing of Palestinian history within institutions of higher education. This piece is based on research and removed from opinion, and seeks to expose the truth of settler-colonial nations.

Environmental apartheid as defined in “Environmental apartheid: Eco-health and rural marginalization in South Africa” is the “use of rural environments to deliberately marginalize racially defined groups” and I would take it a step further, to say it is the deliberate destruction of natural ecosystems to further settler-colonialism and capitalistic gain.1 Environmental science as a discipline continues to center its achievements on arbitrary, Western benefits like lowering greenhouse gas emissions and increasing plant-based diets, there is an overlooking of a “slow violence” as Rob Nixon explains in his book. Slow violence defined as the consequences that poor communities are facing in the background of Western, affluent environmentalism. In this paper, I will use modern-day settler-colonial nations of Liberia and occupied Palestine (Israel) to expose the underpinnings and strategies of environmental destruction that further the accumulation of empire. 

Apartheid is an Afrikaans word, the language of South Africa, and it means to separate people based on racial or ethnic categorization. Apartheid as understood and applied in South Africa cannot explain the full extent of the violence in Palestine and Liberia, and it is paramount to recognize the limitations of language. Apartheid as a framework is helpful in creating a structure to understand one of many tools settler-colonial nations use to legitimize their existence and build connections with powerful imperial nations, like the United States. The depravity of this case study stems from the ongoing genocide in Palestine, specifically in Gaza but also the occupied West Bank in the background stripping Palestinians access to natural resources like water. At the same time, Liberia has a history of enacting slavery on plantations in order to create enough labor to continue operating an extractive, lucrative rubber industry.


In my research, there are several terms I will use to explain the structures and set up of Liberia and Palestine that need an explanation for the context of this paper. The first term is settler colonialism. Settler colonialism as defined by Patrick Wolfe is foundational to modernity, the combination of genocide used to eliminate the native in settler colonial societies, and settler colonial occupation as an ongoing process rather than a one-time event.2 Settler colonialism is distinct from colonialism in that colonization typically involves an overtaking on the land in which the Indigenous people there work for the colonizer/colonizing country; in settler colonialism, there is overtaking of the land and the settlement of the colonizer on the land creating this idea that the Indigenous people can be pushed away from the areas the settler is occupying. Settler colonialism has been deployed in several places around the world including but not limited to the countries known as: Canada, the United States, Australia, South Africa, Palestine, and Liberia.3 

Another component of environmental apartheid is the overlap in colonialism and environmental degradation. In Pollution is Colonialism by Max Liboiron, they state, “Pollution is not a manifestation or side effect of colonialism, but is rather an enactment of ongoing colonial relations to land”.4 Throughout history, the countries and people who have enacted the most destruction on the natural environment have been colonizing forces. For example, when Manahatta became New Amsterdam through the force of the Dutch West India Company, they deforested between 80 to 85 percent of the area.5 Environmental destruction is often interpreted as an unavoidable consequence of progress and modernity, however, the foundations of the present-day extractive practices are based in colonialism. Colonialism played a unique role in rapidly and permanently changing ecosystems that had been intact for thousands of years and killing the people who knew deeply how to care for these systems.

In the modern-day, people are often shocked at how far the world has strayed from caring for the environment and it represents the loss of knowledge and strong human-land connections that existed throughout history. In the article, “The colonial legacy of environmental injustice in U.S. territories” by Kieren Rudge, it explores the ongoing impact of colonialism on climate justice, and uses the term “green crime”. The article says, “ One harmful extension of colonialism is “green crime”, which involves violations of environmental law. These violations include illegal actions related to water pollution, air pollution, and radioactive testing. Green crimes devastate territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa”.6 Green crime is a useful framework for interpreting the underpinnings of environmental apartheid outside of the US and the US involvement in environmental destruction in Palestine and Liberia.

Lastly, capitalism is one of the driving forces for rapid extractive industries. The global mass creation of goods and services relies on a constant stream of resources like rubber, coal, stone, oil and water. Capitalism and colonialism whilst distinct have several overlaps and often rely on each other. Capitalism began to emerge as the dominant economic structure following colonization and in the Laissez-Faire model constant extraction from Earth is required to maintain the system. In the histories of colonialism, most raw materials are extracted in colonized countries and countries recovering from colonization and given to Western, wealthier countries to be produced by immigrant and marginalized workers. In order to conceptualize the significant exploitation of places like Liberia and Palestine in the West, they must be connected with the need for raw materials for capitalistic production.

Brief Histories of Palestine and Liberia

Liberia is located in West Africa between Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire and was colonized by the American Colonization Society (ACS) on January 7, 1822 consisting of white people and freed descendants of enslaved African Americans. The purpose of Liberia is contested but it served as a “return” destination for freed African Americans who were previously enslaved. For many African Americans who supported the return to Africa movement such as Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois, they saw the creation of Liberia as an important movement signifying pan-Africanism and freedom through a homecoming of sorts of Africa. Whereas many white Americans involved with the colonization of Liberia saw it as a method to move freed Blacks to Africa as they did not believe Black and white people could coexist. Although many of the white people involved had abolition ideology in terms of slavery, the prevalence of racism, and fear of Black people was very strong in these spaces. 

