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Earth Day Vandana Shiva physicist, environmental activist, feminist, ecologist and author

by Frances Rooney | April 21, 2008

Over the past three decades I have tried to be change I want to see.

As Gandhi had reminded us: “The earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for some people’s greed.”

— Vandana Shiva

For physicist, environmental activist, feminist, ecologist and author of a dozen books and over 300 articles Vandana Shiva, “being change” means a life of campaigning for the right of people and our planet to live and thrive, free of the interference of corporate and governmental greed.

She does her work by travelling almost constantly to meet with a huge range of people: grassroots organizations of women and farmers, research scientists, governments and corporations. She advises international bodies such as the United Nations, she works on an organic farm in India with other women, and she challenges the richest and most powerful multinational corporations in the world, corporations like Monsanto and Wal-Mart.

Shiva grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas, and was educated in India and Canada, where she earned a master’s degree in the philosophy of science at Guelph University and a PhD in particle physics at the University of Western Ontario. Returning home from Canada, she was horrified to find ancient forests being ripped out of existence by westerners who wanted to grow apples where the forests had been. She joined the Chipko Movement, grassroots women who were campaigning to save trees.

Since then, Shiva’s activities have multiplied almost beyond belief. In order to be independent of influence from governments and wealthy corporations, she founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, which she defines as “a participatory, public interest research organization.” While it now has offices in New Delhi, at first the foundation met in her mother’s cowshed.

“When I found global corporations wanted to patent seeds, crops or life forms, I started Navdanya to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming.” Part of this work now involves conserving and storing heritage seeds.

She cofounded both Bija Vidyapeeth, a sister organization of Schumaker College in the United Kingdom “to spread the message of sustainability” and the International Forum on Globalization.

And she has always known that we are all connected, so that the rights of women and small farmers, who are the keepers of the diversity that makes both people and plants strong, is central to her work for our earth. She points out that women are the main producers and processors of food. “For me,” says Shiva, “ecology and feminism have been inseparable. And Diverse Women for Diversity [yet another organization she founded] is one expression of combining women’s rights and nature's rights, celebrating our cultural diversity and biological diversity.”

Thus the cornerstones of Shiva’s work are:

  • biodiversity, recognizing and protecting the variety of growing things that keep us all strong;
  • earth democracy, the right of the earth and its inhabitants to live with and grow healthy people, plants and animals appropriate to the local climate and ecosystem; and
  • the fight against biopiracy (a term she originated) – the stealing of this right through the theft of seeds and manipulation of people and land.

And so she moves among the least powerful people of the world and those who have the most money and the power that comes with money.

What do companies like Coca-Cola, Monsanto and Wal-Mart have to do with destruction of the earth and its resources?

Everything.

Coca-Cola, among others, uses such huge amounts of – free – water that it depletes the resources necessary for people, animals and plants, including food-producing plants, to survive.

Monsanto and other huge corporations have patented seeds for ancient food staples that grew free throughout, primarily, the Third World. Many of these plants have been genetically altered to produce “terminator” and “suicide” seeds, which will not grow into another plant. As a result, people must now buy food, or the altered seeds for food, they have always freely grown previously, driving already poor people into unimaginable poverty. (As Shiva pointed out in her Reith Lecture, food prices doubled in India from 1999 to 2000.)

Raj Patel points out in his book, Stuffed and Starved, that 97% of retail business in India has traditionally resided with mom and pop shops and market stalls. The intrusion of companies like Wal-Mart into that system will drive huge numbers of people out of the businesses that have supported them for generations. They will become even more dependent on huge corporations whose profits go halfway around the world and into the hands of a very few people. These immensely rich organizations suck the blood out of traditional, viable and sustainable cultures, areas, social structures ... and the very earth itself.

Vandana Shiva has taken on a huge and dangerous job, one that may never bring success. Still, as this feature’s author wrote in her book Exceptional Women Environmentalists, Shiva “is excited to be part of an approach to activism ‘that centers on the protection of life, celebrating life, enjoying life as both our highest duty and our most powerful form of resistance against a violent and brutal system.’ Clearly this approach works. Her energy continues, and her incredible work keeps on growing.”

The world can be fed only by feeding all beings that make the world.

Who feeds the world? My answer is very different to that given by most people. It is women and small farmers working with biodiversity who are the primary food providers in the Third World, and contrary to the dominant assumption, their biodiversity based small farms are more productive than industrial monocultures.

— Vandana Shiva, quotes from Reith lecture

selected awards
  • Right Livelihood Award (the Alternative Nobel Prize), 1993
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global 500 Award | 1993
  • United Nations Earth Day International Award | 1993
  • VIDA SANA International Award, Spain | 1993
  • Order of the Golden Ark, Netherlands | 1993
  • Pride of the Doon Award, Dehra Doon, India | 1995
  • Golden Plant Award, International Award of Ecology, Denmark | 1997
  • Alfonso Comin Award, Spain | 1997
  • Commemorative Award on the Celebration of the 18th World Food Day, Thailand | 1998
  • Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Republic | 1998
  • Pellegrino Artusi Award, Italy | 2000
  • HORIZON 3000 Award, Austria | 2001
  • Honorary doctorate, University of Western Ontario | 2002
  • Blue Planet Award, Germany (balances Black Planet Award, granted in 2007 to Nestle) | 2007

All quotes in this piece appeared in:

  • Exceptional Women Environmentalists, by FRANCES ROONEY
  • Poverty and Globalization, by VANDANA SHIVA
  • Navdanya, Message from the founder, by VANDANA SHIVA

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