Nature - Earth crusader
by A Rishi
Why is the great voice of India silent?…
Is India lost in quest of its own soul? Is India asleep?
No, India is awake in the toil of the plough man
And the housewife over her woodfire;
India is awake in the tears and laughter of her poor.
For India's soul, wealth is her poverty,
Her spirit of quiet independence,
Her dedication to truth,
For her voice comes from deep within,
The one true God who manifests
in every stone and tree
And lives in the heart's mind!
—Bulu Imam, tribal art conservationist
Vandana Shiva might well be the 'great voice of India' that Bulu Imam invokes in his poem. In her many avatars, as environmentalist, physicist, feminist and philosopher, hers has been a powerful voice emanating from deep conviction and grounded in solid research. Her ability to combine intellectual study with grassroots activism in the fields of eco-feminism, bio-piracy and intellectual property rights has won her many international awards, including the Right Livelihood Award (the Alternative Nobel Prize), the Earth Day International Award and the Global 500 Award.
Vandana founded Navdanya in 1991, which has grown over the past decade into a proactive movement for seed saving and organic farming. She has now started Bija Vidyapeeth, or the Seed University, at the Navdanya farm near Dehradun, India, where month-long courses are being held to disseminate knowledge and initiate dialogue about holistic living. Designed on the lines of the UK-based Schumacher College and inspired by its director Satish Kumar, Bija Vidyapeeth recently hosted its second course on 'Gandhi and Globalization' that drew participants from around the world.
I spoke to Vandana about her work, and her soul connection with the earth in a mud-plastered room in Bija Vidyapeeth. Cheeks aflame in the warm December afternoon, she spoke with passion about her activism, the bouquets and brickbats, and that ultimately, the path is also the destination. Extracts:
When did you get interested in ecological conservation?
My interest began in childhood. I was born in Dehradun, India, where my father was a forest officer. I grew up in the forests of the mountains. Then I participated in the Chipko movement in the 1970s when the women were hugging trees to prevent their felling. However, my intellectual engagement remained that of a physicist.
When did you make the switch to activism?
The Ministry of Environment invited me in 1981 to study the effect of mining in the Doon valley. As a result of my report, the Supreme Court banned mining here in 1983. That was the first time I was doing something about conservation professionally. It was not just an analytic engagement divorced from action or consequences and I found it so fulfilling to work with communities and make a difference to society.
I cared enough about the environment to really see it saved, and I knew that research by itself would not do it. Empowered communities are the place where action will happen. Therefore I started the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in 1981-82 to connect to communities and treat them as experts. That is essential, as I learnt in Chipko where it was the women who really knew about what was going on in their environment because trees were their livelihood, as also natural water dams, sources of fodder, fuel and fertilizer. Chipko taught me that those of us who have PhDs don't necessarily know everything! There is so much knowledge in our communities, and with our grandmothers.
I also decided upon a holistic approach to research because, for instance, geology cannot tell us that we are destroying the water resources, geo-hydrology does that. It was that aspect of my work that was recognized when the Right Livelihood Award was given to me in 1993, for creating a new paradigm of research and working in novel ways with communities.
The great drought in Karnataka (Indian state) in 1984 made me realize that the very way we do agriculture is flawed. That year also saw the rise of militancy in Punjab (Indian state). I wrote The Violence of the Green Revolution for the UN, linking the violence in Punjab with the Green Revolution that had given rise to a non-sustainable form of agriculture that pretends to give us more food but is actually destroying nature, our sense of self, and is creating war within society.
How exactly was militancy in Punjab linked to the Green Revolution?
The link is evident in the declarations issued by the Khalistan movement that stemmed from frustration about being unable to decide prices, when the waters of the Bhakra Dam were to be released, and so on. The economic prosperity of Punjab was collapsing because subsidies were being withdrawn and prices were going down. Farmers were spending more and getting less. The militancy was really the farmers reacting to an economic system that was making them poorer although they were supposed to be becoming prosperous. What was really a sustainability and democracy issue was politicized and communalized. So I really began thinking about issues related to agriculture.
When did you decide to do something about it?
In 1987, during a meeting at the UN, I began thinking that Mahatma Gandhi used a charkha (spinning wheel) to spearhead his satyagraha (Gandhian movement). I came up with the seed as an equivalent of the charkha for our modern satyagraha against MNCs' appropriation of agriculture. Navdanya was born in that moment of awareness, although it did not become a full-fledged institution until 1991. The conservation farm started about five years ago.
Why a conservation farm?
I thought it would be inspiring for farmers to come to a farm and see 250 varieties of rice and 800 species of plants growing in the same field.
I hear that this lush land was barren when you set up your farm?
