Vandana Shiva

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Jul 21 10:42:22 PDT 1998

PCDForum Paradigm Warrior Profile #3 Release date June 1, 1996


Vandana Shiva, writer and science policy advocate, directs the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy. Her current work centers on biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. The following account of her work is from a PCDForum interview.

I am especially attracted to biodiversity as a central focus of my work because it brings together the larger philosophical issues of the democracy of life on the one hand-the intrinsic value of species-and very practical activities such as the creation of living seed banks on the other. It also brings in important questions of individual property rights. The biodiversity issue connects all these levels in a way that is less obvious say for climate change. It also connects directly to the equity issues relating to right of all people to access to a means of livelihood-to a place on the earth.

Some environmentalists believe that to protect biodiversity you must exclude people. In their view you either have production or you have protection. I have seen farms as beautiful as a native forest. I feel it important to bring ecology and biodiversity into the heart of production rather than keeping it outside. The real issue for both people and nature is the extent to which control over seeds and other genetic materials is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of those whose only interest is profits.

In India, agriculture provides livelihoods for more people than any other sector. It also has been the cutting edge of global corporate penetration of the Indian economy. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) has been one of the main instruments of monopoly penetration. Specifically, the intellectual property rights regimes being put into place through GATT set the stage for foreign corporations to gain a total monopoly control of our food production by displacing traditional seed varieties with patented hybrids. My work on this issue has been a great education, leading me to an understanding of crops and varieties of which I previously had no idea.

This work is making me more optimistic that if you create the right conditions, people will come to see the whole economic system in a different light and will chose the sustainability option. It has in fact taken the corporate sector many years and millions of dollars of propaganda to make people dependent on the unsustainable agricultural practices that generate enormous profits for global agribusiness.

Let me explain more specifically what this means in India. Typical traditional small farms feature richly diverse intercropping methods. Through generations, the farmers have developed sophisticated systems for selecting and improving the seed varieties they plant. The methods are integrated into their rituals and are usually the responsibility of the women. It is also a well establish cultural tradition that families share and exchange seeds so that a farmer whose seeds have not done well will have his seed stock replenished from the stocks of a farmer whose seeds have proven more vigorous.

For example, it is a widespread ritual practice for each family to plant nine seeds in a pot on New Years day. Nine days later the women carry all their seed pots to the river bank where they compare results to see whose seeds have done well and whose have not. Exchanges are arranged based on these results, so that when it is time to plant, all families are planting the best available seeds and thus optimizing the overall village food supply.

The green revolution brought a dependence on chemicals and credit. However, it was a public program that gave farmers some recourse. For example, when unfavorable weather or prices meant many farmers could not repay their loans, they were able to pressure politicians to gain forgiveness of their debts. So they rarely risked losing their land. Furthermore, while the hybrid seeds of the green revolution tended to lose their germination potency over four or five generation, the seeds were publicly available and farmers were able to reproduce much of their own seed.

Then in 1992, the global agribusiness firm Cargil came in with a program to convert farmers to hybrid seeds that have both an intensive dependence on chemicals and irrigation and that do not reproduce themselves. Farmers who use these seeds must come back to replenish their seed each year from a company that has no accountability to them. The credit is also arranged by the company, with no possibility of forgiveness in the case of crop failures or low prices. The farmer bears all the risk, while most of profits go to the corporation. There is thus a significant power shift from the community to the corporation.

To draw the farmers into its system, Cargil introduced its seeds through massive promotions that involved providing farmers with free seeds and inputs over two or three seasons. They also helped farmers arrange credit for irrigation or other farming infrastructure needs as part of the package.

By the time the promotional period is over and the farmers are expected to start buying seeds and other inputs, their traditional seeds have either been lost or have degenerated. Since Cargil introduces its promotion to all the farmers in adjacent villages, the traditional seed stocks of entire regions are wiped out, leaving the farmers dependent on the seeds to which Cargil holds the intellectual property rights. Thus in a period of only two to three years Cargil is able both to destroy the biodiversity maintained by the living seed banks of the farmers and convert once independent farmers to dependence on Cargil supplied seeds, chemicals, and credit. This highlights the extent to which biodiversity is a political, as well as, a biological necessity.

Even worse, many small farmers find that in the two or three years the company has been providing free inputs, the debts acquired in improving their farming infrastructure have added up. Many eventually lose their land to the financiers, who sell it to the large corporations that are consolidating small farm plots into agricultural estates producing for export with the aid of government subsidies provided under the economic globalization regimes. Corporate export agriculture is actually quite new in India, but is expanding rapidly under the encouragement of policies introduced though the World Bank and the GATT.

I am helping farmers counter this destructive intrusion through three practical actions: establishing living seed banks, training farmers in chemical free sustainable agriculture methods, and engaging in policy advocacy with the Indian government to oppose legislation aimed at implementing various of the GATT provisions harmful to our small farmers.

More conventional approaches to seed banks separate the conservation of genetic material from food production. Our approach builds on traditional practice, merging conservation with alternative production methods-thus the term "living seed banks." We have seed banks in about six states. These are basically in situ seed banks that exist on farmers fields and in their exchange networks. They are maintained by farmers who identify themselves as "seed keepers" for the community.

The participating farmers continually regenerate the seeds through their diversified cropping practices and participate in seed exchange networks. Biodiversity, food security, and farmer independence are simultaneously maintained. Our program has saved roughly 400 rice varieties, 200 millet varieties, and 200 or more varieties of pulses and legumes. We did a national exhibition of all of these last winter. I asked the farmers to cook all their local dishes. The farmers have always been made to feel that their diets are inferior to city diets. Their local dishes were almost completely sold out in the first hour because people found them so attractive and tasty. This is also helping to create a new pride in local cultural and biological diversity.

