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Learning from Indigenous People

(Photo courtesy UMass Lowell) “Guest speaker Somnath Mukherji, an activist.”

Steven O’Hara
Connector Editor

Rev. Dana McLean Greeley’s Speaker series continues, kicking off this 2023 semester with UMass Lowell’s first spring lecture focusing on colonial and structural violence against Indigenous people. On Thursday, February 16, Somnath Mukherji, an activist and community organizer, gave a presentation showing his contribution and hard work to the Indigenous communities of India and how their lives are currently being affected in the face of Climate Change. While working with different grassroots groups in India and collectives in the United States, Mukherji has worked alongside Indigenous and tribal communities in both countries, working to disable state and structural violence that come from environmental crises such as this one.

His work and knowledge has evolved from close experience working with Indigenous communities and vast lessons learned from their culture and methods of living. After working two decades with Indigenous people of India, Mukherji says, “I [spent] more time in the villages of rural areas, and in working there I began to see their ways of working and living. It was a very attractive [job opportunity] because the fundamentals of their society is not based on oppression. It was very liberating to learn that.”

His more recent collaborative work has had a great effect on the ecology and general environment of rural India, working to rehabilitate many of the resources Indigenous Indian communities survive on, or would have if they had not been slowly disappearing. He’s worked with about 30,000 farmers in India focusing on sustainable agriculture, mangrove plantations and climate adaptation (Mukherji). Most of the rural areas in India have been depleted of natural vegetation, water resources and many other environmental factors because of the present heat wave striking the country and overall human impact of climate change. As well, historical British Colonization of India has a lot to do with the state of this country and what used to be a flourishing place is still suffering the impacts of deforestation and pollution from those events, which is detrimentally harming many of the Indigenous people who live there. 

However, just because climate change is still a looming threat, doesn’t mean Mukherji’s work and the efforts of Indigenous communities have been for nothing. In regards to how much their work has helped replenish the rural environment, he says, “I would not say a lot, but significant impacts. In some very dry areas, suddenly,  where wells have dried—in two years time, they have 10 feet of water.” Indigenous communities across the world, not only in India, are experiencing the wildly detrimental effects of Climate Change to their natural ways of life. More work needs to be done to rehabilitate the environment from the harmful impact humans have caused, and more will be done. 

When asked about the importance of working with Indigenous communities, no matter the country, Mukherji says, “What is very important to understand is that these communities, whether it be in India or in the [United States], have these imaginations for a better world…so when we work, we never think we’re helping them. Indigenous communities are not fundamentally based on exploitation and extraction. In all the relationships there is symbiosis—a give and take. Whereas other communities largely, either on the construct of race, class, or gender, they are very oppressive. You are either stealing land or stealing labor and benefiting from it, and Indigenous people don’t do that.”

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