Interview: Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva has been a prominent figure in global environmental activism for decades. She is an outspoken critic of corporate agriculture and globalisation, and an advocate for eco-feminism, food sovereignty, and seed rights. She is a prolific writer, having authored over two-dozen books since 1981. In 1993, she received the Right Livelihood Award – established to "honour and support those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today."

Adam: To start us off, could you please introduce our readers to Navdanya and your concept of earth democracy.

Vandana: I have a background in physics, particularly in understanding the foundations of quantum theory. I have a PhD on hidden variables and non-locality from the Western University in Ontario. And I became involved with the ecology movement (with the chipko movement, as it was called here in the 70s) when I was finishing my PhD but also volunteering for the movement. It was that that opened my eyes and my world both to ecological activism and to biodiversity because before that my world was the world of physics. Navdanya grew out of the fact that in 1984, when I was working at the United Nations University on a program called Land, Natural Resources and Conflicts. The UNU was asking me to look at conflicts in Punjab, the land where the Green Revolution was first introduced. People generally think green revolution means ecological farming, but it means chemicals in farming, nothing green or revolutionary about it. I had studied in Punjab. I had my MSc honours in particle physics from the University of Punjab. I graduated in 1973 and back then it was peaceful, and it was one of the most prosperous states in India which is why it was picked for the Green Revolution. And the colour green was just a little different from red, that was the only reason it was called green. There was no green philosophy, it was just about selling more and at this time Norman Borlaug was the man. He was given a Nobel Peace Prize for it, but here we had war as a result of it. So, I wrote this book called The Violence of the Green Revolution at that time. Then three years later I was invited to a meeting where the same chemical companies wanted to own the seed, patent the GMOs, and have international treaties and WTO TRIPS. On my flight back from that meeting, I decided that I was going to save seeds. If they want to own the seeds, there will be just four of them. They basically said, we will be four of us owning all the seeds, controlling all food. I decided that the most important thing to do was to save seeds. I knew nothing about it at the time, but I learned about it. Navdanya means Nine Seeds. It isn’t the name that I gave the movement, I just called it the Seed Saving Movement. I was doing seed collections in a hilly area of Tamil Nadu and Bangalore. I had kept the area safe. There was no government intervention or Green Revolution. So here was a tribal farmer whose seeds I wanted to know about. I was doing seed collection, and of course you ask the farmers. Giving and exchanging seeds is a part of the culture of farming, hoarding that seed is considered sinful and yet here you had a whole international regime based on that sinful act of "only we will have the seed". So, I was collecting seeds and talking to him and I said, “Wow, you have nine crops”. I had just finished my study of Punjab and monocultures of rice and monocultures of wheat and here were nine crops flourishing together. And he gave me this amazing discourse of the nine planets. The nine crops in the field and the diversity we need which now science is realising (this was in the late 80s, early 90s). Science is now catching up to the fact that we need biodiversity in our food to maintain the diversity in our gut, which is the basis of our health. This tribal farmer, with no schooling or anything, had all of this understanding. In Sanskrit and Hindi, nav means nine, but it also means something new. Dan means grain, but it also means the act of giving to someone else. So, the name signifies the nine seeds of diversity, but it is a gift of the commons because patents are the ultimate enclosure. What we have done since 1987 is we started to save seeds. We learned and trained ourselves to do it. I took books from my parents’ library and showed images to the farmers. They would point and tell us which crops they grew, so we started there. We first encouraged farmers to save seeds and then eventually created community seed banks. We have now created 150 seed banks. Part of the colonial mindset is that the coloniser creates, that’s what civilisation is all about. But the coloniser really just exploits and steals, that’s the basis of colonisation. Creativity comes from nature. It is the farmers who create. The whole narrative of the seeds was that our seeds were primitive, their yield was below-par. But that is not true. They are sophisticated, they can tolerate floods, droughts, and different climate conditions. And new research shows that the nutrition in native seeds is much more than in other seeds. A European study shows that one traditional apricot which looks small in terms of weight is equal to 50 apricots of the modern varieties in terms of nutrition.

