Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva is a burst of creative energy and intellectual power. Born in India in 1952, she is one of the Third World’s most eloquent and passionate voices on the environment, women’s rights, and sustainable development. She directs the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology in New Delhi. In 1993 she received the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the alternative Nobel Prize.

A trained physicist, she did her Ph.D. on the foundations of quantum theory. She gave up her academic career to be an activist. Solving social problems “is as challenging as solving an elementary particle-physics equation,” she told me. “And it’s more fulfilling. It’s more satisfying. I’ll do physics again when I’m sixty years old and can’t run around like I do.”

Vandana Shiva has supported grassroots organizations in India and around the world in their struggles against clearcutting of forests, large-scale dams, the industrialization of aquaculture, and the invasion of multinational agribusiness. One of the first she was involved with was the Chipko movement, a group of women who were defending their forests with acts of civil disobedience. Her recent work in India has focused on the protection of farmers’ rights to their own seed stock.

She is a determined foe of globalization, which she sees as the latest phase of the North’s ongoing quest to subjugate the South.

Vandana Shiva is a contributing editor to Third World Resurgence, a leading journal of opinion from Malaysia. Among her many books are Staying Alive and Monocultures of the Mind. Her new book, published by South End Press, is Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. I talked with her first in Boulder in April and then again in Denver in June during the Other Economic Summit, where she was a featured speaker.

Q: How did you become an activist?

Vandana Shiva: My personal background is actually very unusual for the kind of career I chose. I didn’t meet anyone who had ever done physics in my life. I grew up in the Himalayan forests. My father was a forest conservator, which meant that if I wasn’t in school I was in the forests with him. That has been very largely responsible for my ecological inclinations.

One particular spark was when I went back to my favorite spot in the mountains where my father always used to take us before my graduate studies in Canada and finding that the stream I had gone swimming in wasn’t there. The forest had been converted into an apple orchard with World Bank financing. The entire place, literally, had changed.

A second trigger for me was when I did a study on social forestry. It turned out that the World Bank was basically financing the conversion of food-growing land to timber-growing, pulp-growing land with huge subsidies. That study created a whole movement. The peasants and farmers reacted. They started to uproot eucalyptus. It created a major discussion of industrial forestry, and it was the first major challenge to a World Bank project in India. This was way back in 1981.

The director of the institute where I was working apologized about these young, enthusiastic researchers when the World Bank visited because he was afraid the institute would lose the World Bank consultancies. That’s the day I decided that I had to follow my mind and heart. I couldn’t be working for the bosses who were apologizing for the fact that I was following my conscience.

I went back home and started the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology—an extremely elaborate name for the tiny institute that I started in my mother’s cow shed. My parents handed over family resources and said, “Put them to public purpose.” That’s how I survived.

Q: How did you get involved with the Chipko movement?

Shiva: The Chipko activists have always been close to my parents, since my father was among the few forestry officials who supported them within the bureaucracy. And I was involved with the Chipko movement in my student days. The Chipko movement started up in Alakananda Valley, which is in the Himalayan foothills. The women were protesting against logging, which was destroying their fuel and fodder base, and making their springs disappear. They were walking longer distances to collect water. It was creating a very direct threat to their lives because landslides were occurring and floods were increasing. In the 1970s these women would go out in the hundreds and thousands and say, “You will have to chop us up before you chop this tree.” These actions spread village to village.

In 1978 we had a huge flood. An entire mountain slipped into the Ganges River, formed a four-mile-long lake, and when that lake burst, we had a flood in the Gangetic basin all the way down to Calcutta, where homes were under one or two feet of water. It became quite clear that these were not illiterate village women just acting out of stupidity—which is what it was made to look like in the early days. Delhi, the central government, realized that what the women were saying had something to it. We got a logging ban in the mountains as a result of that.

Q: You write that the Chipko movement flew in the face of the traditional paradigm of a charismatic leader.

Shiva: Absolutely. It was ordinary women who created this ingenious strategy and said, “We’ll block the logging by embracing the trees.” And the message spread from village to village, literally by word of mouth. There was no organized external leadership doing this. People like me came in to support the movement long after it had been given its articulation by the women.

A particular incident stands out very clearly in my mind. The government realized that the women were getting too strong. Their slogan was, “Why all these profits to these contractors and timber merchants?” The officials thought what they would do was put in place logging cooperatives made of local men. Then the government would get the revenue. They said, “We’ll cooperatize this sector. We’ll make it into a state sector. We won’t have private contractors.” They sent out the logging teams. In a particular village the logging unit was being headed by the chief of the village, and the protest against logging was headed by his wife, Bachni Devi. It was a tremendous conflict. The women were saying, “To us, it’s the destruction of our forests. It doesn’t matter who holds the axe. We want these trees to live.”

Q: You wrote a book in the late 1980s with the German sociologist Maria Mies called Ecofeminism. Do you still use that term?

Shiva: Ecofeminism is a good term for distinguishing a feminism that is ecological from the kind of feminisms that have become extremely technocratic. I would even call them very patriarchal.

