Placing women and ecology at the heart of modern development discourse: Vandana Shiva interviewed by Antonia Navarro-Tejero.
Vandana Shiva's contributions range from agriculture, generic resources and food security to intellectual property rights, biodiversity, ecology and gender, using both intellectual inputs and grassroots campaigns. She has been an important figure in putting pressure on the World Bank, and initiated major movements in India on World Trade Organization issues. She has internationally campaigned against genetic engineering, and her contribution to gender issues has shifted the perception of "Third World" women. She participated in the 1970s in the Chipko movement, of women hugging the trees to prevent their felling. She founded the gender unit at the International Centre for Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu. She also launched in 1998 an international movement of women working on food, agriculture, patents and biotechnology called "Diverse Women for Diversity."
Vandana Shiva has lectured worldwide on environment, feminism and economic development issues, and is recipient of numerous international awards. Besides her academic and research contributions, Dr. Shiva has also served as an ecology adviser to governments in India and abroad as well as NGOs such as the International Forum on Globalisation, Women's Environment and Development Organisation and Third World Network, and the Asia Pacific People's Environment Network. She is also a figure of the Anti-globalization movement. A contributing editor to People-Centered Development Forum, she has also written numerous books, including Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (1988), Close to Home: Women Reconnect Ecology, Health and Development Worldwide (1994), and edited Minding Our Lives: Women From the South and North Reconnect Ecology and Health (1993), Ecofeminism (1993) with Maria Mies, and Biopolitics: A Feminist and Ecological Reader on Biotechnology (1995) with Ingunn Moser.
This interview was conducted in the New Delhi RFSTE office, India, November 2004. (1)
ANTONIA NAVARRO-TEJERO: Doctor Shiva, could you tell us a little about the project that you are involved in at the moment?
VANDANA SHIVA: Well, you know, at one level I don't think of what I do as projects because they don't have a beginning and they don't have an end in terms of resources that make things possible. I have engagement and my engagement is driven from issues of justice, particularly gender justice, ecological justice and also the urgency of certain things that must be done, otherwise the cost to nature, to human beings, is just too high. So in that context, you know, I started to work on environmental issues because of the Chipko movement, and the work I started then by diversity continues till today.
ANT: How successful is the Schumacher College in India?
VS: We're having a course right now, and yeah, it's going very well! In fact Satish is there teaching and then there is the Prime Minister of Tibetan government in exile. This course is on Gandhi and non-violence and teaching. It's going very well, I'm very happy. We founded it. I was in Bhopal for the 20th anniversary, and one of the things that has come out of the Schumacher College in India is that some of the best minds of the country have got together and decided to open what they call the Freedom University, which in India translates into Swaraj Vidhyapeeth. Our Schumacher College is called Beej Vidhyapeeth which in English means School of the Seeds, literally because of where we sell our seeds and organic farming. So this Freedom University is going to be literally an open free University for giving young people an opportunity to have non-manipulated education, education that is about the real world, information about how things are really happening. And they just selected me as new chancellor for this new University that intellectuals of India are starting to keep our intellectual freedom alive.
ANT: Great, congratulations! How did the twist happen, from working in the Chipko movement to the Schumacher College?
VS: In the mid 80's largely as a result of the Bhopal disaster of which we've just had 20 years, Punjab violence or terrorism and the emergence of the new globalization, I decided to focus on seeds, saving seeds, promoting an agriculture that didn't need toxics, didn't need corporations, didn't need demonstrations. And the organizations I founded for doing that work continue to do that on a very big scale beyond, I would imagine. We are kind of the organization that gives the support. It holds all these movements, technical training, we do the practical work, we do the research, we do the analysis, we do everything. But to this got added issues of water in the last few years, and right now I'm involved in dealing with the cities' water being privatized by Suez, and I guess in half an hour I'll be sitting with the Water Unions to work out a strategy. I'm dealing with Coke and Pepsi mining ground water, we've just finished meetings for a national action in January in Bhopal. We were there to show that Bhopal, which killed 30,000 people because of a toxic gas leak from a pesticide plant, continues in other forms of pesticides, GMO's, as well as the toxics in the so-called soft drinks that are not very soft because they are loaded by all kinds of chemicals, and our farmers are now using this pesticide by the way. The spraying of Coke and Pepsi is more effective in killing pests than pesticides themselves. So we connected it all and then we just load that. In the way I can tie up our work, our current work in terms of trees, tree sovereignty, tree freedoms, freedom of the seed, the freedom of our food, and the freedom of our work.
