Vandana Shiva is an environmental activist. She is director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in New Delhi. She has pioneered research on biodiversity and indigenous ethnoscience. Shiva is the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the alternative Nobel Prize. She is the author of Biopiracy and Stolen Harvest and more recently, of Water Wars - Privatization, pollution, and profit. David Barsamian conducted this interview.

Tell me about your latest book.

Water Wars is my synthesis of 25 years of ecological engagement where every environmental conflict has been created around the devastation of our water systems by wasteful, abusive development. For example, large dams have flooded out tens of millions of people. These dams don’t really contribute to long-term development in the areas that get the water. There’s salinization. There’s water-logging. Agricultural systems which use five times more water to produce the same amount of food are called productive and efficient. The Green Revolution’s so-called miracle is one very big reason for the disappearance of our groundwater as well as surface water in areas that should never have had intensive irrigation. The shift from prudent irrigation, agriculture that depends on rain, drought-resistant crops, nutritious millets, have all been replaced by monocultures of thirsty wheat and rice varieties that have ruined not just India’s aquifers, but also aquifers around the world. In addition to that are new threats coming from World Bank-financed water privatization plans. The World Bank was responsible for shifting India’s water use to nonsustainable models. It’s now using that nonsustainability crisis to say neither the government nor the people should make decisions about water. Water ownership should now move through concessions and new arrangements called public-private partnerships into the hands of the four or five water lords who would like to own the water of this planet, like the four or five life lords trying to own the seeds of this planet.

Moving from water to food—biotechnology has been hailed as generating tremendous benefits for the world’s hungry. You are one of its leading critics.

I view biotechnology through the lens of my experience looking at the Green Revolution. It left farmers impoverished, so much so that today they’re committing suicide. Biotechnology is working on precisely the same linear path. The Green Revolution was about selling more chemicals. Biotechnology is also about selling more chemicals. You can make this out by looking at the two dominant applications of the technology to the commercialization of crops. The first is Roundup-resistant or herbicide-resistant crops that can take high doses of chemicals and survive. That’s a strategy to continue to sell herbicides, not to reduce herbicide use.

The second most important category of crops is called Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis. They take a toxin-producing gene from a bacterium called Bt, put it into the crops, and the crops and plants are producing this toxin in every cell of the plant at every moment. This is supposed to be an alternative to pesticides. In my view, ecologically, these are pesticide-producing plants. So not only are you spraying once in a while, which is what you do with normal pesticides, you are now literally producing toxins all the time. They are going to go into our food. They are going into the food chain and the ecological web of life. The most important thing is, nature is intelligent. Species are intelligent. The one or two species towards which these are supposed to be defenses, namely the earthworm family of pests, evolved rapid resistance. Now they’re having a toxin released all the time. They make mutations. Within a year or two you have an evolution of resistance in the very pests you wanted to control. That means you now have to use super-pesticides to control these resistant pests. These again are not systems of reducing chemical and pesticide use.

As far as the miracles of providing us with nutritious crops, crops to contain diseases, for one, it’s a myth. Golden Rice is a clear example of a highly inefficient way to get vitamin A to the poor. It has been established by the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization that the only way vitamin deficiency has been removed in poor communities is by giving women the diversity of seeds that are sources of vitamin A. They are a thousand times richer than Golden Rice will ever be. They haven’t even started to assess what it means ecologically if we have vaccine-producing plants and what it means in terms of hazards in the food system. If they could not keep Starling corn, which was not supposed to be eaten by humans and was only for cattle feed, out of the human food chain, what are they going to do about vaccine plants that are not supposed to be eaten by humans? We know excessive doses of any vaccine can become a source of problems rather than a solution or a cure.

Your organization issued a report called “Seeds of Suicide: The Ecological and Human Costs of Globalization.” What kind of discoveries did you make?

I remember specifically it was winter 1997. The first few tiny, two-line reports started to come out about farmer suicides. We immediately rushed to the affected areas. In this particular case it was Andhra Pradesh, one of the states that is supposed to be the most integrated with the global economy. Why did the farmers start to get into debt? We were able to establish through very detailed studies that it was the shift from staples and ecological agriculture done with no purchased inputs to cash crops like cotton, which overtook 99 percent of these regions since globalization started to change our agriculture. New seeds and hybrid seeds can’t be saved by farmers, and the companies don’t tell the farmers these are non-renewable seeds. The hybrid seeds are very pest-prone and therefore the farmers need pesticides. The farmers have no money.

