Vandana Shiva

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Biotechnology, as the hand-maiden of capital in the postindustrial era, makes it possible to colonise and control that which is autonomous, free and self-regenerative. Through reductionist science, capital goes where it has never been before. The fragmentation of reductionism opens up areas for exploitation and invasion.. .It is in this sense that the seed and women's bodies as sites of regenerative power are, in the eyes of capitalist patriarchy, among the last colonies.1

Born in the green valley of Dehradun on 5 November 1952, Vandana Shiva received her first lessons on the environment in the lap of the Himalayas from her mother, a farmer with a deep love of nature, and her father, a Conservator of Forests. Armed with her childhood aspirations of becoming a scientist, she was educated at St Mary's School in Nainital, and subsequently at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Dehradun, from whence particle physics gave rise to her life-long passionate affair with the environment. She trained as a physicist, was awarded a Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario for her thesis 'Hidden Variables and Non-locality in Quantum Theory', and then entered into inter-disciplinary research in science, technology and environmental policy at the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore.

By 1982, Dr Shiva was a leading theoretical physicist in the ecology movement, but she then set aside her professional career to devote her next ten years to environmental activism. Her first step was to found an independent body to address the emerging ecological and social issues in partnership with local communities and social movements. This she named the Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology, and it was here that she began her campaign by highlighting the parallels between the world's major industrial revolutions: the first based on the mechanization of work chiefly within the textile trade; the second on the chemicalization of agriculture; and the emerging third, endeavouring to engineer biological process. With the frankness which has been the hallmark of her career, Shiva named 'poverty and underdevelopment' as integral to all three industrializations. By 1993 she had won the alternative Nobel Prize, also known as the Right Livelihood Award, the first of many awards acclaiming her research into the environmental and social injustice which underpins corporate solutions to the earth's declining renewable resources.

It can be said that when Shiva writes, the world reads. Certainly, she has been a prolific author, with each of her thirteen volumes on Biodiversity, Biopiracy, Biopolitics, Biotechnology, Ecofeminism, Globalization, and Food Security reflecting a profound multidisciplinary scholarship. Her 1988 debut volume, Staying Alive, created common ground for feminists and environmentalists, providing an exemplary insight into the plight of women throughout developing regions. Drawing on historical evidence of the feminized poverty resulting from colonial rule, she identified 'modern development' as a product of Western patriarchy which further eroded women's productivity by removing land, water and forests from their management, while simultaneously impairing ecological productivity and sustainability via the destruction of soil, rivers and vegetation. Central to her argument was the theft of the natural biodiversity and food security which women had safeguarded over centuries, by a eurocentric science and economics which reshaped the seed and the earth to fit with the latest in patriarchal delusions. Shiva deemed the post-colonial development paradigm to be maldevelopment, a process subjugating women and nature while creating twinned social and environmental injustice. She called for a turn-around in the development mind-set, asking that the feminine principle be applied to substitute the sanctity of life for the sanctified development concept rooted in patriarchy.

In the early 1970s, India's Punjab was one of the fastest growing agricultural economies in the world and a showpiece of the Green Revolution, but Shiva's 1991 volume, The Violence of the Green Revolution, challenged the accepted gospel that Norman Bourlag's hybridized semi-dwarf, high-yielding wheat seeds had transformed the region's austerity into prosperity, while simultaneously correcting the widely held perception that the contemporary bloodshed which saw 15,000 Punjabis lose their lives in the 1980s was due to religious fundamentalism. Shiva exposed the truth of Bourlag's Nobel Prize winning miracle; nature's soil turned into waterlogged expanses or salinated deserts; and with the environmental destruction came community violence which was hardest felt by women and children. In effect, with control over both the environment and people essential to the centralized and centralizing tactics of the Green Revolution which integrated Third World farmers into the global market of fertilizers, pesticides and seeds, the ecological collapse, together with the political disruption of society, were predictable outcomes of a paradigm which had disconnected nature from society. To Shiva, it was already obvious that the seed was being colonized through a political process which removed control over biological diversity from the hands of peasant farmers and passed it over to corporate interests. New biotechnologies altered the role of farmer and of ecological procedure. Paraphrasing Shiva, the corporate seed had divested peasants, robbed them of their livelihoods, and was the very instrument of their underdevelopment and poverty. Whether farmers owned or leased their land, biotechnology's genetically programmed seed was corporate property. Unlike any before it, the progress and needs of the new age seed were met by a corporate computer. Similarly, the lifespan of the new age seed was regulated by corporations rather than by farmers guided by generations of traditional wisdom.

