In an exclusive interview with India Currents, she spoke about her work as an environmental activist. Listening to her speak on various interlinked topics made me ponder about the motivations of individual human beings and modern societies in their unending quest for development and the crushing costs of this onward march.The urgency with which she speaks about the threat to biodiversity, the spread of large scale industrial agriculture and the ubiquitous use of chemical fertilizers – each environmental transgression larger and more dire than the other – makes one contemplate the very paradigm on which modern societies exist. Every aspect of promoting environmental wellness has been impacted by her work over several decades.
As a student in the 1970s, Dr. Vandana Shiva volunteered with the Chipko movement. Today, decades later, her environmental activism encompasses multiple levels – work with farmers, drafting policy at the highest levels of government, speaking out against biopiracy, fighting legal cases against big corporations, founding a seed farm to save “native” seeds, while acknowledging the often overlooked contributions of women – every one of these missions is enough to occupy a lifetime. She recognizes that the problems related to the environment are not only dire – they are also interlinked and need to be tackled at various levels. As she sees it, “the world is very different from how it was when I first started with the Chipko movement in the 1970s. Today, problems related to the environment and our continuing indifference are all around us. We cannot afford to ignore this. Speaking up is no longer enough. Action is needed at every level.”
As a graduate student in physics studying in Canada in the 1970s, she was drawn to the simple premise of the Chipko movement where women hugged trees to prevent logging in the forests surrounding their homes. From that initial foray into seeing the rewards of environmental activism, she has dedicated her life to the cause.
Dr. Shiva confessed that time and again, she had been schooled in the ways of the land by “uneducated” farmers who had not seen the inside of a college classroom; simple men and women whose lives and livelihoods depended on the environment. Sometimes, she said, “a scientist might be able to name a handful of species, whereas the women who lived close to the forested areas would easily name each and every species, while giving detailed information about which plant was good for the water, which was good for the soil along with their respective growing conditions and more. Their lives were intertwined with the environment and they were really the teachers to those who were schooled inside classrooms in schools and colleges,” she asserted.
Using her scientific training, Dr. Vandana Shiva used two other languages that she was familiar with – “English and graphing,” to make a case for environmental causes at the highest levels of policy making and government. Judging by how articulate she is, there is no doubt in my mind that her methods could effectively change policy at the highest levels of government.
“Vasudaiva kutumbhakam: (the world is one family) is something that is part of our culture,” she says and “so is plurality.” “For Devi, we do not have one name – instead we have a thousand. We pray to the tulsi plant – we hold as sacred the cow and the bull. We have not come from an anthropocentric perspective, believing in the superiority of our species over others. We have always understood the interdependence of the human species with every other species. Now, with the new global economic paradigm, this interdependence is all the more pronounced. When a large percentage of goods for the American market are produced in China, China just becomes an extension of the American economy. And, environmental impact is also global.”
The Green Revolution is widely credited with ridding India and several other developing countries from starvation. But, Dr. Vandana Shiva has a different take on this phenomenon that revolutionized farming – the rice varieties might have contributed to higher yields, but each of these rice varieties required more water to grow and they were also dependent on chemicals for survival. “For instance, in the Kavery delta,” she says, “I often tell farmers that the removal of indigenous rice varieties during the Green revolution led in great measure to the current dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. They lost the low-water using rice varieties earlier and over time, the waters of the Kavery were not sufficient to take care of rice crops in both states.” She also introduces an innovative concept – she says rice and other grains should not just be measured on the scale for weight but their nutritional value should be the guiding unit of measurement. “What is the point of having a grain of rice that weighs well, is grown with chemicals and has low nutritional value?”
Dr. Vandana Shiva talks of her farm – Navdanya (www.navdanya.org) where they have saved over 6000 seed varieties. Prior to the Green Revolution, India had 200,000 varieties of rice, she declares. The origin of the name for her farm has an interesting anecdote behind it – in the border between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, she was working with farmers at a time when the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan lived in the jungles there. She came across a piece of land where multiple crops were being grown simultaneously – stunned by the diversity in front of her, she quizzed the farmer who said,”of course, this is navdanya. Just like the nine planets (navagraha) that move in the cosmos in unity, these crops and the food within me will have the same balance.” She was struck by the beauty of the concept – of the sense of balance that he was referring to and named her organization located in the hilly Garhwal region after this.
Indian-American readers can visit the website to learn more about the work done on the farm. The whole month of September is devoted to various activities on the farm, and a program christened as Earth Journeys allows visitors to explore growing regions in the area.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.
Read an earlier article on Dr. Vandana Shiva from our archives below.