New Internationalist

Interview with Vandana Shiva

April 2008

Environmentalist extraordinaire

Photo by psychosteria
Photo by psychosteria

‘The land where Gandhi spun for freedom has turned into a suicide belt,’ says Vandana Shiva, her eyes flashing. ‘Globalization does not work for everyone.’

In the past decade, 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in India, and – according to the celebrated environmental thinker and activist – this is a direct result of agricultural modernization, including the introduction of genetically modified crops.

‘Corporate seeds aren’t about increasing productivity – they are about increasing debt.’ she says. ‘When moneylenders come to repossess the land the farmer cannot bear it, and consumes pesticides to end his life.’

Because transnational corporations engineer their seeds not to reproduce, farmers are forced to buy them anew every year. Shiva insists that there is little choice about whether to adopt these seeds as corporations work with governments to ban traditional seed varieties through new licensing agreements and compulsory registration systems.

Vandana Shiva, a small woman with a powerful voice, set up the Navdanya movement to counter corporate control in 1991. ‘We started with seed distribution, training farmers to go organic, give up GMOs [genetically modified organisms] and give up the BT [biotech] cotton seed of Monsanto which is at the heart of the problem,’ she says. Since its establishment, Navdanya has worked with 300,000 farmers and is clearly Shiva’s proudest achievement. ‘We have created an alternative to corporate destruction,’ she smiles.

Shiva’s work may be locally focused but it has global significance. Despite scientists’ warnings about the dangers of monoculture, world agricultrual production is mainly dependent on just eight crops. By saving seeds, Navdanya has countered this trend, creating a ‘biodiversity bank’ that can be drawn upon in emergencies. ‘Ecological multiples are insurance,’ says Shiva. ‘In any crisis, uniformity is the worst way to respond; diversity is resilience.’

This point was tangibly illustrated after the 2004 tsunami. In the wake of the destruction, scientists said that local farming would have to be put on hold for five years because too much salt had been washed into the soil. But, drawing on its seed bank, Navdanya was able to provide salt-resistant seed to affected farmers, enabling them to continue production.

‘Saving these seeds means saving the farmers now and, in the context of climate change, saving the future,’ she says.

Shiva does not believe that monopolistic corporations can safeguard biodiversity. ‘The issues of poverty and ecology were always the same for me,’ she explains. ‘Rebuilding nature means rebuilding people – and if we want sustainability then the resources of the Earth will have to stay in the hands of the people.’

Shiva does not just oppose monoculture in the fields. Taking her activism further up the food chain, she has also been working in cities to oppose monopolies in the commercial distribution of food.

At present, India’s hawkers, street vendors and small shopkeepers make up about 100 million of the country’s population in a dense and complex commercial system. But the rising supermarket trade, attracted by India’s nine-per-cent growth rate and burgeoning middle class, has threatened the livelihoods of these vendors. After Barney stores came to Delhi Shiva helped conduct a study of small-scale food-sellers nearby; many had lost 60-70 per cent of their sales.

To counter this trend, Shiva helped build the Movement for Retail Democracy, which mounted a 5,000-strong demonstration in Delhi against Wal-Mart last year. Farmers stood beside retailers in a protest that transcended India’s traditional class and rural-urban divides. Since the movement started, six Indian states have committed to keep corporates out of retail.

‘The hawkers got together and defeated the giants,’ says Shiva, ‘and we will continue to build this movement until the beauty, diversity and vibrancy of our bazaars is defended.’

Vandana Shiva’s work questions the definition of progress. While the rest of the world heralds India’s growth as an economic miracle, she argues that the boom is fictitious, hiding the real costs of pollution, rising inequality and broken livelihoods. ‘On the ground the situation hasn’t been as bad as this since Independence. India is now home to a third of the hungry kids in the world – and under the triple impact of globalization, climate change and the diversion of food and land to biofuels, food prices are shooting up, so we’re going to see hunger becoming a major issue.’

Yet Shiva remains positive about the potential for change. ‘The big transformations always seem to move in the direction of destruction. But if you look at the small actions, the hundreds of people saying “I will speak against human rights violations, I will be part of the voice”; at the thousands of farmers who work with us who have created an alternative agriculture in spite of the dominant policy: that’s where change is happening, and that change will continue to grow.’

Vandana Shiva was talking at the ‘Jeevika Lecture: Living Economy, Living Democracy’, hosted by Jeevika Trust. For a transcript of the Lecture and more information about Jeevika Trust and the work it does in rural India, please visit>.

Vandana Shiva talked with Rowenna Davis

This column was published in the April 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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