Vandana Shiva: Fierce Love, Fearlessness, and Joy
-By Mary Liepold
Editor In Chief
This is the second of three PeaceTimes posts on the theme of CSW56, the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication.
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“Of 80,000 edible plants used for food around the world, only about 150 are now being cultivated, and just 8 are traded globally.”
- Vandana Shiva
Dr. Vandana Shiva, the much-celebrated Indian ecofeminist, calls the war against the earth “the greatest war of all,” and diversity “our greatest security.” In her 20 books and countless articles, as in the Sidney Prize speech on her website, she traces the manifold interconnections between the growing commodification of life and the escalation of military “defense.” “Whenever we engage in consumption or production patterns which take more than we need,” she says, “we are engaging in violence.”
After earning advanced degrees in physics and the philosophy of science, Dr. Shiva came to activism in the 1970s with the Gandhian, women-led Chipko movement: the original tree-huggers. She is often described as “radical,” probably because she has a gift for plain speaking. She uses words like rape, piracy, poison, and hijacking liberally, and each use is grounded in a well-informed long view of history, science, technology, and culture. She is equally comfortable working with village farmers and heads of state. Among many other honors, she received the 2010 Sidney Peace Prize and the 2011 Calgary Peace Prize from the Consortium for Peace Studies at the University of Calgary. In 2011 Forbes named her “one of the seven most influential women in the world.”
One of her principal concerns today is the loss of biodiversity. She reports in her Sidney speech that genetic engineering of plants, the Green Revolution once touted as the end to world hunger, has succeeded in doing exactly two things it set out to do. It bred plant strains resistant to Roundup and the other weed-killers that star in industrial agriculture, and it bred plants containing the pest-killing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium. Unfortunately, the “weeds” thus eliminated had provided food for cattle and greens and medicines for people, and the “pests” included bees, butterflies, and other natural pollinators. Grazing cows have even been killed by sufficient Bt concentrations. While Monsanto and its multinational kin reap super-profits, nature responds with super-weeds and super-pests. And the poor get poorer. Yet “As usual,” she notes drily, “in every scheme that worsens the position of the poor, it is the poor who are invoked as beneficiaries.”
This is not a concern for tomorrow. Already, she says, India has lost its cotton seeds because of contamination from Bt cotton and Mexico has lost its native corn, also because of Bt cotton. Canada has lost its canola seed because of contamination from Roundup-Ready canola.
In India, the loss of pulses (legumes), oil seeds, and other native crops to make room for monocultures of rice and wheat has led to land grabs in Africa: what she calls bio-imperialism. Armies are called out to protect the appropriators and control the protestors. While we wage some wars for oil, we fight others, and will fight more, she believes, for “blue oil”―water―and “green oil”―biodiversity.
“There is no separation between the rights of the earth and the rights of people,” Dr. Shiva says. “Life, seeds, and knowledge are our commons.” Yet industrial agriculture is transforming seed “from a commons to a commodity” through the legalization of what she calls Biopiracy, the practice of patenting life forms & redefining them as inventions. To protect their “intellectual property” in some GM (genetically modified) seeds, companies use the so-called terminator gene to make them sterile. Farmers are forced to buy new seeds every year, instead of saving enough from each harvest for the next year’s planting, as they and their forebears had always done. Seed-saving farmers have been prosecuted as thieves―even farmers whose crops are accidentally contaminated by wind-blown GM seeds, like the recently vindicated Canadian Percy Schmeiser.
In India, by 2010, some 200,000 smallholder farmers bankrupted by the failure of monoculture crops and the cost of high-tech inputs had committed suicide―many of them, ironically, by drinking pesticides. Shiva says:
“Globalized industrialized food is not cheap: it is too costly for the Earth, for the farmers, for our health. The Earth can no longer carry the burden of groundwater mining, pesticide pollution, disappearance of species, and destabilization of the climate. Farmers can no longer carry the burden of debt, which is inevitable in industrial farming with its high costs of production. It is incapable of producing safe, culturally appropriate, tasty, quality food. And it is incapable of producing enough food for all because it is wasteful of land, water, and energy. Industrial agriculture uses ten times more energy than it produces. It is thus ten times less efficient.”
Dr. Shiva has the data to show that traditional biodiversity provides more nutrition per acre than toxics-intensive, unsustainable “modern” agriculture. And she’s hopeful, because 76% of the earth’s remaining biodiversity is still in the commons. She’s encouraged by the considerable number of victories she and her allies have already won for the earth. She travels the world and she has allies everywhere, including the European Slow Food movement and the seed banks, seed exchanges and co-ops, home and neighborhood organic gardens that are cropping up around the globe. New Mexico’s Native American farmers issued a stirring declaration of seed sovereignty in 2006, and other tribal groups have formed active coalitions.
Vandana Shiva is a Cassandra, a a bearer of urgent and largely unwelcome bad news. But when you see her photos, she is always smiling. She looks radiant and at peace. Glancing at the list of organizations she has founded and supports and her schedule of speaking, writing, advocating, and consulting, then scanning the bad news in every day’s press, I had to wonder how she avoids discouragement.
“Well, it’s always a mystery, because you don’t know why you get depleted or recharged. But this much I know. I do not allow myself to be overcome by hopelessness, no matter how tough the situation. I believe that if you just do your little bit without thinking of the bigness of what you stand against, if you turn to the enlargement of your own capacities, just that itself creates new potential. And I’ve learned from the Bhagavad-Gita and other teachings of our culture to detach myself from the results of what I do, because those are not in my hands.
The context is not in your control, but your commitment is yours to make, and you can make the deepest commitment with a total detachment about where it will take you. You want it to lead to a better world, and you shape your actions and take full responsibility for them, but then you have detachment. And that combination of deep passion and deep detachment allows me to take on the next challenge, because I don’t cripple myself, I don’t tie myself in knots. I function like a free being. I think getting that freedom is a social duty because I think we owe it to each not to burden each other with prescription and demands. I think what we owe each other is a celebration of life and to replace fear and hopelessness with fearlessness and joy.”
Also in the March PeaceTimes
- Roots of Justice, Green Shoots of Hope
- Fati Al Hassan: Land Is Power, and the Mother Attitude
- Join the debate: What can we do to improve the lives of rural women?
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