So, I started long ago by saying that what matters in nutrition is not the weight, you know this crude Cartesian idea that it is only mass – there is nothing like quality. Reclaiming quality has been a very big part of my scientific work. We started to measure health per acre rather than yield per acre and our research showed that if you conserve biodiversity you can actually grow enough food to feed two Indias – there does not have to be any hunger. It is very interesting that the Prime Minister of India gave a speech about how we must grow organic, but not just organic as a commodity but organic as a way of life. It is the way of nature, the way of diversity, the way of recycling, all of that very complex thinking. But democracy grew out of that complex thinking. Actually, everything is in relationship with everything else – we are here because of the trees, because of the earth, because of the seed, because of the sun. The idea of the earth family was built into India’s ecological civilisation. I articulated it as earth democracy because in 1999 we had stopped the World Trade Organisation, which sought the commodification of everything – of water, of steel, of food, of agriculture. And our slogan was “Our World is Not for Sale”. Our world is not a commodity, and it is not for sale. And we stopped the WTO. And of course, the typical writers, journalists, called us the antiglobalizers who didn’t know what they were for or against.

I said no, we are against the patenting of seeds because we are for the seeds. We are against the privatisation of water because we are for the rivers, and we are for the right to water. We know what we are for and therefore we resist what is wrong. I said this had gone on for too long, for too long people wrote that we didn’t know what we were for. So I decided to write a precise statement of what we are for. Thus, I wrote Earth Democracy, that is my statement of what we stand for. Earth Democracy talks about three pillars, the economy of greed which is all that globalisation is. And all over the world people are starting to realise that when big money starts to hijack democracy there is no democracy. It is the death of democracy. And to achieve the complete death of democracy, we must pit people against each other – look at the polarisation. You can see the polarisation that is taking place in the world, it is so deep. People are now being distracted from the basic issues that unify us and that is why I am so impressed with the Indian farmers movement who sat for 14 months on the streets, created villages, and created a historic movement. They are now wrapping up with such pride. The best thing about it was we learned what it means to be a community, what it means to be human. We learned what it means to know that we are powerful – and that is ultimate. They refused to be divided because an economy of greed linked to a hijack of democracy means you divide people. As Samuel Huntington said, “You can only know who you are if you know who you hate.” So, this new culture of hate that has been created and aggravated further with social media. And I don’t know where Mr. Zuckerberg will take it with Meta (he just launched it in India yesterday). He calls it fuelling India, like India was lying dead. India, a 10,000year-old civilisation, was lying as a corpse, and he is now fuelling us into virtual reality.

So, the three pillars for earth democracy are not killing economies but living economies, not dead democracies but living democracies, and not killing cultures but living cultures of biodiversity. Cultural diversity and biodiversity are issues that become more relevant with the passing of each day. Adhishree: You mentioned the chipko movement as the roots of what and where you started. How important is the participation of women and marginalised communities in creating any movement? How do they become the bones of the movement?

Vandana: They are the bones of the movement. If those whom we marginalise were not building alternatives everyday of their lives, not resisting every day of their lives, travesties like what colonialism produced would lead to the extinction of their lives. But the fact that they are still around is testament to the fact that they are organising every day. The women have sustained life every day while wars happened, and economies collapsed. I have realised that there are three things. One is that marginalisation teaches you what is important and that’s why the important things now have to be learned from women and indigenous people. So as far as the project of staying alive is concerned, they are not marginalised. The marginalised are the guys thinking they own billions around the world. They are the marginal lot. Those who are pushed to the margins by money and power are holding life with care. That’s where we must look. So, in a paradoxical way, the margins are the future. Ecologically also that is true. It is always at the boundaries of ecosystems that life really flourishes. The crudeness with which indigenous people are being treated is like the old colonial days of massacres. Look at the scenes coming from the RCMP going into the sovereign regions of Canada or the Amazon or the shootings and killings all over the world. And there are people in rich parts of the world talking about how they are buying electric cars to help the environment with no idea of what lithium mines are doing. So, a part of industrialism – it makes you break your thinking, your thinking becomes fragmented. So much of the comfort zone of ecological illiteracy allows those in the centre to think that here is a solution, but – for those in the margins who are bearing the brunt of it – it is not. So, listen to the margins. They are participating. We have to remove the deafness of the elite. Adam: You’ve touched on colonialism quite a lot, so I’d like to go back to that. I recently learned about UPOV (I think that’s the International Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties). And I was reading about how this consortium of countries in the Global North are pushing for countries in the Global South to sign on to this “free trade” deal where the seeds would be under corporate control, and ordinary farmers would be unable to save, exchange, and breed the seeds. So, it seems to be an example of this sort of globalised, corporate colonialism which you’ve been talking about. But I also feel like people aren’t really aware of this phenomenon and its implications.

