Real Support, Real Solidarity: An Interview with Chithira Vijayakumar

By Owen Lloyd / Deep Green Resistance News Service

Chithira Vijayakumar is a writer living in Eugene, Oregon. Her work includes participation in a theatre group that works to encourage people to intervene against oppression, and support work for the Karuk tribe, who are fighting to restore their traditional rights to engage in ceremonies that involve burning. She is currently working on her master’s degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon.

After hearing her speak about farmer suicides in India at the recent Social Justice, Real Justice conference, I wanted to talk to her about the work she is engaged in, and about our situation more generally. We had a colorful talk at an outdoor table on the University of Oregon campus.

Owen Lloyd: What have you been working on here at the University of Oregon?

Chithira Vijayakumar: There are two things that are very close to my heart right now, and they sort of feed into each other. The first is theatre, as part of a group called Rehearsals for Life, which runs out of CoDaC [Center on Diversity and Community] on campus. It is centred on how to talk about things like race, class, sexuality and gender – things that are difficult to talk about in academia. How can we address these things in classroom settings? How can we train faculty members and staff in how to deal better with these issues? How do we prepare people to intervene in difficult situations?

The other part of my involvement here has been with indigenous resistance. Both in and around Eugene, and with the Karuk tribe in northern California, with whom I’m working on a collaborative thesis.

OL: Let’s talk about your theatre work. How does this approach help people to intervene?

Our performances don’t include long plays or have elaborate scenes – our format is to share personal stories that we’ve experienced in our lives. They are very short – about a minute each – and include different forms of oppression, based on your identity, on your race and so on; and we play them out again and again and again, until somebody in the audience can’t take it anymore and yells “Stop!” Then, we invite them up on stage and ask them if they would like to intervene, to try and change the situation.

All of us encounter these conversations in our daily lives, and there are a lot of factors that make speaking up very difficult. It might be our loved ones who are saying offensive things, it might be our friends, or it might be ourselves! We also want to reiterate that there is no one right way to intervene, and no one right way to stand up against different kinds of oppression.

OL: So you learn about what interventions work and what doesn’t work, and what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate.

CV: Yes. What’s appropriate in one circumstance might never be in another. What we try and do is to give people a chance to practice intervening, in a safe setting. For instance, say your professor just said something ridiculously offensive about rape culture, in class – how would you react? They are an authority figure, and you know that your grades depend on them. How do you balance your need to speak up, with the power dynamics involved? Our workshops give people a chance to practice.

OL: That sounds like a fantastic project! I’d like to move on now to your work with the Karuk. What has the purpose of this been?

CV: I’ve been working on a collaborative thesis through decolonized research methods with the Karuk, on their spiritual practices around fire, and seeing how that impacts the way they interact with the environment. They’re working on trying to regain their burning and ceremonial rights, and restore a certain balance to the world and the ecosystem.

OL: What are some of the impacts from the burning restrictions in place?

Fire is very important to the Karuk for spiritual reasons, and it is deeply connected with the health of the people and the land. Since burning is now banned, the rivers are dying, forests are unhealthy, and biodiversity has tanked in these areas. And when fires do happen – which they will, because there’s so much fuel accumulating on the forests’ floors – they’re huge and near impossible to control. The Tribe has knowledge and traditional practices that can begin to set a lot of this right. And it would help save the billions of dollars that are currently being pumped into fire suppression.

OL: How does the concept of conservation, the idea that places need to be “protected from humans” play into this?

The Euro-American construction of wilderness states that you can build a wall around certain lands, and say “here‘s a natural park” or “here’s a sanctuary”, and then limit access only to people who can afford the leisure time and expenses involved in seeing ‘nature’. It’s a very insular idea about what ‘nature’ looks like, and about what it includes. It never includes people. And that’s the whole problem.

This capitalist construction of wilderness as a commodity has become the accepted model for the mainstream environmental movement as well. This is a very, very specific cultural idea of the environment, and it excludes the very same people who have been disenfranchised by capitalism the world over.