From the beginning, Vandana Shiva's research had synchronized with that of other feminist activists and multi-disciplinary academics representing every world region. Included were biologists, sociologists, engineers, political scientists and a consortium of experts in bioethics, development, economics, environment, law, medicine, nuclear hazards, and science and technology. In 1991, aware that the world's land, forests, rivers, oceans and the atmosphere were either colonized, eroded and/or polluted, and that global capitalism was seeking new territories—plants, animals and women's bodies—to invade and exploit in the quest for further wealth, Shiva convened a seminar on 'Women, Health and the Environment' in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. Sponsored by her own Research Foundation on Science Technology and Ecology, in partnership with the Swedish Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, the meeting gathered feminists from an international circle, each committed to reconstructing the links with nature which a patriarchal and technocratic environmental science had incrementally destroyed. Led by Shiva, these women did not see 'environment' from an external or hypothetical perspective. Rather, 'environment' was the place where they lived, and therefore translated into everything which affected their lives. Their faith in the earth body-human body continuum meant that environmental hazards were health hazards. Their human rights and health ethics were at odds with the population control racism and misogyny advocated by neo-Malthusians to salvage the earth's resources, and for them the South was not the source of most, if not all, environmental problems, anymore than the North, for all its technology and capital, was the source of all environmental solutions. Shiva and her allies moved beyond the existing patriarchal dichotomies, to examine the manner in which the activity/passivity and culture/nature divisions became instruments for biotechnology to colonize the regeneration of plants and humans. Together, they launched ecofeminism into an extraordinary political movement; an alliance which was destined to become the strongest opponent of environmental degradation, economic exploitation, cultural globalization, and institutionalized gender and indigenous discrimination, and which by the end of the twentieth century had grown to influence global policy on environmental and social justice, human/women's rights, indigenous knowledge, human/women's health, world trade regulations and the multiple paradigms of development and economics.

Shiva saw that the second Green Revolution paved the way for human rights, including the right to a livelihood, to be exchanged for property rights protecting the processes of biotechnology. She laid bare the loopholes in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which allowed transnational corporations (TNCs) to market agricultural commodities without restriction, regulation or responsibility.2 Encouraging the free trade of agricultural components, and aided by World Bank/International Monetary Fund Structural Adjustment programmes, GATT destroyed local food markets, converting subsistence Third World food production into a lucrative emporium for corporations. Small producers, most of whom are women, were destined for displacement by GATT.

By 1998, when the Intellectual Property Rights shaped by the World Trade Organization (WTO) were ordained to deny the world's poorest farmers both free access to their own seed and the liberty to exchange their own seeds between themselves, Shiva gave the opening keynote address at the First Grass Roots Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering in the US city of St Louis. Interviewed afterwards, she was asked to further explain her Third World perspective'. She answered that following European colonization, the Third World was left with only its biodiversity, and a solitary renewable resource, the seed, to meet health and nutritional needs, and to retain a semblance of agricultural viability. Consequently, in the Third World, where the majority are totally dependent on agriculture for survival, 'You can't have a consumer society with poor people and therefore what you will have is deprivation, destitution, disease, hunger, epidemics, hunger, malnutrition, famine and civil war. What is being sown is the greed of the corporations in stealing the last resources of the poor.'3

While the Green Revolution invaded the seed to become a source of ecological disruption, biotechnology went further, colonizing the seed at two levels; first by robbing the seed of its fertility and self-regenerating capacity; and second via GATT patent protection (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights or TRIPs), transferring the ownership of laboratory-spliced and/or relocated genes, none of which amount to newly created genes, to the seed's 'genetic tailors', most of whom were US-based TNCs and institutions. Shiva argued that TRIPs denied Third World farmers both their intellect and their rights, and calculated that the resulting transfer of funds from poor to rich countries had the potential to exacerbate Third World debt ten times over. She also emphasized that biotechnology, in addition to devaluing the seed 'from a living renewable resource into a mere raw material', demeaned women in the same fashion. Neither patriarchy's passive construction of nature, nor its politics of separation and fragmentation, was deemed an acceptable reason by Shiva, and as the health and ecology crises of the 1990s raised serious doubts about 'man's ability to totally engineer the world, including seeds and women's bodies', she further embraced the partnership which women shaped with nature in their everyday lives as the sustainable paradigm for 'dynamic and diverse' regeneration.