The same companies, through their agents at the local, village level, who happen to be the moneylenders and landlords, end up providing the credit at very high interest rates to move the seeds and the chemicals. Within a year or two, farmers are in hundreds of thousands of rupees of debt.

Usually, in traditional agriculture in Third World societies, farming is a collective decision. The new package converts a farmer from being a member of a community and a producer to being a consumer of purchased inputs like seeds and chemicals.
Usually, in traditional agriculture in Third World societies, farming is a collective decision. People decide the weather will be like this, the rain is like this, this crop will work, this is how much water we have. Let’s plant this way. The new package converts a farmer from being a member of a community and a producer to being a consumer of purchased inputs like seeds and chemicals. Quietly, the men will take a loan. The family doesn’t even know. The man doesn’t have the guts to go home and say, "I have created 200,000 rupees of debt". Last year there was a case where when the man couldn’t pay back his debt, the moneylender, the local agent of the multinationals, said, "Don’t worry. Give me your wife". The man couldn’t bear that violence to himself and his wife and he drank the same pesticide that he was using, that got him into debt.

Every village I have visited in the state of Punjab has had suicides. Pesticide use has increased 2,000 percent in the last decade. The hybrid seeds are very costly. They are advertised and promoted in the most unethical ways. Part of what globalization has done is removed any regulation on the seed sector. Globalization is the deregulation of commerce. Companies can sell what they want on what terms they want, with no one to keep a check. We call it “Seeds of Suicide” because it is beginning with seeds. But we also have a program called Seeds of Hope where we’re getting open-pollinated varieties in the hands of farmers, especially in Punjab. The enthusiasm is amazing.

In the early 1990s the Indian government embraced globalization. There is an incident you recount when the U.S. Trade Representative visited India and put a lot of pressure on the government.

The Indian government didn’t embrace globalization voluntarily. In 1991, the World Bank basically said - you’ve got to have structural adjustment. During that period, we had a very intense movement starting in 1988 when the U.S. changed its trade law and the trade representatives had more power. In addition, new areas were brought into the U.S. Trade Act. Two clauses were added. One is called Special 301. The other is called Super 301. These clauses basically empowered the U.S. Trade Representative to announce unilateral trade action against any country that did not respect U.S. laws. Indians are supposed to respect Indian laws. But suddenly we were supposed to respect U.S. Laws.

During the resistance against these 301 clauses, Carla Hills, the U.S. Trade Representative, visited, in 1991 or 1992. She announced that the U.S. was going to open the Indian economy for U.S. corporations through crowbar action. That of course sent a trigger through the country. People could not accept that a trade representative from another country could decide that the economy of our country was not for the people of India, but for the corporations of the U.S. The farmers used that issue to tear down the Cargill plant in 1992. When they started the action, they said, You said you were going to tear down our economy by crowbar action. We are going to tear down your multinationals by crowbar action.

You’ve been instrumental in bringing the neem tree to people’s attention.

The neem tree grows in every backyard of India. It also grows in every ecosystem across the country. It’s been called a miracle tree, traditionally as well as by modern science. Its twigs are used as a toothbrush. Its very tender leaves are used for eating. It’s a blood purifier, an absolutely amazing fungicide. We use it for curing skin diseases. When you have a massage with neem oil, you won’t get bitten by a mosquito. It’s been a cure for malaria. Also, when you have neem trees planted, you don’t have mosquitos around. It’s a nonviolent pest control treatment. It doesn’t kill the pests, it dopes them for a short while so they don’t reproduce that fast. We’ve used it for centuries.

I started a campaign in India called No More Bhopals, Plant a Neem. It came out of the Bhopal disaster of Union Carbide’s pesticide plant that killed 3,000 people. Having been involved in ecological agriculture for a long time, I thought neem has to be the alternative to chemical pesticides. A decade after we had this campaign, spreading neem among farmers, even more than their conventional practice, and you must remember, traditional use had been forgotten because of the 'magic bullet' attitude.