Vandana: OK, let me take a step back. I talked about why I started Navdanya, and why we started saving seeds – because the corporations wanted to own the seeds. Two ways. The new way was patenting. But the older way – just a decade before that in the ‘70s (’72 was the first UPOV treaty, it’s a French acronym) – was what they termed breeder’s rights. But this was based on a false assumption that farmers don’t breed. It’s where a corporation takes the seeds a farmer has bred and turns it into a hybrid – suddenly there’s breeding. So, in the WTO Agreement on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), Article 27.3(b), which basically talks about this whole issue of corporate ownership, the UPOV part is breeder’s rights, and the other is patenting. And it’s much more difficult to take a patent. That’s why they went the GMO route. You can’t take a patent. And therefore, they said “OK we’ll add a new organism and then we’ve made something new.” So, the industry was using ordinary breeding methods and trying to claim breeder’s rights. And because I caught onto this “game” of piracy in ’87, I started to work with saving seeds and seed banks. And I started working with our ambassador, an amazing man called S. P. Shukla (he later led the movement of people against WTO). Seed is normally a dark domain for negotiators – it’s inconsequential. So, I started talking about seeds and we changed two clauses in that article 27.3(b). And I have this book – Origin: The Corporate War on Nature and Culture – that goes back 30 years. All the legal stuff. Everything on UPOV, everything on breeder’s rights, all the cases we’ve won on bio-piracy, all the laws we’ve changed. It’s very, very detailed. If any of your readers want to go deeper into it, that book has all of this. Anyway, so the first part we changed was: we said you can’t force countries to own plants and animals, so we put an exemption clause there. And then there was this thing that said you have to cover all seeds and plants with either patenting or breeder’s rights. And we said no, because farmers are the breeders. So, our ambassador put the words sui generis into the law. Then we worked in India, where corporates were saying “you know, you have to sign UPOV!” We said no, we’ve got sui generis in the law with WTO and so we involved the sui generis law and the minister at that time to help draft a new law. It’s called the Plant Variety Protection and Farmer’s Rights Act. And it’s the only law in the world that has farmer’s rights recognised and protected. Article 29 of this law. So, the attempts to push UPOV have been going on very long. Attempts to resist it have been going on equally long. And we’ve been very, very successful. Unfortunately, African countries have been bullied very harshly by UPOV. They tried with us, but we were able to force through a rollback. And our Farmer’s Rights Act is the rollback.

Adam: So, what I wanted to add to that – because, as you say, the battle against UPOV etc. has been going on for so long – how can your average “urbanite” support that struggle? Because I feel like many people not immediately affected by this issue probably may not even be aware of it.

