Vandana Shiva was born on November 5, 1952 in Dehra Dun, Uttarakhand, India in the valley of Dehradun. Her parents were intimately involved with the natural world; her father was involved in forest conservation and her mother was a farmer. Their love of nature must have played a significant role in shaping her commitment and her devotion to conservation and preservation of those natural resources so essential to life.
Shiva received her early education at St. Mary’s school in Nainital and at the convent of Jesus and Mary. She went on to receive her B.S. in Physics. She was awarded a PhD in philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, Canada in 1978. Her academic training was in the area of nuclear physics; the title of her thesis was, Hidden Variables and Locality in Quantum Theory. She is a renowned scientist who has published over 3000 papers in peer-reviewed journals.
She is well known, moreover, for her activism regarding ecological, environmental and economic issues, especially in relation to healthy food and clean water accessibility and safety. She is a staunch opponent of agribusiness. As we shall see, she is an unrelenting critic in regards to the role of globalization in destabilizing local societies, local economies and what she often refers to as the commons.
The commons represents the resources that are collectively owned or shared by a particular society or between societies. These resources can include amenities such as clean water, public land, accessibility to healthy food, essential services such as fire and police protection, emergency medical care, etc. In some societies the commons is more expansive than others. For example, access to medical care is seen by many countries as an integral part of the commons, while others do not.
Through a good portion of her adult life, Shiva has participated in activist movements especially in regards to the deleterious effects of so-called “Globalization.” We will examine her views in some detail.
Shiva participated in the nonviolent Chipko movement during the 1970s in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand. The Chipko movement practiced non-violent resistance or satyagraha as developed by Gandhi (see the section on Mahatma Gandhi for more detail). The movement, some of whose main participants were women, adopted the approach of forming human circles around trees to prevent their felling. The noteworthy event in this struggle took place on March 26, 1974, when a group of female peasants in Reni village, Hemwalghati, in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, India, mobilized to stop the cutting of trees; they were threatened by the contractor working for the state Forest Department. In spite of these threats, hundreds of such grassroots level actions blossomed throughout the region and eventually throughout India. This movement was significantly successful in its original mission.
Shiva is one of the leaders of the International Forum on Globalization, (along with Jerry Mander, Edward Goldsmith, Ralph Nader, Jeremy Rifkin, et al.), and a key figure in the global solidarity movement known as the Alter Globalization Movement. She has long been a staunch and vocal opponent of globalization as epitomized in the policies of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). What follows is a brief history of these organizations.
It all began in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire in 1944. Economic leaders from the Allied powers met to plan for the aftermath of the Second World War. The institutions that were created are with us to this day exerting enormous influence over the economies of the nations of the world. The IMF and the World Bank had their beginnings here. The IMF is a specialized agency whose stated purpose is to stabilize exchange rates and facilitate international trade. Each member contributes to the fund in gold and currency. The World Bank is otherwise known as the International bank for Reconstruction and Development. The Bretton Woods Conference set up the World Bank, GATT and the IMF so that the US dollar would take the place of gold as the medium of international exchange once the war was over and provide long-term loans to countries devastated by the war. The essential ingredient of the Bretton Woods policies was the dollar, which would replace gold and which the US government could print as much as needed. In October, 1947 GATT was created to ensure the dismantling of trade barriers.
The World Bank lends money to the so-called third world so that they can use that money towards development. The nations that agree to the terms of these loans often find themselves so deeply in debt that they find it difficult to repay. The usual response of the lending institution is to insist that the debtor nation cut back on its social programs. A Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) is often proposed which basically calls upon the debtor nation to make cuts in programs that benefit the poor and often to privatize industries and services if they expect to receive additional loans to stay afloat. Shiva and outspoken opponents of these institutions claim that the net effect of this relationship is that money is loaned to build the appropriate infrastructure to allow access to natural resources and ultimately export these resources to the wealthy countries that have financed the loans. Nations caught up in this relationship find that they have lost much of their economic base especially in agriculture that had previously afforded them a modicum of self-sufficiency.
Shiva’s particular concerns revolve around industrial farming especially as practiced by agribusiness and the role of global institutions in subverting local agriculture. She has spoken out strongly in opposition to industrial agriculture when applied to shrimp farming and its impact on India and what she sees as the rising threat of the use of genetically modified seeds. In response to the application of this new technology to seed production, Shiva started an organization called Navdanya created to stress the importance of biodiversity, practice chemical-free agriculture and free agriculture from monopoly control. According to Shiva, “As farmers are transformed from producers into consumers of corporate patented agriculture products, as markets are destroyed locally and nationally and expanded globally, the myth of “free trade” and the global economy becomes a means for the rich to rob the poor of their right to food and even their right to life.”
To exemplify the deleterious impact of the foreign domination of trade, Shiva sites the horrendous Bengal famine of 1943 (see the section on Muhammad Yunus for further details) that devastated what is now Bangladesh. Three and one-half million Bengalis starved to death as previously described. At the time the region was dominated by the British who engineered the forceful exportation of 80,000 tons of food grain prior to the famine.
In regards to the global economy and agribusiness, Shiva has fundamental and over-lapping concerns. One is the increased use of genetically modified crops worldwide as previously cited. The fact that companies like Monsanto have actually patented genetically modified life forms like soybeans and that the farmers who use these crops cannot legally save seeds creates a serious impediment to small independent farms and the assurance of food safety. An additional concern, from Shiva’s perspective, is the displacement of varieties of agricultural products that have developed over thousands of years of human agriculture by the use of fragile and vulnerable monocultures that may jeopardize food production in the future.
There is the additional pressure of international financial institutions like the World Bank that encourages the shift in the production of food products for the local economy to products intended solely for export. An example of this, and there are many, is the production of cotton for export in the south of India. In addition, there has been an analogous shift in Central and South America towards the production of crops destined for export to be used in so-called “biofuels.”
Vandana Shiva continues to be an outspoken critic of agricultural policies that have been dictated by international financial institutions in the name of globalization. The preservation of the commons is of fundamental importance to her and she has been a strong and powerful advocate for the powerless worldwide.