The mainstream environmental movement is now recreating the very same structures of oppression that it claims to be against.

Think of the way we have been increasingly individualizing solutions: “If you carry a cloth bag to the store, if you bike everywhere, if you buy organic, or if you buy the right light bulb, it’ll be fine. You don’t need to feel guilty anymore. That’s how we’ll solve this.” No we won’t! For instance, this ‘environmentally conscious’ organic food was still grown by an underpaid and exploited farmworker, most likely a person of color, probably deemed an “illegal alien” by the law, who could barely afford enough food to hold body and soul together, let alone buy organic food.

The environment’s not out there somewhere, it’s not something we can or should protect and preserve within boundaries. This is it. We are it.

OL: I’m sure you know M. Kat Anderson’s book Tending the Wild. One thing she wrote is that when she asked indigenous people in California why plants and animals were disappearing, she said it was because we weren’t interacting with them. Usually we think the problem is that we’re interacting too much, but it seems the problem is that we’re interacting in a bad way, in a dominating sort of way.

CV: Exactly. The conversations we have about the environment are more about control, than acknowledging that we’re a part of it. We’ve been asking how we can adapt the environment to suit our needs. That’s not going to work. And the impacts from our centuries of attempting to do so have been accumulating. It’s not something we can get away with.

OL: Let’s talk about the roots of your activism. What radicalized you? Or did you ever feel that you were radicalized?

CV: I was born and raised in Kerala, a coastal state in South India. It was the first state in the world to have a democratically elected communist government in power. Even though things have been changing, it is a State with a deep and strong leftist history.

I was lucky to have been born into a family that is very active in left politics, social justice issues and organizing. To be honest, I don’t know if I realized many of the social advantages and benefits that I was growing up with, until I started travelling on my own to other parts of the country to study, write and work. And that’s when I began to understand the work people in my family and in other communities had been doing, all of the things they had sacrificed for larger goals.

OL: When you saw some of your relative privilege growing up in Kerala.

CV: Absolutely. And it wasn’t material privilege in any sense at all, but in what it meant to have grown up in a State that has a history of land reform policies, and a region that resisted neoliberalism and globalization in a way that only a strong leftist State could have. That was an important realization.

OL: I wanted to read a quote from Arundhati Roy. She said, “I think of globalization like a light which shines brighter and brighter on a few people and the rest are in darkness, wiped out. They simply can’t be seen. Once you get used to not seeing something, then, slowly, it’s no longer possible to see it.” What do we do to make it so we can see again?

CV: To see again, I think we have to first ‘unsee’. So much of our lives are built around denial: denial of racism, of sexism, of privilege and so on. Billions of dollars are pumped into constructing this mainstream popular imagination of what the world looks like, or what the word globalization means.

The first step would be to get past that denial. It won’t be pretty. And it won’t come just through awareness campaigns or pamphleteering. It will be a harsh and brutal process, and I think it necessarily needs to be, because there are many centuries of oppression, pain, and injustices that have to be accounted for, and the process cannot be made painless. Arundhati Roy has another quote which says “If there’s only despair, the reasons to fight are even greater.” When things seem completely hopeless – in the face of climate change, for instance – that’s when the reasons to fight are the greatest.

OL: Derrick Jensen has said something similar, that “the good thing about everything being so fucked up is that no matter where you look, there is great work to be done.”

CV: (laughing) Yeah! Pick anything! We’re spoiled for choice in terms of things that need work!

OL: Another thing, I think, is that although it is hard to start acknowledging things, but once you can start to heal. It’s so painful, but when we start to resist then we can start to heal.

CV: Absolutely. We can continue this process of everyday denials, and say “Everything’s fine, I’ve got everything I need”, and just keep going. But I think at the end of the day, many of us do realize that denial is hard work too. Being silent in the face of all of this begins to be impossible at some point.

OL: Even CNN recently acknowledged that the oceans are on the verge of collapse. Even CNN is talking about it. And you know if CNN is talking about it, things are really, really bad. CNN is not going to talk about it unless they have to talk about it.