It can also be said that when Shiva speaks, the world listens. She is without doubt the most prized speaker on the global conference circuit, captivating audiences with her eloquence, her passion and her unquestionable logic. But to say that Shiva is an environmentalist, or an ecofeminist, is to sell her short. Vandana Shiva is a fearless campaigner for the environment, women, India, the Third World and planet Earth, tireless in her efforts to spread the word on existing and impending injustice within and beyond the institutional halls of government and academy. Readers of the print media are privy to her research on a regular basis. In 1997, writing in the London Guardian,4 she drew European attention to the double standards of TNCs seeking to abduct global food security, and exposed the folly of biotechnology's answer to famine: 'The introduction of herbicide-resistant crops destroys biodiversity and rural livelihoods, which are supported by the full variety of nature. Herbicide use in societies where people collect "weeds" for vegetables and fodder can destroy nutrition and women's work. In India women gather more than 130 species of greens, or weeds—the most important source of vitamin A in rural areas. The irresponsible spread of herbicides through herbicide-resistant crops will aggravate malnutrition in poor communities.'

In 1999, Shiva used India's national print media to warn of Monsanto's impending agenda to monopolize global water supplies. To enter the water business, Monsanto had acquired an equity stake in Water Health International as part of a joint venture with Tata/ Eureka Forbes, but as Shiva wrote, 'The joint venture route has been chosen so that Monsanto can achieve management control over local operations but not have legal consequences due to local issues.'5 To Shiva, it was clear that Monsanto's water initiative, like its seed and aquaculture trade, was designed for the express purpose of expanding its monopolies over the basic ingredients of life. In this instance, Monsanto's plan was to invent a market economy for water, with the company's investment underwritten by public finances. For Shiva, 'A more efficient conversion of public goods into private profit would be difficult to find. Water is, however, too basic for life and survival and the right to it is the right to life. Privatisation and commodification of water are a threat to the right to life.'6

At that time, India already had major water management movements, the pani panchayat and conservation movement in Maharashtra, and the Tarun Bharat Sangh in Alwar, each designed to regenerate and equitably share water as a commons, giving all the right to water and none the right to abuse or waste water. For Shiva too, water was a commons, and had to be managed as such, rather than 'controlled and sold by a life sciences corporation (i.e. *Monsanto*) that peddles in death'.7 Her 1999 alert to Monsanto's water agenda proved prophetic. Ten months later, as Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy took the Narmada Bachao Andolan struggle against displacement and human rights violations by the Sardar Sarovar large dam project to the Second World Water Conference in The Hague, so too the World Water Commission for the Twenty-First Century put forward its report, A Water Secure Future: Vision for Water, Life and the Environment. In this the Commission forwarded the notion that water security could only be implemented by the wholesale privatization of water supply and sanitation services across the world. Within hours, the report was condemned by various NGOs, women's groups and individual ecofeminists, all of whom shared Shiva's view that corporate control over water would end any concept of a universal right to water and sanitation, replacing yet another human right with a free market concept commodifying water.

While the popular catchphrase of the 1990s calls to 'think global, act local', Shiva thinks and acts at every level. At home in India, she has successfully filed Public Interest writs in the Supreme Court on a variety of environmental and trade-related issues, and in 1991 she founded Navdanya, a national movement designed to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources from corporate appropriation. Navdanya means nine seeds, and the programme bearing the same name has made seed-saving both a celebration of diversity and a mode of resistance. Demystifying GATT, working with farmers to explain TRIPs and the Agreement of Agriculture, Shiva has made significant contributions to fundamental intellectual debate and grassroots campaigns, including the mobilization of 500,000 farmers against GATT in 1993. Also at home, she has played a pioneering role in linking TRIPs to Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge and to the Convention on Biological Diversity; launched the idea of collective rights to defend indigenous knowledge; and was the first to suggest that the sui generis option in TRIPs should be based on community rights and farmers' rights. Less locally, in mid-1998, Shiva openly reminded Professor Mohammad Yunus from neighbouring Bangladesh that the Grameen Bank's impending partnership with Monsanto was a betrayal of the very women for whom his microcredit scheme promised self-reliance. Yunus listened, and a month later abandoned the agreement brokered between the Grameen Bank and Monsanto.

