12 December 2023
DocTalks x MoMA
Session 6

“Every Holy Landscape is Shadowed by Evil:”
Ecological Imperialism in 20th Century Jerusalem 

TU Wien

Respondent: Camila Medina, ETH Zurich/LUS

Detail from the notebooks of C.R‭. ‬Ashbee showing a proposal for the perimeter of the Old City Walls, replacing local flora with pines and a "wild, informal layout" of flowerbeds (1918-1921). Source: Archive Centre, King's College, Cambridge, England, Courtesy Nirit Shalev Khalifa, Yad Ben-Zvi

When the British Empire declared military rule over Ottoman Jerusalem in 1917, its priority was to “restore” the Holy City to its former glory. This resulted in a series of town-planning schemes focused on eradicating any elements that seemed “unworthy” of the holy city’s landscape, with the aim of making Jerusalem legible to a reader of the Christian Bible. Palestinian houses were deemed “unsightly obstructions” of the ancient city walls, and indigenous flora, such as cacti and shrubbery, were replaced with imported European species. The result was a picturesque composition of the city’s landscape that affirmed the colonial narrative of Jerusalem’s salvation, making it more green, productive, monumental — and less Arab.

The impetus to project mythical narratives onto Jerusalem’s landscape did not stop when the British left in 1948. In the second half of the 20th Century, Zionists extensively manipulated the landscape as part of a strategy to naturalize the Jewish presence in Jerusalem’s built and natural environments. Expanding the park project initiated by the British, the Israeli National Parks Authority expanded the Jerusalem Park by demolishing entire neighbourhoods while leaving others standing as part of a ‘picturesque ensemble’ reminiscent of ancient landscapes. Planting new trees, adding low-rise shrubbery along the ancient walls, and hiding signs of modernity (such as roads and electrical wiring) from sight, this park was to recreate the landscape of antiquity, and thus stage the time when Israelite kings— such as David and Salomon—had roamed these untouched hills.

Steeped in religious sentiment yet led by colonial motivations, both British and Zionist projects exploited the natural environment to promote their expansionist ideologies. By drawing a line between these two case studies, this talk will highlight the violence embedded in the notion of an imaginary landscape, the manipulation of flora and fauna that its realization entails, and the resulting displacement and erasure of those excluded from the hegemonic narratives that are told by those in power.


The Palm Oil Controversy:
Architecture and Environmental Depletion in the Congolese Forest

Liverpool University

Respondent: Maren Larsen, University of Basel

Diorama of the Huileries du Congo Belge at the Ghent International Exposition, Progress, 14:116, January 1914

Palm oil accounts for over a third of the vegetable oil produced worldwide but its production and use is at the centre of a two decades long controversy. On one hand, NGOs hold palm oil industry responsible for both degradation of the environment, increasing poverty of indigenous people, and attacks on human rights. On the other hand, independent scientists argue that the development of oil palm plantations can contribute to meeting the food needs of a growing global population, and to a decline in rural poverty.

When in 2017, the Colombian-Congolese company Strategos bought the land and the buildings of Lusanga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the surrounding palm oil plantation, the population of this historical site for palm oil extraction in the country was hoping to revive a long lost, idealized past. Lusanga was formerly known as Leverville, named after Lord Lever, the British tycoon who had acquired concessions in 1911, in the then Belgian Congo. The villas built for the European managers, with their tropical modernist architecture plunged in the lush vegetation, hint at a seemingly glorious past.

The semi-abandoned surrounding plantations and the rows of workers houses inhabited by an impoverished and unemployed population remind us of a violent past of labor exploitation and environmental depletion.
The failure and abandonment of Leverville which was once meant to be the crown jewel of the five plantation complexes established in the Congo basin, the symbolism of its radially arranged avenues, now barely legible through the overgrown weeds, tells us the story of how poor knowledge of environmental, human and technical factors crushed the ambitions of a giant of global capitalism. The violent conflicts that have broken out in 2015 and 2019 in the Boteka and Lokutu company towns, two other former Lever’s palm oil concessions testify of the long-term effects of natural resource extraction in the Central African forest.

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