CV: Yes! The other day, I was reading about some new technology that’s been developed that can go around the oceans, and trap the massive, massive islands of trash and plastic we’ve created, and clean them up. And people are like, “Yeah! See, technology can fix everything!” Really? Where do you think the plastic is going to go after that? It’s going to be shipped to countries in Africa, or to China, or India. And if it’s within the U.S., it’s going to go to Native American reservations, or be dumped in poor-income and minority communities. The mainstream environment movement says “Look, we can clean it up!” But we need to ask, where’s it going to go? And what happens if you acknowledge where it goes?

OL: It’s going to go wherever the people with the most privilege are least aware of it. If it was all going to be dumped on the most privileged communities, if it was going to be dumped on Eugene, then how could people stay in denial?

CV: Exactly. The path of least resistance.

OL: I’m thinking of the Cerrell Report in California, which was a government report telling corporations how, if you’re trying to put up a new incinerator or something, then look for communities that are rural, poorly educated, Catholic, and so on, describing a poor black or Latino community without using racial terms. Because these are the people who are least able to resist effectively.

CV: One of the first environmental justice studies was conducted in 1983, by the U.S. Congress’s General Accounting Office, and it found three out of four hazardous waste landfills in the country were located in predominantly poor black communities.

When I found out that environmental justice as a field of study has been around only for about twenty years, I was shocked. And then I felt a wave of anger! Communities have been suffering environmental racism for centuries. And it’s been twenty years since western academia acknowledged it? How much invisibility is around these issues? What structures are keeping this ignorance in place? How do they recreate this ‘absence’ on a daly basis? Absence is a very important thing to recreate in capitalism, the absence of discourse.

OL: I first heard you speak at the Social Justice, Real Justice conference on the issue of neoliberalism and farmer suicides in India. Today I was reading an essay by Vandana Shiva, and she wrote that 95% of cotton seeds used in India comes from Monsanto. What is resistance looking like right now in India?

CV: Before Monsanto brought in their genetically-modified cotton, while a lot of farmers were still poor, they were growing food crops. That meant that at the very least, they could avoid starvation. Even if their crops failed, even if the rains didn’t come, they probably had enough to feed their family, their children. But you cannot eat cotton. This has had huge, huge implications for a population in which about 80% live under the poverty line.

When we talk about resistance, we need to re-conceptualise what it means. There’s the middle-class idea of what resistance looks like: rallies, marches, and so on. Which is important. But to me, just the fact that these farmers are surviving is resistance. They don’t own the seeds, they don’t own the water since most water sources have been privatized. They don’t own the land, in most cases. They have absolutely no financial support. They take out loans, which they have no way of repaying. Which is why so many end up committing suicide. They’re basically trapped in a net made up of the worst excesses of capitalism. A net that isn’t designed for anyone to escape from.

Internationally, the subsidies offered to farmers in countries like the U.S. or France allow them to produce food for less than nothing, and flood the markets in countries like India. So even if these local farmers have something to sell, there’s no way they can compete with the prices of mass-produced, mechanised farm produce.

There are instances of farmers standing up to fight against their land being taken away; farmers who are saving their seeds in seed banks; farmers returning to traditional farming methods that have been forcefully eroded over the last 20 or 30 years; farmers giving up pesticides. And there are amazing stories. But I think simply the fact that they are still there—that seems to me the most significant form of resistance.

OL: Are there ways that those of us with more privilege can support farmers in that situation?

CV: If we’re talking about people here, before thinking about starting movements in other parts of the world, we need to acknowledge the struggles of indigenous peoples happening here. If we don’t start from there, our work will just play further into the same colonial tropes of denial and distancing, to “save the poor people in the Third World.”

If we want to build decolonized activism, decolonized community work, it will have to start right where we are standing. And I think that’s one of the hardest things to own up to.

Ask – what are the violences that have led me to be here? Whose bones are we standing on, and why? What can I do about that?

Then we can build real support, and real solidarity.

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