This Doctor Is Working to Build Resilience and Land Justice for Communities of Color

Rupa Marya discusses land rematriation, a new Indigenous-led farm, and the long-term effects of colonization on food and medicine in vulnerable communities.

Dr. Rupa Marya. (Photo credit: Jennifer Graham)

Dr. Rupa Marya. (Photo credit: Jennifer Graham)

Dr. Rupa Marya has spent two decades studying how social structures predispose marginalized groups to illness. This year, Marya aims to foster healing in vulnerable communities with a new farm, Ma Da Dil; a new nonprofit, Deep Medicine Circle; and a new book, Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice, set for publication in August.

A women of color-led organization made up of farmers, healers, activists, and artists, Deep Medicine Circle recently launched its Farming Is Medicine program on a 1-acre rooftop farm in Oakland as well as on a 38-acre Indigenous-run farm on the California coast south of San Francisco. The farmers at both locations will take an agroecological approach to growing organic food that will be distributed for free to institutions—such as the American Indian Cultural District and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation—to address food insecurity and hunger in the community. The organization links both of these socioeconomic conditions to colonization. To that end, Deep Medicine Circle will invest in farmers of color to accomplish climate, racial, health, and economic justice goals, including rematriating (or returning) land to Indigenous people, cultivating plant medicines, and supporting food liberation for oppressed groups.

Marya intends for the farm to be a source of healing that confronts the displacement and decimation of Indigenous people. Food, she asserts, can serve as medicine by restoring physical health and vitality and by addressing the historical injustices that have occurred on the land.

In her forthcoming book, coauthored by economist (and Civil Eats advisory board member) Raj Patel, Marya draws a link between systemic inequality, multigenerational trauma, inflammation, and the immune system. A holistic approach to health not only considers a community’s access to food and medical care, she says, but also these underlying factors. The daughter of Punjabi immigrants with Jatt Sikh “farmer-warrior” ancestors, Marya grew up in a household that embraced both Western medicine and traditional Indian medicine.

The farm’s name—Ma Da Dil—is Punjabi for “mother’s heart,” a reference to the earth mother and a way to connect the circle’s efforts to the current farmer revolution in India. “This is about billions of people around the world fighting for control of our material reality,” Marya said. “And in capitalism, which almost the whole world is suffering from, the people who are working the land do not have control of their material reality as they should. We work in solidarity with all those people who are struggling in this way.”

Marya has long been working to decolonize food, land, and medicine. In partnership with Lakota leaders at Standing Rock, she is helping to establish the Mni Wiconi Health Clinic and Farm, an initiative that has raised $1 million, including a grant from Colin Kaepernick. She is also investigating police violence’s impact on health through a landmark research project known as The Justice Study. And through her band, Rupa & the April Fishes, she uses music to raise awareness about social justice and climate change.

Marya, A-dae Romero-Briones of the First Nations Development Institute, and author Anna Lappé will participate in a conversation and webinar about strategies to preserve and maintain Native agroecological traditions after centuries of U.S. government-backed land dispossession and cultural annihilation.

Civil Eats spoke with Marya about her land rematriation activism, the new farm, and the long-term effects of colonization on food and medicine in communities of color.

How does your medical background inform your understanding of land, climate, food, and water?

As a doctor, I think of them as health issues. How are humans supposed to survive when the water is poisoned? When it’s so hot that our seeds won’t start at the right time and the pollinators don’t come at the right time? When we’re running away from wildfires, and we’re breathing that air?

So that’s the lens with which I come to this. It’s from that understanding that we are working with the Ramaytush Ohlone people on a 38-acre rematriation project. These are the original people of the San Francisco peninsula. There are just a handful of Ramaytush people and families who are left, who have survived the genocide of their tribe, and none of them hold land in their ancestral territory. In a year’s time, we’ll have the opportunity to move this land back into their hands.

How will Deep Medicine Circle make this happen? Can you discuss the process?

We’re farming 38 acres through Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST)’s farmland initiative. They put out a proposal request for farmers, and [in October] we proposed a project to farm the land under Indigenous stewardship. That initiative gives the farmers an opportunity to buy the land that they’re stewarding at below-market rates after a year of work. So, we do have the opportunity to buy land, but we are not going to ask our Indigenous partners to lease the land this year. So, this land return is an act of historical reparations.