I saw some women had written that the cloning of Dolly was wonderful since it showed that women could have children without men. They didn’t even understand that this was the ultimate ownership of women—of embryos, of eggs, of bodies—by a few men with capital and control techniques, that it wasn’t freedom from men but total control by men.

Q: One of the things you talk about is stri shakti, women’s power. What’s that about?

Shiva: It’s about the power that women of Chipko have. It’s the power the women of the Narmada Valley have when they stand there and say, “Narmada mata is our mother. We will not let you either dam her or displace us.” It’s the shakti in the women who are blocking the industrial shrimp farms on the coasts of India. That amazing power of being able to stand with total courage in the face of total power and not be afraid. That is stri shakti.

Q: Tell me about your mother.

Shiva: My mother was a tremendous woman. I was just cleaning up old trunks and I found a book with her notes written during the war years, in the 1940s. She was studying in Lahore, which became Pakistan. She was writing about how women alone could bring peace to the world, that the men with all their greed and egos were creating all these tensions and violence. I always knew she was a feminist, ahead of her time. She brought us up that way, to the extent that we never felt that we had to hold ourselves back because we were girls. She didn’t put pressure on us because she had spent her life removing that pressure from herself. In her day she was highly educated. She was among the few women in her community who became a graduate. She was an inspector of schools in the education department.

When partition took place in 1977, she came to India and decided to leave a highly privileged career and become a farmer. She spent some time doing politics on the side to build a new India. By the 1960s she had reached saturation with politics and did a lot of writing on spirituality in nature. She has always been a major influence for me in never feeling second rate because you’re born a woman, never feeling afraid of any circumstance in life. I never saw her afraid, and yet, with all that, she was so deeply compassionate. She taught that if anyone needs you, you should be available to them.

Q: You often invoke Mahatma Gandhi. Why is he so important to you?

Shiva: I have a deep connection with him, partly because my mother was a very, very staunch Gandhian and brought us up that way. When I was six years old, and all the girls were getting nylon dresses, I was very keen to get a nylon frock for my birthday. My mother said, “I can get it for you, but would you rather—through how you live and what you wear and what you eat—ensure that food goes into the hands of the weaver or ensure that profits go into the bank of an industrialist?” That became such a checkstone for everything in life. We used to always wear khadi [handspun or handwoven cloth] as children. The fact that I still find so much beauty in a handicraft is because my mother taught us to see not just the craft as a product but the craft as an embodiment of human creativity and human labor.

My links with Gandhi now are very political links because I do not believe there is any other politics available to us in the late twentieth century, a period of a totalitarianism linked with the market. There is really no other way you can do politics and create freedom for people without the kinds of instruments he revived. Civil disobedience is a way to create permanent democracy, perennial democracy, a direct democracy.

And Gandhi’s idea of swadeshi—that local societies should put their own resources and capacities to use to meet their needs as a basic element of freedom—is becoming increasingly relevant. We cannot afford to forget that we need self-rule, especially in this world of globalization.

Q: You write a lot about biodiversity. What do you mean by that?

Shiva: It’s basically the diversity of all life forms around us: the plants, the animals, the microorganisms, both the cultivated and the wild. We have a very old conservation movement, particularly in the United States, which has focused on campaigns to protect endangered species: the spotted owl, the old-growth forest. But usually it stops there. To me, biodiversity is the full spectrum. Species conservation is not only about wilderness conservation. It’s also about protecting the livelihood of people even while changing the dominant relationship that humans have had with other species. In India, it’s an economic issue, not just an ecological one.

Q: How is globalization affecting India?

Shiva: American firms are beginning to reproduce nonsustainable systems, to force the elite of India to become energy consumers of the kind that the U.S. has become. That’s what globalization is about: Find markets where you can. If China has markets, rush there. If India is an emerging economy with millions of new consumers, sell them the Volvo. Sell them the Cielo car. Sell them whatever you can, hamburgers and KFCs. It’s the middle classes who have moved into being able to own a car, a refrigerator. For them there is this mantra that the General Electric refrigerator is better than some other model, that the Cielo car is fancier than the Ambassador.

Because of these new car models there is suddenly on the streets of Delhi a new intolerance by the motorists for both the cows and the cyclists. So for the first time the sacred cow in India, which used to be such a wonderful speed-breaker, is now seen as a nuisance. For the first time, I’ve seen cows being hit and hurt. These guys just go right past, and if the cow is sitting on the road, they don’t care. We can’t afford to have a sacred car rather than a sacred cow.

The other thing they’re working very hard at doing is to try and make cyclists—including all the people who do servicing and sell vegetables on every street—declared illegal because they’re getting in the way of the fast cars. It means robbing the livelihood of millions of people who are more ecological, who are helping save the climate for all of us. I hope that in the next two months I’ll be able to work with some of these cyclists and vendors who are being made illegal on the streets of Delhi.

Q: The United States, with 3 to 4 percent of the population, consumes upwards of 40 percent of the world’s resources. Why is no one talking about restructuring the economic system, the patterns of consumption?

Shiva: Amory Lovins has said that the only reason Americans look efficient is that each has 300 energy slaves. Those 300 energy slaves will now be reproduced among the elite of India.

