Besides being a physicist, ecologist, activist, editor and author of numerous books, Dr. Vandana Shiva is a tireless defender of the environment. She is the founder of Navdanya, a movement for biodiversity conservation and farmers’ rights. She is the founder/director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy. Her most recent books are entitled, Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge and Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply.
As a young girl gazing out at the natural wonders of her Indian homeland, the verdant valley of Dehradun and awe-inspiring Himalayas, Dr. Vandana Shiva was inspired not so much to preserve nature as to figure out how it works. In order to accomplish this task, would young Vandana follow in the footsteps of her father, a conservator of forests? Or would she become more like her mother, a farmer with a profound love for nature? The answer, as it turned out, would be neither. Vandana would follow her hero, Albert Einstein. She would become a physicist.
Nuclear physics was Dr. Shiva’s chosen specialty until she realized that the science had “dark side to it.” She changed course to become a theoretical physicist and worked in foundations of quantum theory. She was working on her PhD at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, fully expecting to stay on and become a professor when she was confronted with the nagging thought that she wasn’t informed enough about how society works. “We (India) have the third biggest scientific community in the world. We are among the poorest of countries. Science and technology is supposed to create growth, remove poverty. Where is the gap?” She wanted to answer that question for herself, so she took three years off to “look at science policy issues…be a little more educated, socially, and then go back to physics.” It was off to the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore where she studied interdisciplinary research in science, technology and environmental policy.
After three or four years, what started as a “look at policy issues,” became the focus of Dr. Shiva’s life. Speeding her along a course that would ultimately lead to grassroots activism was Dr. Shiva’s growing reputation as an authority in the field of environmental impact. Dr. Shiva found herself learning more and more about the threat to biodiversity posed by biotechnology.
“In ’87, at one of these seminars, the (agriculture) industry laid out its grand dream of controlling the world. They talked about needing genetic engineering so that there’s a technology that they have that peasants can’t use so that they can have a monopoly through technology. Patents.”
It was then that Dr. Shiva founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. She dropped everything else, her work on dams and forests and mines, to focus on biotechnology and patenting, the very tools being used by huge multinational corporations in their quest to control the global pharmaceutical and food supplies. Though ideas like these sound like the stuff of science fiction novels, the groundwork, Dr. Shiva explains, has already been laid.
“If a patent is granted, for example, on seed it means a farmer who grows a seed cannot save seed from the harvested crop because that is constituted as making the seed and the exclusive right to the seed belongs to the company. It means seed-saving by farmers is now defined as intellectual property theft.”
In 1991, Dr. Shiva founded Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seeds. Dr. Shiva’s attention is now focused on preventing imperialism over life itself. “I don’t want to live in a world where five giant companies control our health and our food.”
This nightmare scenario is made possible, according to Dr. Shiva, by the patent law under the World Trade Organization agreement. “It’s in my view the worst of the WTO agreements. It has only a negative function: to prevent others from doing their own thing; to prevent people from having food; to prevent people from having medicine; to prevent countries from having technological capacity. It is a negative tool for creating underdevelopment.”
The Seed Satyagraha is the name for the nonviolent, noncooperative movement that Dr. Shiva has organized to stand against seed monopolies. According to Dr. Shiva, the name was inspired by Gandhi’s famous walk to the Dandi Beach, where he picked up salt and said, “You can’t monopolize this which we need for life.” But it’s not just the noncooperation aspect of the movement that is influenced by Gandhi. The creative side saving seeds, trading seeds, farming without corporate dependence- without their chemicals, without their seed.
“All this is talked about in the language that Gandhi left us as a legacy. We work with three key concepts.”
“(One) Swadeshi…which means the capacity to do your own thing–produce your own food, produce your own goods….”
(Two) Swaraj–to govern yourself. And we fight on three fronts-“water, food, and seed. JalSwaraj is water independence–water freedom and water sovereignty. Anna Swaraj is food freedom, food sovereignty. And Bija Swaraj is seed freedom and seed sovereignty. Swa means self–that which rises from the self and is very, very much a deep notion of freedom. I believe that these concepts, which are deep, deep, deep in Indian civilization, Gandhi resurrected them to fight for freedom. They are very important for today’s world because so far what we’ve had is centralized state rule, giving way now to centralized corporate control, and we need a third alternate. That third alternate is, in part, citizens being able to tell their state, `This is what your function is. This is what your obligations are,’ and being able to have their states act on corporations to say, `This is something you cannot do.'”
(Three) Satyagraha, non-cooperation, basically saying, `We will do our thing and any law that tries to say that (our freedom) is illegal we will have to not cooperate with it. We will defend our freedoms to have access to water, access to seed, access to food, access to medicine.'”
When viewing Dr. Shiva’s work in protecting the world’s biodiversity, her courage and determination in standing up for the biological heritage that can be symbolized in the seeds that pass from one neighbor’s hand to another’s, one can’t help but see the little girl standing in the shadows of the mighty Himalayas, wanting to know, more than anything, how nature works. And it would appear, after a half a century of walking on this Earth, she’s come to a conclusion she wants to share with all of us. Nature works beautifully, abundantly, for all of us. But we cannot allow biodiversity to take a backseat to profit. We cheapen our own cultural heritage when we write it off as the expense of doing business. And we make the land, the water and the biologically diverse world from which we come a golden goose to satisfy the hunger of the few.