Friday, December 25, 2015


Photo by Mira van Dongen 

Throughout the summer we labored to exhaustion, all waking hours in motion, farming by hand.  We bent our bodies to the earth.  We cut and callused our hands.  Our backs ached.  At the end of some days Caitlin was close to tears.  I went numb and silent some evenings; and it was all we could do to cook a meal and fall asleep beneath the stars.  Usually I would read while Caitlin cooked dinner.  The stories we read (the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Walking with the Comrades and essays by Arundhati Roy, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) were part of a process of reaching outward, searching for a resonance of experience, and locating ourselves in our place and time in relation to other lives.  Reading about the Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl to California, reading about indigenous villages in the Narmada River Valley being flooded by the government of India in this new millennium, reading about war and bombs, atomic and otherwise – it strikes us that this work we are doing of bringing sustenance from the land with care is peace work.  It is work that directly concerns the freedom of people.  If we can bend our backs to this, then maybe there doesn’t need to be war over resources.  Maybe there actually doesn’t need to be slavery (economic or otherwise) anymore in this world.

In August, a sudden bloom of white-winged butterflies filled the air.  One evening, after a long dry day of shepherding and gleaning fallen seed heads from the brown barley fields, Caitlin cooked supper on the outdoor wood stove while we read Walking with the Comrades with our adopted American little brother Ben.  Dubbed by the locals ‘Senge Namgyal’ for Ladakh’s greatest king and builder of palaces, he came with a student group in July and felt drawn to the people and the work of this remote village.  He decided to stay on for the fall.  Walking with the Comrades details the story of Arundhati Roy’s journey to the forests of Dandakaranya in central India in 2011.  There mining interests are moving in, and an indigenous Adivasi population has transformed into an armed Maoist revolution.

Many indigenous populations in India were written out of their land when the new Indian state’s constitution ratified coonial policy and dlared that all undeeded lands (in effect all lands of illiterate people) now belonged to the state.  The people of the Forest Department (in their minds, removing illegal residents) trampled crops with elephants and burned the fields of people who knew only their ways of living from the land.  This violence and oppression went on for years until the newly formed Maoist forces moved in and violently pushed the Forest Department out.  The Maoists had gained some power and trust of the local people by organizing strikes that were effective in moving the wages of gatherers of forest products toward less exploitative rates.  In response to the Maoists, the government sent in police forces whose presence has meant only continuing terror for most Adivasis.  Many regular people saw their livelihoods destroyed, their friends and families jailed, raped, and murdered by state-sponsored police actions.  Enlistments into the Maoist People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army skyrocketed.

How different are our desires and the desires of these Adivasi people, who are forced from their lands and lives without access to literacy, money, or a process of justice?  We want a peaceful life rooted in the land.  And yet how incredibly different are the conditions of our lives?  How different from these Adivasis are the desires of the Ladakhi people with whom we have the privilege to live and work each day?  None of us want any alien force invading our lives, forcing us out, making our lives miserable.  And yet some people receive such treatment, and others do not.  Why?  What would we do if we were born in Dandakaranya, without the privileges of plenty of food, fine education, enough money, access to land and dignified jobs?  Would we also pick up weapons and take to the woods, a final and dangerous choice for some kind of power in the face of forces that are bent on our destruction?  Or would we give up, move to the slums of a city, and scrape a living selling our labor or our bodies, malnourished, without clean water?  We speak together about this.  We don’t know the answers.

Is mining bauxite worth forcing people to make these kinds of choices?

From Roy’s reporting, the Maoist leaders are by no means perfect.  However, they do have a direct understanding of the lives and concerns of the people of the area – they all live in the same woods – and they do represent an alternative position to the dominant one, which places resource extraction before people’s sustainable livelihoods.  I wish the government of India and the states involved would sit down with the Maoist leaders and actually try to figure out a deal that would modestly benefit all parties.  Instead, Indian elites seem to be happy to throw money and lives into a war against their own citizens so that their compatriots’ mining companies can clear the forests, tear resources from the earth, and strike it rich.  The profits they make doing this are absurd, on the order of hundreds of times their capital investments.

My intention in relating this story is not to point blame at India or at certain Indian people.  The U.S. government is guilty of far more crimes and far worse ones than the Indian government.  This story of modern day India echoes throughout the history of the world and particularly through the appalling story of white supremacy and white power that continues today.  The histories most of us learn in school are subtly changed; they acknowledge the endless conquests, wars and genocides, yet leave our people and our past and current ruling elites somehow absolved of wrongdoing.  Also, the direct flow between the miseries of far-off ecosystems and people, and the daily consumption of the global north, remains ignored or dulled down.  Turn on the TV for ten minutes and you will understand the profit motive and the way it plays on our emotions and seeps into our minds.  ‘All is copacetic, and I really could use a new spring style.’ Behind this veil, a global Empire has grown around us.