Why do we have to waste our time getting the extracts out, getting the oil out? Here’s a spray. Just spray it. Because of that shortcut, I call it the lazy and careless technology, farmers had stopped using neem in large areas. We were setting up oil extractors. In 1994 I find a claim, in a biotechnology journal, to invention on the use of neem for pesticide and fungicide. So we sued. We started a campaign and collected signatures. We went to the European Court and even came to the U.S. Patent Office. They said we couldn’t really challenge the claim because we were not establishing a commercial hurt. If we had public hurt, hurt of the public interest, it’s not good enough. But the European challenge was admitted. We made that challenge jointly with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and the Greens in Europe. We won that case. It was a very important victory. It took the data on our use of neem, including scientists who had worked on neem over the last 40 years. We were able to establish that the claims of W.R. Grace, which owned this patent, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were false. They had not made anything new. They had just taken existing knowledge and put it into a very complicated patent application.

You make a connection between the creation of poverty, monopoly, and patents.

A patent basically is a right to exclude anyone else from making, selling, distributing that which is patented. Quite clearly, that right to exclude establishes a monopoly in the marketplace. If Grace’s patents on the pesticide use of neem had not been challenged, it would have emerged as the monopoly supplier of neem pesticide in the world markets. They already are in the U.S. Of course, now they’ve been bought up by another company. But today in India, because we don’t have similar patent regimes, every farmer can make pesticide.

Every small-scale cottage industry can make pesticide. And that pluralism of the economy is fine. But a patent gives a legal right to shut down other people’s making, selling, buying. Patents on seed, which are now very prevalent in North America, allow a company like Monsanto to use detectives, to go into a farmer’s field or home, and find not just the seed but even the trace of the seed that might have come through pollination.

What does this have to do with neem, tamarind, pepper, that have been patented and are under corporate control? It means that sooner or later they can invoke this legal right to exclude others from the marketplace or from making their own thing. There are many judgments already in patent issues where corporations say, "It doesn’t matter if you’re making your own seed, even if you’re saving it for yourself and not selling it commercially. Your saving it is cutting into the commercial market of the company that could have sold it to you if you weren’t". Therefore they interpret even subsistence activity as commercial activity.

More and more in your talks you’re using the terminology of violence and warfare.

The issue of violence is important because the entire technology paradigm as it’s emerging and the economics paradigm of globalization are based on warfare. You begin to genetically engineer a seed. Where does that begin? It begins with gene guns. You make genetically manipulated organisms by shooting genes with a gene gun. All the language in genetic engineering is a language of warfare. Cargill uses the language of warfare to talk about preventing bees from usurping the pollen. It’s a war against the pollinators.

Monsanto uses the language of creating herbicide-resistant crops to prevent weeds, which in our view is diversity and biodiversity essential to our health, our food, to vitamin A sources, they call it “stealing the sunshine.” It’s a war against the weeds. It’s a war for sunlight, which you can never have restricted. It’s in such abundant quantities. The entire WTO regime is based on one single concept of trade wars, turning trade from being a mutual, cooperative arrangement of selling and buying what you really need into a coercive arrangement of being forced to buy what you don’t need and being forced to sell what you should be using domestically. India is being forced to sell millions of tons of grain.

Starting with globalization and trade liberalization pressures, India has been prevented from allowing food to reach its people. The government expenditure involved in moving grain around the country from areas that produce lots to areas that don’t produce as much has been treated as a subsidy that must go.
Globalized arrangements are preventing India from getting food to the people who need it. The hungry are dying. Farmers are committing suicide. The Cargills of the world walk off with the state subsidies because that is allowed in the globalized system. Even more importantly than that, a system of technology and economics that makes large numbers of people dispensable and commits such violence to the earth and its species must get a response. The British got a response. During the struggle for independence, we had peasant movements. When the British tried to force us to accept a law that would make salt-making a monopoly, Gandhi and his followers walked to Dandi beach and made salt. They said, "No, we will not obey your laws. We will make our own laws".

You will get a reaction. As the reaction comes, we saw it in Seattle, Prague, Gothenburg and elsewhere, systems that have decided that the planet is their monopoly property and the entire world lives for their model of commerce have been forcing states that were not militarized, like Sweden and Switzerland, to create new laws where civic action is being redefined as terrorism. It is a system that creates violence. It creates war on the part of those who have decided that they must appropriate and steal as a right. It’s also pushing violent reaction because democratic responses are not being heard.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the ruling party in India with roots in Hindu fundamentalist doctrine. Is the rise of the BJP connected with globalization?