Vandana: So, the first thing is that – we all eat food. And all food begins with seed. So, every time you’re eating, become more conscious of the fact it comes from seed. And if it’s bad seed it’s going to be bad food and it’s going to make you sick. So, you know, start a little ritual. Take a seed off your favourite plant and grow it in your windowsill. And say, I am going to protect the seed. A simple act. Second, I will only eat food that comes from non-commodity, non-industrial seed. Now, a lot of urbanites have started to save seeds. In 2014, in India, they tried to pass a new law to make it illegal again for farmers to save seeds, and we fought back again. And they tried again – in 2019 they made another draft – and we fought back again. At the same time in the US, they basically declared – a similar law – that seed saving is a terrorist act. And people write to me and say, well, what do we do. I say, do what we did – declare you will not obey. Just go and exchange seed in public places. And say it’s your duty. On the Navdanya forming pledge we say that these seeds we have received from nature and our ancestors, and we have a duty to protect them for nature and for future generations. And we will not obey any law that comes in the way of this duty to the earth and to our children. And we declared this long before any law came – then of course we were successful in changing the laws too. But this is what we call Seed Satyagraha. Satyagraha is Gandhi’s word for the fight for truth. Satya – truth; agraha – force. So, have a lovely ritual with your plant on the windowsill. And have another ritual in your town square and exchange seeds. And say we will not obey any law – say this isn’t a crime, this is a duty. Do you think the slaves became free just like 'that'? It took decades of anti-slavery movements. Nothing is a given. And one thing I’ve learned in life is: you can win. And they’ll try and take it away again and you struggle again. So, just hold on to that which is precious – and never give up.

Adhishree: There is a lady in a village in Maharashtra, I think she’s near Ahmednagar. She has a seedbank and if you want you can go to her and get seeds (I don’t think she charges for them). My mother is making a garden, so she is in touch with her and with this in mind I understand what you mean by "have that as a right for yourself and for the society that you live" that you cannot say that holding seeds and exchanging seeds can be a terrorist act. And to just take off from that, and about ecological entities having rights. New Zealand/Aotearoa recently gave the status of legal personhood to a river. Do you think that something like that is a way forward – where we grant this legal status, a humanitarian status, really – to other elements of the natural world? Do you think that will really help us? Is it something that can be replicated by other countries?

Vandana: Firstly, you know when I talk about earth democracy – to me, earth democracy means you are part of a family where every being in that family has rights. And those rights are a given. Secondly, in 2009 when the Copenhagen climate summit was undermined by President Obama (a littleknown fact, he tried to kill the legally binding treaty), Evo Morales the president of Bolivia got up and said: we were here to negotiate the rights of mother earth, and protect her rights, not the rights of polluters. So, I’m going to go home and start working on drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth for the citizens of the world.

And I’m part of the core group that drafted, the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. So, like there’s a universal declaration on human rights, there’s this draft declaration on the rights of mother earth. It’s available on the Navdanya website, you can go and look for it. And out of that grew many movements, including the Global Alliance on the Rights of Nature and so on. And basically, that’s the founding document. Now, when you know that all beings have rights you can contrast it with all this anthropocentrism: people use this language of “giving rights”. That’s human arrogance. You can’t give rights to a mountain; you can’t give rights to a river. The river gives you rights to live! You can’t give rights to a tree; the tree gives you the right to breathe. So, I think in the West, where this anthropocentrism is deep, you kind of project this anthropocentrism into this pretence of saving the earth. But it is pretence. So, I don’t subscribe to the language of granting rights to other beings, especially beings on whom we depend. Yes, as a little awareness play it’s fine. If that’s what it takes to dumb down humanity, then let them wake up through that. But that can’t be the end. The end has to be saying this tree has rights, and this worm has rights, and this insect has rights, and this valley has rights. And that’s how indigenous people have fought. And that’s the reason they are fighting from the ground. They are not saying “I grant this mountain rights.” They’re saying “We are here because of the land.” Look at the language of aboriginal Australians, why are they fighting so hard against coal mines? “We are, because of country.” So, I think there needs to be a little more indigenous learning for the Westernised cultures, including “third world” cultures. And sometimes it’s convenient because that’s the way to go, like the River Whanganui in New Zealand. But I think it’s more important to say, “Look, how did cultures govern? And govern rights?”

Adhishree: Yes, that’s true. Because if you look at many indigenous populations, different parts of nature are often held as sacred – water, rivers, mountains. The language changes. It’s never “we are ‘granting’ them rights.”

Vandana: Yes! In fact, in my new book I’m doing a whole dictionary of the distortion of language. Because every word is being flipped to fit into that greed machine.

Adam: As we begin to wrap up, I want to move on to a very important topic which I believe you work on quite a lot – soil degradation. If you could please explain this issue to our readers and what are some potential ways you envision regenerating the health of our soils.

Vandana: The first degradation of soils is what the British did, and the colonisers did. Which was defining it as property. Because that’s what broke the relationship. The British colonised India with one stroke of a pen, and all of the soil of India and all of the land of India was defined as British property, for which they then collected the rents and impoverished India. So, that’s the first degradation. The second is exploitation of the soil itself – constantly extracting fertility and not giving back. And the third is the more contemporary crimes where synthetic fertilisers destroy the very basis of living soil. They kill all the soil organisms. You know people think it adds fertility but all the data – and I have so many in my books including Soil Not Oil – table after table, lots and lots of data which shows that chemical farming is significantly reducing fertility and organic farming practices have improved it.

So, when you ask how you regenerate – you regenerate first by realising that soil is living and you just have to partner with that life. And that’s why just giving a little bit of organic matter and the right composting and love and care! – your soil regains its health so fast, in a season!

Organic farming, biodiverse farming, permaculture – you can choose the name you like, exactly like you choose the club you belong to or the party you vote for. It doesn’t matter. The principles are what matter. And the principles are ecological principles of working with the laws of nature. Laws of nature are: nature never works as a monoculture – it works in diversity. It never takes, takes, takes – it always gives back. Those two things are the way you regenerate. And our data is so amazing. We did a twenty-year study in our valley comparing organic and chemical practices. In the chemical samples, everything was negative. Negative organic matter, negative nitrogen, negative phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, zinc. So, people ask, “why do we have a zinc deficiency? Why do we have a magnesium deficiency?” Well, it’s what you did to the soil. The soil’s health and our health is one health. At Navdanya we host a course looking at this every year. It’s called the A to Z of soil health.

Adhishree: Do you think there can be some middle ground where we kind of accept some parts of industrialisation, even in regard to soil and seeds? Can there ever be a middle ground or is industrial farming just this demon that has to be resisted?

Vandana: Well, for me, the test is the ecological process. If it’s purely words, of course it can. You can mix all words together, it’s fine! But if the chemical fertiliser kills the mycorrhizae and the earth worm, what middle ground are you talking about? And so many of the people who work with me, they came and said, “Oh, but Vandana we’ve got to have fertiliser.” The scientist who works on our soil – he was convinced. He’s done the studies over 20 years ago. And he said, “Oh, but I was wrong! I thought you could keep doing this and this. But it’s destroying the conditions of health.” And so on. So, ecology is the test. Words are not. Words are very mischievous.

Adhishree: So, there’s a natural balance and you just have to—

Vandana: Not a natural balance alone! Knowledge. Applying chemical fertiliser isn’t a natural balance – applying chemical fertiliser means understanding its impacts. Applying chemical pesticides means understanding impacts. I’m not talking about cultivating ignorance. I’m talking about knowing what you do.

Adam: Finally, then, going back to your own work in Navdanya and elsewhere. Could you please share some recent successes which could inspire our readers.

Vandana: So, I showed you the regenerative potential of soil, right? And that can be done anywhere in the world. I shared with you the fact that we created fifty seed banks. But that means when cyclones come into the Bay of Bengal the communities are able to turn to each other, to have seeds for the next crop. If all these seeds were in corporate hands, disaster’s such as this would wipe out their lives. They wouldn’t have money for the next crop, and they’d leave agriculture – they’d be refugees. So, the seed banks are really resilience. They’re economic resilience, they’re ecological resilience. And also, the whole nutritional aspect. Farmers breed seeds for eating, corporations breed seeds for profits. And that makes all the difference. If I breed seeds for eating, I will breed nutritious seed – tasty seed. If I am breeding for profits, I will breed seeds that respond to chemicals, I’ll make them toxic, make them weigh more and look big – but nutritionally empty! So, the entire nutritional and health angle with seedsaving is becoming very, very big. And our communities, especially the women, will tell you that, during covid, the gardens we maintained with them saw them through in the time that everything was locked down. We had food, and we shared food. So, it’s not just about resilience, but about freedom.