The atrocities of this Empire are legion.  One example: in the ten years that followed the first U.S.-led bombing and invasion of Iraq (in January 1991), about half a million Iraqi children died as a result of U.S. economic sanctions (Arnove, Iraq Under Siege).  They died because they lacked food, clean water, and medical care.  Madeleine Albright, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said with regard to this: ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.’(1)  Who’s ‘we’?  She didn’t lose her job.  Iraq holds some of the largest oil reserves in the world.  Who earned multi-billion dollar contracts for reconstructing Iraq’s infrastructure after the second U.S. invasion in 2003?  Halliburton and Bechtel, both of which are business partners with the Bush administration.  Who controls that oil now?

The ruthless human quest for economic power is anything but new.  It has led to genocide time and again.  American Indians – that is called ‘colonialism.’  Africans, 30 million kidnapped and transported to the states alone, half of whom died on the way.  And now victims of climate change, dying from the privileged world’s two hundred years of reckless fossil fueled power.  To name a few.  Here’s something our ally Winston Churchill said in 1937 about the Palestinians:

‘I do not agree that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time.  I do not admit that right.  I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia.  I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.’(2)

He’s one of those heroes of our civilization, right?  Defeated the Nazis, yes?

In 1945 we dropped atomic bombs on Japanese people (not soldiers) and scared them so much they surrendered.  Every year since then we have bombed and gone to war against poor countries.  Every year.  Can we talk about this?  Did Vietnam (1961-73) and Panama (1989) pose credible threats to the American people?  What force on earth could provoke such behavior?  What are the consequences of affluence?  How much do we love the American Dream?

It’s wonderful that modern peacefulness in the industrialized world supports a rejection of violence and discrimination based on income level, political views, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, skin color, and so on.  However, actually defending this kind of justice in the world outside the rich countries would take some major economic transformations, and some sacrifices by us, the privileged few.

Wealth, power, and aggression do seem to inspire a certain kind of respect.  When an Indian engineer visited the village of Tar to plan the first electric grid, soon to be installed, we sat down together and he asked me where I am from.  ‘America,’ I say.  ‘Very nice!  Very nice!’ he responds.  I don’t know where to begin.  What does he know of this legendary place?  What has Hollywood shown him?

This fellow came off as kind and pragmatic, down-to earth.  Then a tall man approached from behind him with bold steps.  The rushing waters muffled his footfalls.  The tall man strode up and tapped the rock behind the engineer loudly with a stick.  The engineer started, whipped his head around to see who it was, and as he turned back to me his voice suddenly doubled in volume.  He began a proud and passionate stream of language about ‘India’ (this word he yelled) and a new great age and how they would bring civilization to all ‘backward’ places, ‘no matter the cost!’  I was alarmed (I usually think the costs are worth considering), and managed to say: ‘You must really want to help these people,’ glancing at the tall man with the cavalier grin standing behind him.  ‘I just get excited sometimes,’ he said with a bashful smile.

In this part of India people are seeing some benefits of ‘development’.  In other parts tens of millions of people who were living from the land and had almost no carbon footprint are no wage laborers in slums or worse, because their villages and forests have been flooded by big dams.  Now their lives are entirely dependent on fossil fuels.  They were ‘backward’ places.  I wonder how they feel about entering civilization.

Tar, this village, now protected from Pakistan by the Indian military (which includes its own sons), is still sane enough and remote enough to be a place where the relationship between the human community and the wild remains intact.  The snow leopards and wolves walk the paths of the people at night.  The ibex are fed by the villagers, by the soil and crops they nurture, as inadvertently and inevitably as are fed the insects and mice who eat the excess seeds, and the lizards and foxes who feed on them in turn.  Villagers occasionally lose a goat, a sheep, or a cow to the big predators, but they do not have a snow leopard ‘problem’.  No one sets out to exterminate anyone else.  The people are in living, knowing relationship with these wild inhabitants of the world as well as with every member of their human community.  There is no such thing as not knowing your neighbor.  

The people here all depend on each other; they know each other intimately, they get along, they share in lots of healthy outdoor work, they listen even when they disagree, and their religion encourages tolerance and placing others’ interests first.  They grow nearly all of their own grains, beans, and vegetables, and eat very little meat.  They know how to build new houses of local materials, and repair the old ones.  They have a firm hold on the basis of their lives, and their deep happiness in that is tangible – impossible to miss.

There are ways to live and work with the earth that produce the abundance we need, that increase the biodiversity and health of land, and that create lifeways that do not require harming other landbases.
India and many other ‘developing’ countries (who did or did not get bombed by us) are following America’s model these days, their populations willing or not, generally to the great detriment of their human and non-human populations.  Foreign ‘aid’, for the most part, enslaves those countries to us.(3)

Some questions arise for me: Can we Americans stop asking so much of other places and other people (in oil, food, clothes, labor, ‘products’, metal, and medicine, to name a few)?  Can we figure out how to produce what we need and take the steps to do so?  Could we one day start offering (not selling) the precious surplus of our lives and land to those in greater need?

That’s a kind of economics I could get behind.

(1): Arundhati Roy, 'Come September' in An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2005. 
(2): Quoted in editorial, 'Scurrying Towards Bethlehem,' New Left Review 10, 2nd series, July/August 2001, p.9, n.5.
(3): John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, 2004.