Palestine is located in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and was turned into the independent Jewish state of Israel during the 1947 Partition Plan of the United Nations.7 Following World War II and the holocaust, the goal was to provide Jewish people with a secure, safe homeland. However, Palestine was not the only consideration; other locations considered for the Jewish state were Uganda, Madagascar, and Japan.8 From the view of Palestinians, the Nakba (meaning catastrophe in Arabic) occurred in 1948 where 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from the region in the creation of Israel, this is commentrated yearly on May 15th. The areas of Palestine that are denoted as Palestinian territories are the West Bank and Gaza. 

In terms of similarities, Liberia and Palestine share their settler-colonial status and the exploitation of Indigenous labor for the colonizing force. Although the definitions and defining of apartheid states is subjective, it is well-known and documented that Palestine is an apartheid state. Palestinians do not have the same rights or access as Israelis in terms of voting, land area access, facilities, and citizenship. In Liberia, there are two classes, distinct groups of people: Natives, suffering from colonization and Americo-Liberians, the ruling-class, enacting colonialism. The dominant, in control class within both occupied Palestine and Liberia subject the Indigenous communities to inhuman, unequal living conditions whilst relying on these communities to produce labor for all their human needs from food to industrial production. Additionally, both countries play important roles in American Imperialism with Liberia giving America a presence in West Africa and Israel giving America a presence in the Middle East with both countries being committed allies to the United States. Israel and Liberia are also allied with each other, with the Liberian president, George Weah, visiting Israel in 2019 and voting against a ceasefire in the 2023 Israel-Palestine war.9 There are also differences between Liberia and Palestine. For example, Liberia is older than Israel, which has alloed the country more time to develop and create an international presence. The history of Israel-Palestine tends to be more discussed as the regional conflict has ongoing impacts on global economics. 

Case Study 1: Rubber Production in Liberia

Rubber is a material harvested from latex produced by the trees, known scientifically as Hevea brasiliensis. Rubber is used in several commercial products from tires to gloves. It is a material typically produced in tropical climates specifically, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia. The tree that the raw components that eventually create rubber come from requires a tropical rainforest climate of Southeast Asia or South America. In the early 1900s, without the ability to easily access South America due to geopolitics in the region, America and the company of Firestone, looked to Liberia as a location to future its capitalistic, environmental needs. Firestone Tire and Rubber company is a manufacturing company that has produced tires since 1900. The company expanded production into Liberia in 1926 to “build what would become the world’s largest contiguous rubber plantation”.10 The land the plantation was built on is the land of the Bassa people, who are an ethnic group in West Africa.11 The desire for an American tire and rubber company to gain footing in another country was to have direct control over the capital produced, which helps further the American system.

The conditions on these plantations were horrific and inhumane. Tire manufacturing is extremely labor intensive requiring immense strength and the daily exposure to chemicals without proper safety gear like sulfur and lead. Although the conditions were terrible, many people felt they had no other choice but to work for the company, a typical tactic deployed by those in power. Despite the dark reality, famous Black Americans such as Du Bois “saw in Liberia hope” and were supportive of American and firestone involvement and investments into Liberia.12 The notion that Black Americans who descended from enslaved people could gain access to freedom by oppressing Natives in another country, reflects the notion that people can get free by utilizing the tools of their oppression (i.e. domination, hierarchy, slavery). The weaponizing of the natural environment against colonized people is an old and yet, still frequently deployed tactic. As highlighted in Liberia America’s African Friend, “[Natives] are also [Liberia’s] greatest asset, an underdeveloped natural resource of far more potential value than its forests or its minerals”.13 The use of natural resources can only be profitable with expendable, underpaid labor, which colonizing forces see to be the role of Indigenous peoples. In the next case study, I will explore the restriction of natural resources as another tool of environmental apartheid in Palestine as opposed to the weaponization of labor in the case of Liberia.

Case Study 2: Water Access in Occupied Palestine

Water access is restricted and contaminated through Gaza and the occupied West Bank, however, conditions are particularly dire in Gaza. Before the Israel-Palestine war of 2023, 97% of water in Gaza was unsafe for human consumption. There are aquifers underneath Gaza, which is groundwater under permeable rock, but they have been over-pumped, increasing the salinity quicker than they can naturally replenish. As of December 2023, there is essentially no access to clean water in Gaza, a tactic deployed by the Israeli government and a war crime.14 In the occupied West Bank, there are several laws restricting the rules Palestinians must follow in accessing water. According to a report from the Palestine Water Authority, restrictions to water access got worse in 1967, the year of the Six Day War.15 The Six Day War was fought between Israel and Arab states mostly Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, concluding with a ceasefire, Israel gaining control of new territories and the ecosystems surrounding them, and an additional one million Palestinians placed under Israeli occupation. Since 1967, rainwater collection has become a particularly significant part of Palestinians’ access to water, although it is technically in violation of Israeli laws.16

