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Rights discourse is marked by ambivalence – the enunciation of rights alongside the attendant exclusions and violations of said rights. In the eighteenth century, for instance, the language of rights was used to justify the French and American revolutions even as women and the enslaved were excluded from the category of rights bearers. The human-based conception of rights also excluded the environment. This chapter proposes that extension of rights to both humans and nonhumans is at the core of the environmental humanities (EH). EH discourse of rights attends to the marginalization of communities disproportionately affected by the distribution of ecological risks and nonhuman ecologies threatened by anthropogenic activities such as resource extraction and energy use. Enunciations of rights in EH demonstrate a commitment to not only a select group of humans but to all humans as well as to the rights of nonhumans. However, EH discourse of rights is not without tensions, including the competing claims to rights among humans and between the interests of human and other-than-human worlds. The chapter concludes with an exploration of these tensions in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide.
The geography of African ecocriticism has shifted considerably since William Slaymaker published his ‘Ecoing the Other(s)’ in 2001 and Anthony Vital's ‘Toward an African Ecocriticism’ appeared in 2008. Published in PMLA, Slaymaker's piece explains the slow response of African literary critics to environmental concerns. In his words, ‘there is no rush by African literary and cultural critics to adopt ecocriticism or the literature of the environment as they are promulgated from many of the world's metropolitan centers’ (132). Appearing seven years later, the title of Vital's work on J. M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K suggests the continuing relevance of Slaymaker's observation. Marking the yet to come, the ‘toward’ of Vital's title prepares for the arrival of an African ecocriticism, an arrival that the essay anticipates by proposing methodological principles for an ecocriticism with African inclinations. One such principle, according to Vital, is that ‘ecocriticism, if it is to pose African questions and find African answers, will need to be rooted in local (regional, national) concern for social life and its natural environment’ (88).
Writing this introduction in January 2020, we can report the arrival of an African ecocriticism that has heeded Vital's recommendation as well as the quick maturation of this subfield. To put it succinctly, the field is growing rapidly as there is now a rush to adopt ecocriticism in African literary and cultural studies. The fact that Slaymaker's position is now dated is testament to the growing body of works in African ecocriticism, many of them published in the world's metropolitan centers while others are developed and published within Africa. In fact, one such book won the 2019 Best Ecocriticism Book of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (Iheka 2018). Another African-themed monograph was a finalist in the 2015 edition of the prize (Caminero-Santangelo 2014).
These books and other studies in African ecocriticism recognize the interconnection of colonialism with resource extraction and ecological degradation, thereby validating Bonnie Roos and Alex Hunt's claim that ‘any postcolonial critique must be thoroughly ecocritical at the same time’ (2010: 3).
Mineral extraction in Africa has exacerbated ecological degradation across the continent. This article focuses on the example of the Niger Delta scene of oil exploration depicted in Michael Watts and Ed Kashi’s multimedia project, Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta. Analyzing the infringement on human and nonhuman bodies due to fossil fuel extraction, I read the Delta, inscribed in Watts and Kashi’s image-text, as an ecology of suffering and as a site of trauma. Although trauma studies tend to foreground the past and the present, I argue that Curse of the Black Gold invites serious consideration of trauma of the future, of-the-yet-to-come, in apprehending the problematic of suffering in the Delta. I conclude with a discussion of the ethics of representing postcolonial wounding, which on the one hand can create awareness of ecological degradation and generate affect, but which on the other hand, exploits the vulnerability of the depicted and leaves an ecological footprint.