All of our work and energy will be put toward advancing this model of farming that fits with our Ramaytush Indigenous partners’ stated ancestral responsibilities to both care for the earth and care for the people. We created a model that we’re calling Farming Is Medicine, in which we liberate farmers and the food they make from the market economy, and we focus their work on ecological care. So, while they grow food, their principal work is to care for the soil and the water, and all that food then is going to San Francisco to the American Indian Cultural District and to the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation to be distributed through their food hubs to offer organic, agroecologically grown food to people who need it most.

As a physician, how did you come to develop your interest in agriculture and decolonizing the land?

I’m a farmer’s wife. It’s a beautiful, amazing life full of hardworking people who should be truly uplifted. When we realize the connection between soil health and human health, especially through the conversations between the microbiome, we understand that farmers are truly the original stewards of our health.

I’ve always had a very broad understanding of health and I’ve always been very interested in agroecology. Now, Benjamin [Fahrer, my husband] is designing rooftop farms on new buildings. One of them is an acre of rooftop farm in Oakland, where we are doing the urban component of the Farming Is Medicine project. We’ve secured that rooftop for a very low lease, and we’ve hired the best farmer we know in the city, Kevin Jefferson, who is a beloved member of the Black urban ag community. He will be growing all that food to give away to the food pharmacy at the pediatric clinic next door. So, all that food will go to food insecure families who come to their appointments.

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Top Leaf Farms, our farm design/build business, is also helping to design a rooftop with the Friendship House, an urban Indigenous health project in San Francisco. They’re building a five-story building, and on the roof will be food and medicine that they grow, and we’re helping to design and implement that.

And then the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation—which provides low-income, affordable housing in San Francisco that services mostly Black and brown community members—Benjamin has been designing and implementing farms on all of their new buildings, so they’ve gone whole-hog, committed to hyper-localizing their food security.

In the face of the [recent] massive wildfires, people couldn’t get the food in from Capay Valley [100 miles northeast of San Francisco], so, it’s like, “What do we have within our 20-mile radius that can increase the food security of people right here?” It is through my beloved husband and his community that I’ve gotten more deeply involved in getting these farms up and running.

Your efforts speak to a larger movement of Black and Indigenous peoples returning to farming, rematriating seeds, and working toward food sovereignty. Do you believe that we’re in a unique cultural moment right now?

We are creating a new culture of the field right now, and it’s extremely exciting. It’s healing. And I wonder, as we are working on these food liberation and land rematriation projects, what the food is going to taste like and how it will nourish people when it is grown in this way that starts with following Indigenous leadership on their own lands.

The human body stores trauma over several generations. That trauma is transmitted and held, and it shapes our health. The soil also remembers what happens here on this land. It knows that the people who are practicing their agricultural practices on the land, are not the same as the people who were tending this land for tens of thousands of years. It knows that the grizzly bear is not here, the salmon, the beaver, and the wolves have all been killed, the mountain lions have been incarcerated. It knows all those things because the soil microbiology changes, the water hydrology changes, and our cycles have completely changed in ways that are destructive to human and other life.

On the farm, there’s a half mile of creek restoration along the San Gregorio Creek, which has been listed as one of the key watersheds in which to reintroduce coho salmon. We’re working with the [Ramaytush Ohlone] tribe on the ecological restoration work that they’re leading on this site to rehabilitate the stream and bring back the salmon. They have aspirations to bring back the beavers, too.

You’ve said that colonization has directly contributed to the ecological disasters that the nation and the planet are currently experiencing.

Climate collapse is here because of the colonial architectures that were brought to these lands 600 years ago. For tens of thousands of years, the water here was drinkable, the ecologies were in balance, the land was not poisoned, hunger was not known, homelessness was not known. But since the arrival of European cosmologies through capitalism, like the privatization of property, there’s been a growth of wide disparities that predispose Black, brown, and Indigenous people to poor health outcomes, which COVID is showing glaringly in our faces. Since the arrival of that cosmology in these lands, everything has been disrupted, and now we’re being told that this fire season will be even worse than the last one.

Yes, California had its worst fire season ever last year, and experts predict that the 2021 season could top that.

During the last one, here in the Bay Area, we were surrounded on all three sides by fire. The air was unbreathable; it was at levels that were hazardous for human health for several consecutive weeks. Even in that context, thousands of people were left languishing outside, unhoused in San Francisco—with the pandemic raging and [under] toxic air, people were left outside. Why is that acceptable and normal? How have we grown accustomed to the violence of looking away, as “Tiny” Gray Garcia, who’s a formerly unhoused poet-activist, says. How have we learned to continue this violent act of looking away?