Yes, it was a toxic desert created by eucalyptus monoculture. We literally nursed it back to health! It was an occasion to practice whatever we had learnt about organic farming and holistic land practices. The results have been fantastic. Every year there's a 10 per cent increase in the yield, in bio-diversity and friendly pests. We also need to irrigate less as the soil's capacity to hold water is increasing. And each time I come back, I see more ladybirds and butterflies.
How did Bija Vidyapeeth happen?
Satish Kumar had been asking me to set up something on the lines of the Schumacher College in India. I was hesitant at first because I prefer building movements to building buildings! But he convinced me that it was time for an institution like this.
Satish and I came up with bija (seed) mainly because the university was going to be at the Navdanya farm, which is also a seed bank, and also because a seed is an inspiration of renewal, and is an example of the small embodying the whole. Bija Vidyapeeth has really become a bija. Instead of the buildings, I now see a progression of dialogue and mutual growth.
What are your plans for Bija Vidyapeeth?
We will continue to hold courses with Schumacher College. The best of people have already agreed to come to teach, like physicist Fritjof Capra, Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, and Satish will be returning every year to teach a course in nonviolence. We hold organic farming courses for farmers and might also run panchayat (grassroots/ village-level administration in India) camps on sustainable development.
What are you doing to popularize holistic agriculture practices?
Navdanya is a network of conservation. We have started community seed banks in nine Indian states and have converted about 2,000 farmers to organic farming. The issue really is freedom, from multinational seed corporations and from chemicals.
Satish Kumar talks about a modern trinity of 'soil, soul and society'. Your work obviously involves a lot of soil and society, what about soul?
I don't think you can be a deeply ecological person without being a deeply spiritual one. You can be an eco-technocrat, but you can't really feel the pain of violence against nature, and the joy that comes with healing it. Spirituality for me is all about connecting, and about a widening circle of sympathy and compassion, which includes the entire earth. My way of doing this is to ensure bio-diversity and safety from poisonous chemicals.
Why should our farmers commit suicide and children be dying of hunger when this earth provides enough for everybody? Do you know that over 20,000 farmers have committed suicide due to new seeds and chemicals, because they were so steeped in debt? My spiritual engagement really is to stop the murders of children, hardworking farmers and diverse species.
Is this also what inspired your campaign against the patenting of indigenous knowledge?
Very much so. Navdanya started as a constructive response to the perverse dreams of controlling life through genetic engineering and patents. The very idea of patenting life is abhorrent and speaking against it has become my ethical engagement. Patenting assumes life in all its diversity to be a human creation. It also allows Western arrogance to loot indigenous knowledge, as in the case of neem or turmeric or ashwagandha, and then charge royalties on it. It reminds me of the Salt Laws imposed during the British Raj where Indians could not make salt so that the British could charge royalties. Mahatma Gandhi stood up and said: "Why should I pay for something that the sea gives me for free?" Today, we have to realize that the seed is free, the neem is free. Why should we pay royalty to Ricetec for basmati? I have been challenging this tyranny by going to the WTO, and other international fora.
You are doing so much all the time and are up against powerful corporations. What keeps you positive?
I think the very nature of my work helps me maintain my sanity. There are times when one does feel isolated, especially when it comes to crucial decision-making. Then, I think of the cycle of life, of water, of the land, and I feel replenished because one might be isolated from power, but one is always connected with the source of life.
I also feel privileged to have supportive family, friends and colleagues. My brother, an Air Force officer, leaves work to come here to make sure everything is all right. Maya, who is directing Bija Vidyapeeth, Radha and I are three women running Navdanya.
If you do anything with a narrow mindset, it makes you think according to a calculus of success and failure. Obviously when you are up against powerful interests, there are greater chances of failure than success. But when your work is inspired by a way of life and thinking, that process becomes a reward unto itself. That's also what the Gita says, that you don't count the results, you do the right thing according to your context. A spiritual outlook helps you see what the right thing in your context is. What matters is fulfillment, and that cannot be measured by the yardstick of society and its view of you, but by how your soul feels. Then the awards don't matter, the brickbats don't matter, the lousy rumors don't matter. Nothing affects you.
Who have inspired you the most?
My parents. I wouldn't be doing any of this without what they instilled in me, both ecologically and a sense of responsibility towards society.
My mother always wore khadi (Indian homespun cotton fabric). When we wanted nylon she said: "I'll buy you nylon. But you know, if you buy nylon, some industrialist will get another Mercedes, and if you buy khadi, some woman's chulha (kitchen fire) will get lit. You decide." That was a profound lesson in simple living. My parents also taught us fearlessness. Acting by your conscience, doing the right thing without being afraid of people around you. That's been an important lesson for me because you can't take on the Monsantos and Cargills of the world without rising above fear.
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