The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the core calving area of the Porcupine River caribou herd. It is also the most debated public land in the United States history – whether to open up this land to oil and gas development or to preserve it has been raging in the halls of the United States Congress for over thirty years. This caribou herd has symbolized the Arctic Refuge – both for its ecological and cultural significance. Individual caribou from this herd may travel more than three thousand miles during their yearly movements, making it one of the longest terrestrial migrations of any land animal on the planet. Numerous indigenous communities living within the range of the herd have depended on the caribou for subsistence food. The Gwich’in people of Alaska, and the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada, live on or near the migratory route of this herd, have relied upon the caribou for many millennia to meet their subsistence as well as cultural and spiritual needs. The Gwich’in are caribou people. They call the calving ground of the caribou “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). To open up the caribou calving ground to oil and gas development is a human-rights issue for the Gwich’in Nation. In addition to the perceived threat of oil development in their calving ground, this caribou herd has been severely impacted by climate change in recent years. International scientific community has stated that climate change has impacted this herd more than most of the other large caribou herds across the circumpolar Arctic. Their numbers has declined steadily at a 3.5% per year since 1989 from 178,000 animals to a low of 123,000 in 2001. Warmer, wetter autumn resulting in more frequent icing conditions; warmer, wetter winter resulting in deeper and denser snow; and warmer spring resulting in more freeze-thaw days and faster spring melt are among the key negative climate change impacts on the caribou and their habitat. In the photograph pregnant females are migrating over Coleen River on the south side of the Brooks Range Mountain on their way to the coastal plain for calving.
Subhankar Banerjee is an Indian born American photographer, writer, educator and activist. Over the past decade he has been a leading international voice on issues of arctic conservation, indigenous human rights, resource development and climate change. More recently he has also been focusing on global forest deaths from climate change. His photographs, writing and lectures have reached millions of people around the world.
Subhankar was born in 1967 in Berhampore, a small town near Kolkata, India. His early experiences in his parents’ tropical home in rural Bengal fostered his life long interest in the value of land and it’s resources. Early in his childhood his parents introduced him to the work of their friend—renowned writer and activist MAHASWETA DEVI, whose work and life continues to inspire him immensely. During his childhood, in the cinemas of the small towns where he grew up, he also came to know the work of brilliant Bengali filmmakers including, SATYAJIT RAY, MRINAL SEN, and RITWIK GHATAK. He loved cinema and found their visual explorations of everyday life and larger social issues immensely inspiring. His great uncle Bimal Mookerjee, a painter, taught him how to paint. He created portraits and detailed rural scenes, but knew from growing up in a middle–income family that it would be nearly impossible for him to pursue a career in the arts. He chose instead the practical path of studying engineering in India and later earned two masters degrees in physics and computer science at New Mexico State University in the US.
In the New Mexican Desert, he fell in love with the open spaces of the American West. He hiked and backpacked frequently in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, and bought a 35mm camera with which he began taking photographs. After finishing his graduate study, he moved to Seattle, Washington to take up a research job in the sciences. In the Pacific Northwest, his commitment to photography grew, and he photographed extensively during many outdoor trips in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, California, New Hampshire, Vermont, Florida, British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba. In 2000, he left his scientific career behind and began a long–term photography project in the American Arctic.