ANT: Could you bring women into your discussion on the privatization of water?
VS: Well, for water it is very clear. In the Third World women carry the water to get it home. They are the first ones to know water is polluted. They are the first to know the well has run dry. They are the first to know water is saline. They are the canary of the eco-crisis. Many women are starting to commit suicide because they can't walk the water and the government of India has canceled every local water scheme in favor of Suez, the world's biggest water company which wants to privatize the Ganges. So not only are rural communities denied the water, they are denied the public investment to bring water if their own village has run dry. So we have women jumping into the Ganges because now the Ganges instead of being their mother for life has become a graveyard. So it is, in a way, a system of dispossessing the poor. Women in the hills are being denied water so that every drop of Ganges water can flow down to be sold. So globalization commodifies the resources that are necessary for survival. There is also a group of tribal women who are fighting Coca-Cola, in the South of India, which is sucking out 1.5 million liters a day of water for the bottling of what is called India. And the Coca-Cola bottled water. Interestingly, two miles radius, every tank, every well is dry. Women have no drinking water. That's how it plays out.
ANT: You also worked in the gender unit of the International Centre for Mountain Development in Kathmandu ...
VS: I founded it. I don't work there any more--I founded it; I started it. I was there to start it for a year. I come from Dehra Dun, up in the mountains and my main area of work is the mountain area, so I took time off from my work here in India to be in Nepal, in Kathmandu, and started the International Centre. But in 1982 I made a personal decision that I would do research, academic research and teaching only part-time. I would give my time to building movements and creating sort of societies, institutions ... So yeah, I mean, those are comfortable jobs that pay you very well, but there's only so much you can do through them.
ANT: Your book Staying Alive has been a valuable reference for ecofeminism since its publication. Did it change your career in any way?
VS: Totally, really, first of all because it shifted my perception. Being involved with Chipko, the involvement in the crushed roots environmental movements which were women's movements, elected my own mind going through a deep overhaul, it was like my mind got whitewashed. And that led me initially to give up my job because I wanted to work more on these areas and I wanted to work more on the knowledge that the women had but was never from the Universities. And I wanted to work in a way that knowledge would have space. Someone asked me when I do the research for this. I never made the research: I lived it--that is my life. But that kind of knowledge that women have is not counted as knowledge in the formal systems so I decided to leave the formal systems and build alternative institutions, like the research foundation, international movement called "Diverse Women for Diversity," just to give bigger space to all of that. So I changed, I mean, a fundamental change. I still would be a physicist if it wasn't for that period. And the book changed things for me very dramatically, I suppose. You write a book like that, you are a standard physicist, you are an outcast in certain circles, and you are loved in others, you know. It totally changed my circles.
ANT: Actually my next question was about this movement, "Diverse Women for Diversity," can you bring that into this discussion?
VS: Well, you know, some of us had been dealing with the issue of life patenting and genetic engineering. Now it is a 20 year movement. And some of us were very involved in the international negotiations. And I remember sitting around the negotiators one day and I looked around and I said "My God, every scientist here is a woman" and we decided that it was time to organize ourselves. And we literally sat, we were in a pizza shop and on a paper napkin, we wrote "What do we stand for?" You know, and four of us, all women scientists, wrote down a twisted form and started 'Diverse Women for Diversity.' And it's a very self-organized kind of movement so we have steering committee members in each continent and as issues come up, you know, the kind of support, respond, but together we highlight certain priorities. We grew up out of the fight against genetic engineering and life patenting. But last year, though, earlier this year, there was the World Social Forum, we formed a whole new network on water issues and have all in our ways made a difference to the food politics in our countries and we have a very long campaign--I don't know, millions of signatures--, around a statement that we wrote together about keeping food security in women's hands and through that, major conferences were organized in our field. But we see ourselves as really catalysts that prevent the women's movement from being redefined and strangulated by world banking; because of the world banking's huge money to tell women 'say this,' 'stop this,' 'write this.' There are issues that affect women, our food, our water ... You show me one law that comes to say how are women's rights to water are getting affected, you know, how are women's rights to food getting affected by this new global economy. So we are basically stubborn women who continue to raise the real issues, we won't be silenced. And the reason we call ourselves "Diverse Women for Diversity" is because we're very clear that cultural diversity is a very positive value, but in spite of cultural diversity, we have common values at the human level, you know. We have a common humanity, but we have huge diversity, and the two are not inconsistent with each other. And it is for that respect for diversity we call ourselves "Diverse Women for Diversity." We come from different places, we come from different continents, and some of us are white, and some of us are black, but it doesn't matter, you know. To all of us it's very clear, patenting of life is immoral, illogical, greedy, perverse.