We are here today because of a very specific mindset. If we want to look at real solutions to the climate change problem, then we have to start looking at when and why it started changing in this way. With that in mind, I do believe that any move toward sanity and safety and health is going to prioritize [rematriating land to] Indigenous people and following their leadership, because we know that they are living in a culturally intact way to steward the greatest amount of the world’s biodiversity.

Indigenous people have had their cultures purposefully robbed from them through the residential boarding schools, through genocide, through cultural erasure. Our duty, as settlers on colonized stolen land, is to provide the opportunity, space, and safety for Indigenous people to reclaim their ancestral knowledge and to guide us to what sanity and health look like.

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What does a culture look like where the care of all living entities is prioritized over everything else? Where the dignity of living things is prioritized over everything else? We are not living in a culture that centers that dignity and care, and climate change is providing us with an opportunity to look deeply, diagnostically at how we got here. What is the mentality behind the practices that brought us to this moment?

You mentioned the pandemic. What role do you think that lack of access to ancestral foods has played in the comorbidities—diabetes, hypertension, and obesity—that make Indigenous peoples and African Americans more likely to suffer serious complications from COVID?

I wrote about this a lot with my coauthor Raj Patel in our book. Black and Indigenous people suffer from high rates of diabetes, not only because of the food availability offered to them, but because of the lines of power that restrict their lives to constant trauma and constant inflammation. Diabetes, we now know, is an inflammatory disease, and things that cause inflammation will make diabetes more prevalent, while mitigating inflammation will make it less prevalent.

For example, there was a study that showed that Indigenous people in Canada who had a high level of cultural continuance—they spoke their languages, they had their foods, they had their knowledge—had way lower rates of diabetes than those who didn’t  have that cultural continuance. So, what is it about culture that has a protective effect not only against diabetes but suicide, which is quite high in Indigenous groups in Canada and here too? And how can we address that without taking a pharmaceutical approach to “food as medicine,” [which tells people to] just add red peppers and stir, because it’s not that kind of recipe.

It’s about dismantling a system of oppression. Part of that is by building alternatives that can nurture and uplift us and help us reawaken our own connections to our ancestral dignity, stories, and ways of being—our ways of relating, and our sense of being integrated into the web of life. Those things are much bigger than a food choice. So, when we talk about food sovereignty, it has to be seen in a context of systemic oppression and power.

Can you paint the bigger picture for us?

When you have control of your food system, that’s where your health starts. What did the colonizers do when they came here? They got rid of the food and the medicine of the Indigenous people. They removed them from their land, which is the medicine. So, when you talk about how “the Europeans brought over diseases, and that wiped people out,” my question is, was that it? Or did they [also] remove them from the microbiota that they were surrounded by that supported their health for 30,000 years? And in that removal from that land, were their immune systems then somehow compromised, and how did that impact how they were able to fight off new exposures [to disease]?

COVID is thriving in spaces of incarceration, in spaces where people are chronically oppressed. If you’re going through that trauma, and then you add COVID, you’re going to express it as a hyperinflammatory experience. And that goes back to what Rudolf Virchow, a German physician, said in 1848. He was an amazing doctor who was really pioneering the thought about decolonization from German imperialism in Poland and Czechia and what is called Upper Silesia. Virchow believed that it wasn’t the bacteria that made people sick; it was the conditions around the body that predispose certain bodies to sickness in a certain way. The body’s response is what brings us sickness. And that is how I see the issue of food sovereignty.

If we can adjust the structures around our bodies to allow our bodies to thrive, then we will have health in a deep way. Not health in a, “I do yoga, and I meditate, and I buy the right things” [manner] but health as a possibility for everybody.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nadra Nittle

Nadra Nittle is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats. Based in Los Angeles, she was previously a reporter for The Goods by Vox and was also on staff at the former Vox Media website Racked. She has worked for newspapers affiliated with the Digital First Media and Gannett/USA Today networks and freelanced for a variety of media outlets, including The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, KCET, and About.com. Nadra has covered several issues as a reporter, such as health, education, race, pop culture, and religion. She is the author of Toni Morrison's Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature. Read more >

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  1. THEROOTMATTERS
    The entire USA needs projects similar to what the above article reveals. Looking forward to reading the upcoming book Rupa Marya and Raj Patel is co-authoring. Its content has to be of much value. My hope is that people of every shade of coloring will glean optimum value and dwell on ways to make communities inclusive of all, with like minds...
  2. These issues are so central to finding solutions for humanity and the planet. Authentic engagement and perseverance are the hallmarks of true passion and commitment to the issues and the work. Looking forward to your book Dr Rupa! I love the work you are doing and how you take the holistic and global approach to health care.

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