The poorest of families, the poorest of children, are subsidizing the growth of the largest agribusinesses in the world. I think it’s time we recognized that in free trade the poor farmer, the small farmer, is ending up having to pay royalties to the Monsantos of the world. It’s not that Monsanto is making money out of the blue. It’s making money by coercing and literally forcing people to pay for what was free. Take water, for instance. Water has always been free. We’ve never paid for drinking water. The World Bank says the reason water has been misused is because it was never commercially priced. But the reason it’s been misused is because it was wasted by the big users—industry, which polluted it.

Today you have a situation where now the prescription is: People who don’t have enough money to buy food should end up paying for their drinking water. That is going to be the kind of situation in which you will get more child labor. You will get more exploitation of women. You’re going to get an absolutely exploitative economy as the very basis of living becomes a source of capital accumulation and corporate growth. In fact, the chief of Coca-Cola in India said: “Our biggest market in India comes from the fact that there is no drinking water left. People will have to buy Coca-Cola.” Something is very, very wrong when people don’t have access to drinking water, and Coke creates its market out of that scarcity.

Everything has been privatized: seeds, medicinal plants, water, land. All the land reforms of India are being undone by the trade liberalization. I call this the “anti-reform reform.”

Q: You mentioned Monsanto, a major U.S.-based multinational corporation. You write that “the soya bean and cotton are now Monsanto monopolies.” How did that happen?

Shiva: If you read Wall Street’s reports, they don’t talk of soya bean as originating in China. They don’t talk of soya bean as soya bean. They talk of Monsanto soya. Monsanto soya is protected by a patent. It has a patent number. It is therefore treated as a creation of Monsanto, a product of Monsanto’s intelligence and innovation.

Monsanto makes farmers sign a contract for Roundup Ready soya because the soya bean has been genetically engineered to tolerate high doses of herbicide, which means that it will allow increased use of Roundup by farmers. It’s projected to reduce chemical use, but it will increase Roundup use. The reason Monsanto’s done this is because the patent on Roundup runs out in a few years, and it’s their biggest selling commodity. They sell $1 billion a year of Roundup, the herbicide. The contract with farmers forces farmers to use only Roundup. They cannot use any other chemical. Monsanto can come and investigate the farms three years after planting to see if farmers have saved the seed. Saving the seed—having even one seed in your home—is treated as a crime in which you are infringing on Monsanto’s property.

The kind of capitalism we are seeing today under this expansion of property into living resources is a whole, new, different phase of capitalism. It is totally inconsistent with democracy as well as with sustainability. What we have is capital working on a global scale, totally uprooted, with accountability nowhere, with responsibility nowhere, and with rights everywhere. This new capital, with absolute freedom and no accountability, is structurally anti-life, anti-freedom.

Q: A majority in the United States opposed NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and GATT [the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade]. But this didn’t stop those agreements. Why do you think that is?

Shiva: That’s the most significant crisis in the world today. We have reached a stage where governments and political processes have been hijacked by the corporate world. Corporations can within five hours influence the vote in the U.S. Congress. They can influence the entire voting patterns of the Indian Parliament. Ordinary people who put governments in power might want to go in a different direction. I call this the phenomenon of the inverted state, where the state is no longer accountable to the people. The state only serves the interests of corporations.

Governments have a favorite phrase: “lean and mean.” But they’ve been made very, very fat for corporate interests. Look at the way your Patent Office is increasing in size. It’s an arm of government. It’s not getting thin. But to create the protection for the corporations, government is actually growing bigger than ever before, in every part of the world. Yet it’s growing extremely thin as a protector of people.

GATT today is in my view the counterpart of the Papal Bull [the 1493 edict that legitimized European conquest of the world]. Renato Ruggiero, who is the director general of the World Trade Organization that came out of GATT, basically said that GATT is the world constitution. It’s interesting that the people were not involved in writing this constitution. Do you want a world constitution whose only yardstick and measure is freeing up capital and commerce from any limits, whether it is social responsibility, the rights of workers, or restrictions on either exploitation of resources or dumping of toxins? And the free-trade treaty that we have is a treaty for the annihilation of life on this planet if we don’t very, very quickly change the terms of politics and economics in the world.

Q: The slogan, “Think globally, act locally,” isn’t enough for you. Why?

Shiva: For me, both thinking and acting have to be local and national and global all the time. That’s why I travel across oceans, miss flights, and sit at airports—for the simple reason that I believe the only way globalization can be tamed is by a new internationalism which recovers the local and recovers the national.

Q: It looks like you have a lot of fun, even though you carry on an exhausting schedule.

Shiva: I do have fun. Even when I’m fighting I’m enjoying it, for two reasons: I think there’s nothing as exhilarating as protecting that which you find precious. To me, fighting for people’s rights, protecting nature, protecting diversity, is a constant reminder of that which is so valuable in life. That is recharging. But frankly, I also absolutely get thrills from taking on these big guys and recognizing how, behind all their power, they are so empty. I just keep going at it. Each of these balloons does deflate. I’ve seen a lot of balloons get deflated in my life.



David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio out of Boulder, Colorado. He interviewed Howard Zinn in the July issue.