In some areas we have whole generations of farmers who know nothing other than chemical agriculture. They have lost confidence in the nonchemical methods. Our goal is to get them completely off chemicals by encouraging them to make a transition to sustainable organic agriculture over a period of four years. They start by converting a quarter of their farm to sustainable methods in the first year and add an additional quarter each following year.

The advocates of chemical agriculture try to scare us into believing that chemical agriculture is the only way we can feed the world's population. Their data, however, do not take into account the full output of biodiverse farming methods. Once the diversity is taken into account there is no loss of output. Most of the time chemical agriculture means monocropping say tomatoes or rice. Successful organic agriculture almost always involves diverse agroforestry farming systems featuring significant diversity. You need to do an across the board output analysis to assess the productivity of such systems-looking at total production of usable biomass.

It is also necessary to take input costs into account. I have created a special matrix form for the farmers to use in assessing their results in relation to the replenishment of soil fertility, the contributions to household food security and consumption, and earnings from the marketed surplus. We find consistently that a diversified organic farm can enjoy an increased money income, an improved diet, and better biological maintenance of the land.

We still have many regions in India where the farmers have not been hooked on chemical agriculture and much of our attention is focused here. Obviously there are advantages to getting to the farmers before the corporations do. I get them information from other farmers, other regions, and other countries to help them appreciate their own knowledge and the benefits of controlling their technology and to understand the implications of responding to the corporate promotions.

We also work with them to improve their traditional diversified, nonchemical methods. Last year we formed a national alliance on sustainable agriculture to do much of the sustainable agriculture training. The movement is now spreading to other regions. We are encouraging the farmers to go out and recruit others.

Our policy work simultaneously addresses biodiversity, intellectual property rights, and globalization. I am now working with the ministries of environment and agriculture to write a section on biodiversity for India's Ninth Five Year Development Plan. We have also been successful in blocking proposed the intellectual property rights legislation that would have created the greatest problems. We are in fact moving to counter the push for intellectual property with our own efforts to build concepts of community and collective rights into the Indian legal system. We are trying to undo the model of agricultural development that makes it appear we can afford to get rid of most of our small farmers. The setting up of the living seed banks is one foundation of our effort to articulate a different model.

The politics of knowledge has long been important to me. It is in many respects a question of whose knowledge is recognized as having value and whose is not. The monopolization of knowledge through intellectual property rights systematically devalues traditional knowledge. Yet I am fascinated by how much there is to study in regard to small farmers and peasants and the knowledge they have created through systematic observation and traditional practice over hundreds and thousands of years. They have so much to teach us.

I also believe the food issue lends itself to local activism in our time, in part because it involves such a strong mutuality of interest between producer and consumer. The small producers want to survive and urban consumers want healthful, tasty, and uncontaminated food.

There are parallel issues with regard to the health care system. I put the patenting of indigenous medicines along side the patenting of seeds. Some 70% of Indians are still dependent on the non-Western health care systems. The practitioners of our traditional ayurvedic system of medicine have no concept of intellectual property rights. They don't know anything about the intellectual implications of patent rights. Indeed, they have a view of health care that is very different from the commercialized Western concept and points to alternative, noncommercial ways of thinking about health system organization. Here you have a whole tradition where the healer does not charge a fee. They wait for a gift. Furthermore, society is organized in a way that assures the healers are honored and supported by the community. It stems from a different way of valuing knowledge and its use in the service of society.

Vandana offered the following comments on the state of the movement:

I think the movement is stronger than it realizes and that corporate rule is weaker and more vulnerable than we imagine. The real weakness of our movement is we have not organized strategically on a long-term basis. We tend to be primarily reactive, choosing and planning our campaigns from year to year. Many of us need to sit together to develop a strategic plan for the next twenty years. Such a plan should strive to protect the diverse and sustainable systems of production wherever they exist while at the same time addressing related concerns coming out of the heart of industrial society. We have not seriously worked on this kind of convergence yet.

Occasionally a tribal group will get the help of an environmental group in stemming the erosion of cultural and ecological diversity. There is also a growing ecological consciousness of the people from industrial society who feel a need to create new alternatives within their own societies. However, we have not yet really linked the efforts of those who are trying to save themselves and those who want to move into another alternative such that the two efforts become mutually supportive.

There are opportunities to make such links in nearly every sector. One example is a Third World network meeting on the threat of genetic engineering that I organized. We linked the concerns of traditional societies whose heritage is being threatened with warnings about the dangers of genetic engineering being raised by the modern biologists. The results were far more powerful than we had imagined. We even managed to get a provision in the biodiversity treaty.

There is potential in such linkages to help people more clearly see and act on the possibilities that exist to reclaim space from corporate monopolies. Health care is an example. Last summer I was teaching a course at York University in Toronto, Canada. I had a student who was a volunteer in the local health center in the immigrant part of the city. The center had lost all of its paid doctors as a result of budget cuts. So they went out and found women from the immigrant communities who knew traditional health practices. They then developed new health care programs around these women. This is just one example of the possibilities for transferring skills and approaches from traditional sectors.

Realizing that we have the possibility of existing outside of the corporate ruled system is one of the most important steps toward weakening the hold corporate rule has on us. While there is need for flexible adaptation, I think most of the ingredients of a more sustainable and humane existence are already available to us. The main task is to recognize them and bring them together into the right mix.


Vandana Shiva is a contributing editor of the PCDForum, a member of the Third World Network, and director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy, A-60 Hauz Khas, New Delhi 110 016, Phone (91-11) 696-8077 or 685-6795; Fax (91-11) 685-6795 or 462-6699; E-mail: twn at This profile was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum.

Louis Proyect


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