At an international level, Dr Shiva initiated the women's movement on food, agriculture, patents and biotechnology. Formally launched in Bratislava, Slovakia, in May 1998, as 'Diverse Women for Diversity', she led the movement to the WTO Ministerial meeting in Seattle to protest against international trade regulations which discriminated against the environment, women and the Third World. As Shiva described it, the successful Seattle protest 'demonstrated that globalisation is not an inevitable phenomenon which must be accepted at all costs but a political project which can be responded to politically'.8 Paraphrasing Shiva, the rebellion both on the streets and within the WTO negotiations indicated the start of a new democracy movement; one where citizens from across the world and the governments of the South refused to be bullied and excluded from decisions in which they have a rightful share. WTO's dictatorial anti-people, anti-nature decisions, enabling corporations to steal the world's harvests via secretive, undemocratic structures and process earned itself names such as the World Tyranny Organization. The intolerance of democratic dissent, the hallmark of dictatorship, was unleashed in full force in Seattle. While the trees and stores were lit for Christmas festivity, the streets were barricaded by police. In retaliation, labour joined hands with environmentalists, as farmers from the North and farmers from the South made a common commitment to say 'no' to genetically engineered crops, acting not out of special interest, but in defence of the common interests and common rights of all. Shiva continues:

A broad-based citizen's campaign stopped a new Millennium Round of WTO from being launched in Seattle, but launched its own millennium round of democratization of the global economy. The rights of all species and the rights of all people must come before the rights of corporations to make limitless profits through limitless destruction. Free trade is not leading to freedom. It is leading to slavery. Diverse life forms are being enslaved through patents on life, farmers are being enslaved into high-tech slavery, and countries are being enslaved into debt and dependence and destruction of their domestic economies. The future is possible for humans and other species only if the principles of competition, organised greed, commodification of all life, monocultures, monopolies and centralised global corporate control of our daily lives enshrined in the WTO are replaced by the principles of protection of people and nature, the obligation of giving and sharing diversity, and the decentralisation and self-organisation enshrined in our diverse cultures and national constitutions.9

On the eve of the Third Millennium, having overstayed her term as an activist by almost an entire decade, Vandana Shiva is the key environmental voice on the global stage. Her presence is one of authority, carrying weight within government and non-government, academic and non-academic, feminist and non-feminist, rural and urban, and national and international circles. She stands as a beacon of hope for the global Green movement and the world's expanding underclass of poverty-stricken farmers, most found in developing regions, and the majority of women, prey for transnational corporations carrying the global order's imprimatur to turn life resources into money-making commodities in the third millennium.


1 Vandana Shiva, 'The Seed and the Earth', in Minding Our Lives: Women from the South and North Reconnect Ecology and Health, New Delhi: Kali for Women, pp. 128-43, 1991.

3 Nic Paget-Clarke, 1998. An interview with Vandana Shiva in Motion Magazine.

4 Vandana Shiva, 'Genetic seeds of hope and despair', Guardian, 17 December, 1997.

5 Vandana Shiva, 'Monsanto's expanding monopolies', The Hindu, THE HINDU, 1 May, 1999.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Vandana Shiva, The Historic Significance of Seattle. Research Foundation on Science, Technology and Ecology, 12 December 1999.

9 Ibid.

Shiva's major writings

Staying Alive, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1988.

The Violence of the GREEN REVOLUTION: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics, London: Zed Books and Penang: Third World Network, 1991.

Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, Boston, MA: South End Press, 1997.

Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, Boston, MA: South End Press, 2000.

Further reading

Bandarage, Asoka, Women, Population and Global Crisis, London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Zed Books, 1997.

Hartmann, Betsy, Reproductive Rights & Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, rev. edn, Boston, MA: South End Press, 1995.

Mies, Maria and Shiva, Vandana, Ecofeminism, London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1993.

Roy, Arundhati, The Cost of Living, London: Flamingo, 1999.

Salleh, Ariel, Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx and the Postmodern, London and New York: Zed Books, 1997.

Shiva, Vandana and Moser, Ingunn (eds), Biopolitics: A Feminist and Ecological Reader on Biotechnology, London and New York: Zed Books and Penang: Third World Network, 1995.

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