The NI Interview
Sue Wheat talks to one of the South’s leading environmental activists
about ‘creative non-cooperation’.
Vandana Shiva sits primly in her emerald-green sari, a stack of papers balanced precariously on one knee. She exudes the quiet self-assurance of a confident scholar – not surprising, given her training as a nuclear physicist. In recent years, though, her focus has shifted light years away from the world of quarks and protons. Today she is one of the South’s best-known environmentalists.
And it’s here where her scientific background comes in handy. She argues with clarity and commitment – defending her views with an array of well-marshalled statistics and examples. Ms Shiva believes that Western society is mesmerized by a dangerous and pervasive myth: the belief that economic growth and the power of technology will inevitably combine to relieve mass poverty.
‘Everything we have been taught in contemporary times is that monocultures are necessary, to increase both production and growth. But this kind of thinking is really one-dimensional. It negates our true human and ecological state, which is diversity. And we destroy this at our peril. Let me give you some examples.
‘The “Green Revolution” was supposed to bring Western technology to the aid of Third World farmers. But instead of wealth the new high-yielding seeds brought poverty and environmental destruction. These capital-intensive technologies also led to an economic monoculture. Institutions like the World Bank loaned money around the world to every developing country to do the same thing.
‘But uniformity is not nature’s way; diversity is nature’s way,’ she explains. Soon, she adds, there was a backlash. ‘When Third World farmers began to grow single crops, plants that for centuries had provided communities with essential vitamins were suddenly declared “weeds” and doused with pesticides. In some villages in India blindness increased severely because the so-called “weeds” had been the community’s only source of Vitamin A... Genetic changes to shorten the height of grain and increase yield led to a scarcity of straw; that meant less humus, depleted soils and eventually fewer grazing animals.’
The end result of all this was not more but less food. Reducing domestic financial support for farmers will only make it easier for multinational corporations to tighten their grip on global markets.
‘Open-door policies,’ she says, ‘will remove all restrictions on imports and exports, inevitably converting Third World’s subsistence food production into a market for big business.’ It’s not surprising that peasant movements worldwide oppose these kinds of open markets. ‘For them, maintaining diversity is a matter of survival. There will be no Indian culture if there are no Indian farmers to regenerate and continue that culture.’
Diversity, she insists, cannot be maintained by foreign corporations whose main aim is optimum yield from one product in order to gain maximum profit. The names of the six corporations that control the global grain trade roll off her tongue: Cargill, Continental Grain, Louis Dreyfus, Bunge, Andre and Mitsui Cook. These companies market the high-yielding seeds that are the heart of the ‘Green Revolution’.
Ms Shiva argues that these new seeds are not all they’re made out to be. ‘In India I’ve discovered that farmers can grow more grain and lose money. In the group of farmers I worked with those planting their own seeds earned 3,000 rupees a year. Others planting Cargill’s “new improved” hybrid seed netted only 297 rupees after the harvest because most of their earnings were used to pay for inputs like fertilizer and pesticides.’
Relaxed rules on biotechnology will allow companies to genetically engineer, patent and sell new organisms without having to account for their long-term effects on health or the environment. ‘The hazards of biotechnology will not be like the hazards of the chemical industry,’ Ms Shiva warns.
Such threats cannot be treated casually. ‘Whether it’s in the technological or economic domain, we are constantly being tricked into seeing growth where there is actually the production of scarcity. We have become totally numb to what disappears. By flattening the world to economic values we devalue ourselves. We assume there is only one economy – the market place. We forget that people have their own economies – taking care of themselves. Biodiversity is related to cultural diversity because cultures are also systems that renew – systems of value, of perception and of lifestyle. Human beings need a social economy that exchanges things other than money and that produces for reasons other than profits.’
She is working with Indian farmers to re-build seed banks in the hope of strengthening biodiversity. And to pursue sustainable farming techniques without expensive inputs from the agro-chemical companies. But if push comes to shove she argues that creative non-cooperation – ‘creating conditions for survival while rejecting an imposed system of authoritarianism’ – is the only way forward.
It may seem an impossible task to change such a powerful global system. But Ms Shiva is undaunted. ‘It’s not the first time we have tried to change a global system. Fifty years ago people were doing it all over the world and they succeeded. That time the political system was the colonial empires of Europe. When small steps are taken by large numbers of people momentous things can happen.’
Vandana Shiva is Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource in Dehradun, India.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995