Before globalization arrived in India, the BJP had exactly two seats in the Indian Parliament. As globalization started to destroy more livelihoods, destroy the small-scale sector, destroy the farming sector, the BJP, like every other right-wing fundamentalist party, was able to play on people’s insecurities. That is what happens when electoral democracy is emptied out of economic democracy. Countries lose the capacity to make economic decisions to the benefit of their people. Elections can no longer be fought on the basis of how you provide health care, education, and jobs. It starts to be, how can you mobilize hatred and fear against another community that might be a different race or religion or speaking a different language. Globalization, by taking economic decision-making out of communities and out of countries, leaves in the hands of the fundamentalists a tremendous vote bank of hatred which they can exploit.

Do you see the possibility of an alliance between right-wing formations like the BJP and their counterpart in the U.S.?

It has already happened. When President Bush announced his missile shield program, the only country that actually welcomed it was India. Buddha’s India, Gandhi’s India, even Nehru’s India was suddenly getting aligned, at the wrong time in history, to the worst of militarized imperialistic forces in the world.

In May 1998, the Indian government exploded nuclear weapons, leading a month later to similar explosions in Pakistan. Where does the nuclearization of the subcontinent fit in with globalization?

The nuclearization of the subcontinent provides a sense of greatness in a period where people are feeling a deep sense of loss. A nuclear explosion was used as a surrogate show of masculine power. Interestingly, when India called its bomb the “Hindu bomb” and Pakistan called its bomb the “Islamic bomb,” they were the same bomb. One reason I’ve launched Women for Diversity, which is a global movement of women for diversity and peace, was because I felt we were getting the strange phenomenon of men in power using bombs as their little playthings to show, "I am the smart one, I am the tough one, I have the scientific genius". But it was totally monocultures of the mind.

You said that India’s granaries are full, but at the same time there has been an increase in starvation and incidents of famine. This seems to be a contradiction. Granaries full, people hungry.

Starting with globalization and trade liberalization pressures, India has been prevented from allowing food to reach its people. The government expenditure involved in moving grain around the country from areas that produce lots to areas that don’t produce as much has been treated as a subsidy that must go. Unfortunately, as a result of this, government expenditure has decreased because the World Bank changed the universal right to access to food into a targeted scheme. Targeting is a fond strategy for the World Bank, saying the universal scheme subsidized the rich. You should not subsidize the rich. So let’s go to the really, really poor. What this has done is increase the price of food to the point that people can’t afford it. As they don’t buy food, what is called off-take, which is buying from the warehouse, the movement of grain stops. The stockpiling of 60 million tons is a result of people buying less. More and more people are starving. We predicted this four years ago.

You’re sometimes described as an ecofeminist.

I have seen feminism that is not ecological become a new oppressor. I have seen environmentalism that is not feminist enough also become a new elitism. Ecofeminism prevents those two new forms of elitism by saying, No, it’s about society and nature. It’s about other ways of thinking.
I’ve never been very comfortable with labels. Ecofeminism mixes things. It’s too neat, in my view. It leaves out many other aspects of who I am and what I do. It leaves out the part of my parents’ legacy of fighting caste. My name, Shiva, was adopted by my parents to erase their caste identity. Today, wherever I find caste discrimination, I will fight it. In our own organization we make sure we have Muslims, Hindus, and Christians working together, not allowing any of the typical rigidities to cripple the potential we have as a group. But at one level, I really don’t mind ecofeminism because I think the combination of feminism and ecology creates two potentials. First, I have seen feminism that is not ecological become a new oppressor. I have seen environmentalism that is not feminist enough also become a new elitism. Ecofeminism prevents those two new forms of elitism by saying, No, it’s about society and nature. It’s about other ways of thinking. You can’t just have a few women get into power. Carla Hills and Madeleine Albright do not symbolize a new equality for women.

Look at water privatization in the U.S. It is being led by environmental groups, only because they don’t think of society. They think of one species and say, OK, if I can buy water from that river and save the species in this particular canyon, buying is fine. They don’t realize how in the process they’re creating an entire social and political arrangement around natural resources that will be abusive to millions of other species, and of course millions of our brothers and sisters on this planet. So ecofeminism, because it is intrinsically about social justice and ecological limits, is a good counter to the kind of problems we see with mainstream feminism and mainstream environmentalism.