ANT: But does the word "feminism" acquire any meaning for you?
VS: Well, you know, I'm not a very--well--deep person, you know. I never believed too much in the singular meaning of words. You know, I think all words have many meanings and I guess growing up in an Indian culture, you realize that part of what you are taught when you are little. In Sanskrit texts they give a word and you have to give it its thousand other words, equal words. So like, we have songs of the Ganges, which is all the thousand names of the Ganga, we have Lalita, which is a poem to the divine goddess, the thousand names of the goddess, you know, which are the different forms in which women's energy expresses itself; that's all it is, you know, anger and love and ferociousness and all the different dimensions. So for me, words themselves are one pluralistic multiple and I think feminism became meaningful to me when it started to get written decades--two decades--ago, that feminism was dead. We didn't need it any more because we'd had a Margaret Thatcher, we'd had a Madeleine Albright, so feminism was over. You know, I mean, I've come from a public background, doctoral thesis, I studied in North America, and I know this much: one Vandana Shiva getting a PhD doesn't change the status of ordinary Indian women and to say that feminism is not needed any more or the struggle for justice is not needed any more ... what you put into the word "feminism" is up to the women, you know, but that we don't have to struggle for justice any more, I don't think that's true. I don't think, I don't think a few women making it in the patriarchal world makes patriarchy benign for the rest of women.
ANT: Right, so what is the connection of globalization to the life of women? Is it helping women in any way?
VS: No, it's not. We've just finished, my colleague, no this is not the one ... just finished two studies for a national commission for women. This commission has to look at what WTO has done and globalization has done to women in agriculture and what it has done to women's rights work And you know, we were required to hold public hearings on these issues, which meant we went into really remote areas and women would come, thousands of women would come and stand and give the evidence, so it was. Ah, you know, I have my own assessments but this, the stories we had showed us that the impact of globalization is much worse than what we had imagined. Globalization is destroying livelihoods on a very, very big scale, farmers' livelihoods, weavers' livelihood, you know, the basic livelihoods of people; when livelihoods go, people still have to survive. We found in very many areas, first of all large numbers of suicides which are studies we've done. But the women would be left behind to look after the children, with no land because the land is gone. Because the death was the cause of the suicide and the loss of the land, the loss of the house, so you have a woman who is now a landless woman. But the worst situation was that the villages, communities, regions where one third of the women are making their survival by selling their bodies. So the growth, if you were to ask me what has globalization done to women: it has taken every skill, every productive capacity, every aspect of their means of production at the largest social economic level and left them so destitute that the only way they can survive is by participating in the trafficking of women. And another thing that has happened, and another thing that our study has shown is in the pocket, you know, India is a very unequal country in the sense that there are pockets that are very poor, there are pockets that are high growth, there are pockets much more integrated to the global economy, some regions totally left out; and what our study showed was that areas that have most integrated themselves into the global economy and are high-growth regions, are also the areas with the female feticide as the highest. So there is direct correlation between patriarchal definitions of economic growth and what I call the disposability of women.
ANT: OK, so that is it--congratulations for all your work. I really thank you.
Universidad de Cordoba
and Fulbright Visiting Scholar at University of California at Berkeley United States of America
(1) I have to thank my graduate students at Universidad de Cordoba, Maria Jesus Lopez Sanchez-Vizcaino and Nitesh Gurbani, for having enthusiastically and patiently transcribed the interview.
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|Date:||Jun 1, 2006|
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