The destruction of the natural environment in Palestine is a tactic that forces communities to leave their land in dire need of food and water. Displacement is a weapon necessary to the settler-colonial project as it allows more settlers to come in and overtake the land. In the words of Theodore Hazel, a founding father of Zionism, “[i]f I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct”.17 The destruction of natural ecosystems leads to new infrastructure being built as that land must be re-cultivated to become habitable and those being colonized lack resources and access to undo the damage. In Palestine, agriculture has long been an important part of the culture but with limited access to fresh water it becomes difficult to maintain crops. The issue is also occasionally framed as Palestine being a dry climate, this is not the case and the area has enough water to properly distribute amongst all people. 

The weaponization of science against Palestine to prove the false claim of the absence of enough water resources represents a larger trend of science being used for militaristic and colonial benefits. As stated in Hollow Land, “The technologies of control that enable Israel’s continued colonization of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are located at the end of an evolutionary chain of techniques of colonization, occupation and governance developed throughout the history of Zionist settlement”.18 The weaponization of natural resources against colonized people cannot be mistaken as a coincidence or an accident but rather an intentional step and tool in the settler-colonial project. 


In sum, this research paper serves as an introduction to the harm of environmental apartheid and the way it is utilized in colonization. The extraction and violation of the land and people in colonized countries to further the continued economic domination of countries like the United States is central to understanding settler colonialism in the modern world. A world that is based on capitalism and constant manufacturing of products must find labor and materials, which more often than not come from countries subject to imperialism and colonialism by the West. In comparing the experiences of Indigenous peoples in Liberia and Palestine, I seek to draw parallels in the tools of colonization developed in different contexts and time periods. 



  1. Stull, Valerie, Michael M Bell, and Mpumelelo Ncwadi. “Environmental Apartheid: Eco-Health and Rural Marginalization in South Africa.” Journal of Rural Studies, May 4, 2016. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0743016716300572.
  2. Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006): 387–409. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623520601056240.
  3. Barker, Adam, and Emma Battel Lowman. “Settler Colonialism.” GLOBAL SOCIAL THEORY, August 4, 2015. https://globalsocialtheory.org/concepts/settler-colonialism/#:~:text=Settler%20colonial%20states%20include%20Canada,widespread%20foundation%20of%20settlement%20colonies.
  4. Liboiron, Max. Pollution is Colonialism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021.
  5. Howe, Richard. “Notes On The Deforestation of Manhattan.” The Gotham Center for New York City History, March 1, 2012. https://www.gothamcenter.org/blog/notes-on-the-deforestation-of-manhattan.
  6. Rudge, Kieren. “The Colonial Legacy of Environmental Injustice in U.S. Territories.” Yale Environment Review, November 10, 2022. https://environment-review.yale.edu/colonial-legacy-environmental-injustice-us-territories#:~:text=One%20harmful%20extension%20of%20colonialism,%2C%20Guam%2C%20and%20American%20Samoa.
  7. Nations, United. “History of the Question of Palestine – Question of Palestine.” United Nations, 2023. https://www.un.org/unispal/history/.
  8. “Zionist Congress: The Uganda Proposal.” The Uganda Proposal (1903), 2023. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-uganda-proposal-1903.
  9. Massad, Joseph. “Liberia: The African-American Settler Colony That Parallels Israel.” Middle East Eye, February 22, 2022. https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/israel-liberia-apartheid-zionism-antisemitism.
  10. Mitman, Gregg. Empire of Rubber Firestone’s scramble for land and power in Liberia. New York, NY: The New Press, 2023.
  11. Mitman, Gregg. Empire of Rubber Firestone’s scramble for land and power in Liberia. New York, NY: The New Press, 2023.
  12. Mitman, Gregg. Empire of Rubber Firestone’s scramble for land and power in Liberia. New York, NY: The New Press, 2023.
  13. Anderson, Robert Earle. Liberia, America’s African friend. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1952.
  14. Ahmed, A Kayum. “Israeli Authorities’ Cutting of Water Leading to Public Health Crisis in Gaza.” Human Rights Watch, November 16, 2023. https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/11/16/israeli-authorities-cutting-water-leading-public-health-crisis-gaza.
  15. Kittani, Hazem. “Water Harvesting in Palestine.” Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water, 2006. https://icwrae-psipw.org/papers/2006/Water/13.pdf.
  16. Kittani, Hazem. “Water Harvesting in Palestine.” Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water, 2006. https://icwrae-psipw.org/papers/2006/Water/13.pdf.
  17. “Texts Concerning Zionism: ‘The Jewish State.’” “The Jewish State” (Theodor Herzl), 2023. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/quot-the-jewish-state-quot-theodor-herzl.
  18. Weizman, Eyal. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. New York, NY: Verso, 2007.
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