Where are the openings that activists can enter to create wider wedges?

Militarization is a weak spot. Usually militarization is seen as a strong force. But I believe any kind of violent power is weak power in the ultimate analysis. I’m saying that literally in terms of how I personally experience life, how the most brutal form of violence against oneself as a person or as a community is easiest to deal with because it ends up being extremely rigid and loses its flexibility, its moral power, its democratic basis. That’s its weakness. The second weakness is being so out of touch with reality that the projections into the future of how much trade, growth, and wealth there will be are way off base. There is more disease, more hunger, more unemployment and that lived reality is a barometer that people have in their lives. The more the dominant system talks from a place of falsehood and people’s real experience goes in a different way, the weaknesses of the system of domination will increase.

You’ve also talked about the need to recover the commons. Explain what you mean by that.

Commons are those spaces that we need to keep as shared systems, as systems of common responsibility and common rights in order to make life possible. Ecologically we have always needed water. We’ve needed biodiversity. Peasants have needed pastures. People in Third World societies have needed forests and woods to collect fodder and fuel from. Those are the systems that have been the commons in terms of natural resources. Quite clearly, every one of these commons is being enclosed.

My fight against patenting and genetic engineering is a fight against the enclosure of the biological and intellectual commons that is the basis of survival of the large majority of the people of the world. It’s also the basis of cultural diversity and cultural richness. Water is being enclosed through privatization. Water is a commons. The atmosphere is a commons that has been privatized by pollution from fossil fuels and the oil companies. They are taking what doesn’t belong to them, using it as their private sink. They are destabilizing the climate for all of us.

We need to recover these as commons over which we have collective control. The saving of seed is a recovery of the commons. Keeping knowledge outside the privatized domain, knowledge of how to use neem, tamarind, pepper, and basmati rice is a fight for the commons. Water is a commons. In Mahar- ashtra, a lake belongs to Coca-Cola. They’re preventing the tribals whose lake it is from having access to it for drinking water.

Coca-Cola owns a lake in Maharashtra?

Villagers were being prevented from having access to water in that lake because Coca-Cola had got exclusive rights to it for a bottling plant. Another extraordinary thing that’s going on in Maharashtra is the privatization of the energy sector. Enron, the Houston-based energy giant and also one of George W. Bush’s biggest contributors, has taken over the energy sector there. Enron is a good example of globalization. Enron had been rejected by the people and government of Maharashtra. It had also been turned down by the Ministry of the Environment at the federal level as having ecologically devastating effects on the coastline where the plant in Dabhol was to come up. All kinds of things were done to clear the project.

The trajectories that have been laid out by these monopolizing monoculture minds are so nonsustainable that something will have to happen. Alternatives are built into the very logic of the system because it’s designed to fail and will lead to environmental catastrophe.
As was predicted, electricity prices went up sixfold. People couldn’t afford to buy. But the contract said that the government, which was not allowed to make electricity, still had to buy all of it from Enron, no matter how high the price. Enron had a guaranteed market. These kinds of guarantees are some of the most abusive systems that are being put in place, partly through World Bank pressure. But the Maharashtra State Electricity Board said, "Sorry, we don’t have the money. We’re not going to pay you". There is a huge conflict brewing. The courts are hearing the case. The people are protesting.

What gives you hope?

One area of hope comes from the fact that the trajectories that have been laid out by these monopolizing monoculture minds are so nonsustainable that something will have to happen. The system will crack. When you industrialize food and farming too much, there will be outbreaks of disease. People will want local, organic food as a secure supply. Alternatives are built into the very logic of the system because it’s designed to fail and will lead to environmental catastrophe.

The second reason I’m hopeful is the work we are doing. We begin with tiny steps. We say, "OK, there are suicides of farmers. Let’s take ten quintals (1,000 kg.) of wheat to the farmers of Punjab". They’re not satisfied with ten. They want a hundred. We rush back and multiply seeds again. Wherever there are initiatives to build sustainable, just, democratic systems, they are spreading like wildfire. People want another world, and they’re building it. People’s love for freedom is more powerful than any coercive authority. That love for freedom is more powerful than the love of the dominators who are trying to control the planet.