On Tuesday afternoon, Staff Writer Isa RingswaldEgan attended a lecture by the French department featuring author, engineer, and philosopher Malcom Ferdinand. He presented his work on pesticide contamination in the Antilles in his lecture, “Writing in the Toxic Ruins of Slavery: the Case of Chlordecone Contamination of Martinique and Guadeloupe.”

Sitting in a room full of mostly francophone individuals, I heard the chatter of people greeting one another and coffee being poured. A man at the front of the room, presumably Malcom Ferdinand—whom we were waiting to hear speak—began blowing into a conch shell, the sound reverberating across the room. This powerful gesture paid homage to activists in Martinique and Guadeloupe, Dr. Ferdinand explained, as this is how they commence group events, but it was also a meaningful way to call the room’s attention. 

Dr. Malcom Ferdinand is a civil and environmental engineer from University College London and a doctor of political philosophy from Université Paris Diderot. He is also, importantly, a Martinican, born and raised in Martinique until he was 18 years of age. Much of his work at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique has centered around his home and its role in the current ecological crisis and process of decolonization. He published Une Écologie Décoloniale (A Decolonial Ecology) in 2019 and continues to investigate the use of organochlorine insecticide chlordecone, which was used in Martinique and Guadeloupe from 1972 to 1993. 

Chlordecone, also known by the brand name Kepone, is a now-obsolete insecticide that was once used to control banana weevils on plantations on French-Caribbean islands for over two decades. Unfortunately, it also contaminated over 170 other native species and infiltrated the islands’ aquifers. The chemical is a chlorinated hydrocarbon in the same family as DDT and Mirex. It is a carcinogen and a developmental and endocrine disruptor capable of remaining in soil for up to seven centuries after use. 

The insecticide has wreaked havoc on the inhabitants of these islands, besieging people with prostate cancer, fertility issues, and developmental disruption. An attendee at the lecture later added that she had lost an uncle to chlordecone-induced cancer.

On a scale broader than the insecticide itself, plantation culture and colonialism in the Americas were a massive environmental force—a phase of the Anthropocene epoch that Ferdinand calls the Plantationocene. Humans and ecosystems alike were disturbed by disease, invasive species, and unfamiliar farming practices, which had measurable effects on the environment. 

Here, Ferdinand explained, there is a rift between the social and natural sciences. The humanities view nature as a one-dimensional backdrop to human affairs. In contrast, the sciences of the natural world tend to view humanity as a homogeneous whole against the complexities of our world, and individuals become almost incidental. As both an engineer and a philosopher, Ferdinand aims to merge these two equally meaningful outlooks in his investigations related to chlordecone. Bringing people closer to the earth is imperative to fighting against the lasting effects of colonialism. To illustrate this, he incorporated a powerful quote from Aimé Césaire’s Tempête:

“You only think she is dead because you think the earth itself is dead… it’s so much simpler that way! Dead, you can walk on it, pollute it, you can tread on it with the steps of a conqueror. I respect the earth, because I know that it is alive, and I know that she is alive.” 

Colonialism principally distances people from their land. As so much of the Antillean ecumene has been contaminated by chlordecone, natives can no longer grow food in their own soils or fish in their own waters. Mothers have even shared concerns about breastfeeding their own children. In this way, the chemical is a slow but violent final blow to the colonized people of Guadeloupe and Martinique, othering them permanently from their homes. 

The Guadeloupans and Martinicans alike realized this when chlordecone was first being used on the island. In a 1977 labor strike, the laborers included the discontinuation of chlordecone use in their list of demands. It was clear from the beginning that this chemical was unsafe. In fact, the U.S. banned it in 1976 due to safety concerns. The fact that this insecticide would cause harm was in no way unclear, but Antillean banana producers would continue to use it for 16 more years.

In the early 2000s, citizens began to organize again, behind the principle of reparations for the wrong that still sickens them today. They filed a lawsuit with the French government in 2006, hoping the agents who abetted this atrocity would be brought to justice. The courts did not reach a decision until last year. They decided no one could be held responsible, issuing a “non-lieu” or case dismissal. French President Macron argued a “collective blindness” on the topic. France recognized the harm that was done, and Macron said, “The Republic is on the side of the oppressed, of the weakest here, just as in the European part of France.” The case was still dismissed, and no action was taken. 

Those 17 years between when the case was first issued and when it was dismissed were full of activism and investigation by Antilleans. Le Collectif des Ouvrier. e.s Agricoles Empoisonné.e.s par les Pesticides (The Collective of Agricultural Workers Poisoned by Pesticides) has mobilized to bring justice to those who participated in the poisoning of the islands. In 2018, an ad campaign for a fake play, Ce Sang Impur (This Impure Blood), was posted by a collective of anonymous artists to call upon the state to take responsibility for the offense and do further research into decontamination methods. Also in 2018, a petition under the name of “Je suis chlordécone.e,” or “I am chlordeconed,” was launched to get elected officials to work towards decontamination efforts. 

While the French government has not been eager to take formal action against the effects of chlordecone on the islands, authorities have arrested numerous anti-chlordecone activists. Kéziah Nuissier, one such activist, was the victim of police violence in 2020. The four other protesters arrested with him were sent to prison a few months later. 

As the citizens of Martinique and Guadeloupe have modeled, Ferdinand said, writing about these issues is not enough–action must be taken. However, his work is intended to be an intervention and decolonize the scientific research surrounding chlordecone. Despite the affected populations being predominantly people of color, most researchers on the subject are white foreigners. Ferdinand showed a photo of a convention held in Martinique for scientists studying the issue; almost all were white. In this way, Ferdinand’s background as a Martinican gives new insight into this subject as he works to make science more accessible for everybody. 

Ferdinand concluded the lecture by bringing back the quote from Tempête, emphasizing the importance of reconnecting colonized peoples with their lands. Artifacts of colonialism like chlordecone still divide many indigenous peoples from their homes. Restoring all of our collective connections to the land we live on can help us move towards destroying those artifacts. The earth is not dead, and we should not treat it as if it were. It is detrimental to us all to “tread on it with the steps of a conqueror.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons