by Nadine Compton
I met Vandana Shiva in the airport. When the automatic sliding doors at the gate revealed her luggage cart and her orange sari, I half expected a beam of light to illuminate her, such is the legend that surrounds her. Of course none did because Vandana Shiva is just a human being and not a saint. But what a human being she is.
After studying physics in her undergrad she received her Master’s in philosophy and her Ph.D. in quantum physics. In 1982 she set up the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, where researchers work with local communities and social movements to address important ecological and social issues.
In 1991 she established Navdanya, a movement to protect the diversity of living resources, especially seeds, and to advocate for organic farming and fair trade. And like she does after every ten years or so, she founded yet another institution, Bija Vidyapeeth, a sustainable living college. She has taught at universities, written books, and serves on the board of a number of organizations concerned with women, organic farming, and international property rights, among other issues.
So why was she talking to me? Well, she wasn’t really. She had flown from New Delhi to Toronto to give a lecture at her alma mater on “The Right to Food – Women, Development, and the Global Economy.” I was lucky enough to have a discussion with her in the car on her way to Guelph.
Nadine: What do you think the University of Guelph’s role is in improving access to the right to food?
Vandana Shiva: Well interestingly you know I was invited to get an honorary doctorate here maybe two or three years ago, and the president said, “We’re giving this doctorate to Dr. Shiva to remind ourselves that the university is a public institution.” Because you know universities are becoming so privatized and as an agricultural university, Guelph is being absolutely hijacked by the Monsantos of the world. And it’s a typical example of how public institutions or goods get privatized even though society continues to bear all of the responsibility. So, what should Guelph be doing? I think Guelph should be addressing the challenges of our times instead of being an extension agent of corporate agendas. It should be making the new connections that are being made by those that are really working on this issue, the connections between sustainability and ecological issues, the issues of work and livelihoods, the issue of climate change, the issues of health and nutrition, the issues of women’s knowledge. That’s an issue that’s also been addressed in this past election – tuition fees that young Canadians have to pay, and ultimately get into debt for. It was particularly contentious in Québec a few years ago, where there were protests and demonstrations due to an increase in fees.
N: Do you believe that tuition should be free?
VS: I believe that tuition should definitely not be so costly that students begin their lives borrowing and in debt. Students should be absolutely free intellectually and mentally, so that they can concentrate on their learning, on their education because beginning with debt, you’re forced to make the kinds of choices that’ll help you pay off the debt, rather than those that would help you grow to your best potential. And it’s not that the society is poor. I mean Canada is a rich country. It’s wrong for Canada to subsidize fossil fuels and burden the students. It’s just morally an outrage.
N: How is your approach to these topics different than your peers? Non-environmental activists?
VS: First, because a lot of the work I do today… I haven’t been groomed in it in a linear, one-dimensional way. I’ve addressed as an issue in nature. I see an ecosystem collapse and try to get what’s really happening. And in reality things are connected. My Ph.D. thesis, which I did at Western, was on non-locality and non-separability in quantum theory, so even science tells you that everything is related and yet we have a reductionist paradigm that pretends that everything is separate. Sadly most trainings are in that one dimensional groove and then when you get into the academic track, you want your publications, you want your tenure, then you have to continue in that. So a lot gets left out. Reductionist approaches don’t look at interdisciplinarity, don’t look at interconnections.
N: How did you transition from physics to agriculture? Was there any backlash from your colleagues when you made that move?
VS: No, no. Even when I decided to come here to do my higher studies it was with the conscious choice that I didn’t want to be a mechanical physicist. And I didn’t want to just be a cog in a machine. For me, physics was about understanding how nature works. And that understanding was what I followed all the way, especially why I specialized in the foundations of quantum theory, already by that time I was walking alone. So my trajectory was a trajectory which I was carving out for myself. When I went back, I consciously chose to join an institute where I could look at interactions between science and society because I’ve always been very troubled by incongruent messages. We are all always told, “Science removes poverty.” And India has the world’s third largest scientific community and this point one of the highest rates of poverty and malnutrition. And it didn’t hang together. The Green Revolution was given the Nobel Prize for peace and in 1984, Punjab was a land of violence. And Canada’s connected to that because the Air India flight that was blown up over Ireland was part of that whole extremist action. It didn’t make sense to get a prize for peace, but then there is violence. I was working for the United Nations University at the time and I said, “You’ve got to look at this.” The pressure really came at two points – not from any peer groups. I was in Bangalore and every day I saw more eucalyptus planting on the farmland and I couldn’t figure it out. So I told the institute that I was working for that we must investigate. And of course we found out that the World Bank was behind it, funding the growth of eucalyptus for raw material for the pulp industry and calling it social forestry because we had come up with that phrase with Chipko [the organized resistance against the destruction of Indian forests]. The study made a huge impact and the farmer’s movement emerged around it and the regional parliament had huge discussions about it and rejected the plan. The director of my institute was very fond of me and respected me and he says, “I’m so proud of you, but the World Bank’s been putting the pressure on me saying, ‘we will cut of this funding and this funding and this funding’ if you ever do research like this.” His name was Dr. Ramasan. I said, “Dr. Ramasan I’m not going to change. Any research for me is to find the truth. And no power in the world can suppress that urge in me. And instead of you losing grants for the institute which you need, I will create a space where I can work independently.” Which is why I created the Research Foundation, I left the institute. The next round of intense pressure was not from peers, but from Monsanto and its lobbyists. They’re not fellow scientists, they’re journalists.
N: How can we all be sustainable in our food consumption practices?
VS: I think the way to be sustainable in food consumption practices is to be sustainable in food production. And non-sustainability is built right into the industrial agriculture model because it uses ten times more inputs than it produces, it uses ten times more energy that it produces as calories, it uses ten times more finances for purchase of internal inputs than what farmers can earn which is why farmers go under, get into debt, and leave the land or in the case of India commit suicide – three hundred thousand of them. So it’s not sustainable. But fortunately we have better ways to produce. And the three things that – and this is the work that I’ve been doing through Navdanya, the movement I’ve built over the last thirty years – is that we have to move from monocultures to diversity, we have to move from chemicals and external inputs to ecological processes, internal inputs, what is called agro-ecology, we’ve got to move from globalized trade to local distribution. So that wealth gets distributed and more nutritious, healthier, fresher systems improve.
N: Do you have any advice for any future agricultural activists?
VS: One is, you’ve got to do the work that will take care of the Earth and of food. Just because those who are destroying the planet and preventing our right to food have huge amounts of money, be guided by your conscience. And be resilient.
Nadine Compton is a freelance writer and blogger who started and curates Pop Culture Middle East (popcultureme.blogspot.com), where in an effort to maintain her connections to her home in that area of the world, she publishes posts on Arabic cuisine and her interviews with notable Arab figures in the fields of political cartooning, film, hip hop radio, online comedy, feminist lingerie, environmental activism, as well as with women living in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. She can be found on: Facebook, Twitter & Instagram