Volume 48, Issue 4: July/August 2014

An interview with Vandana Shiva

Canadian Dimension: The standard narrative about India in the mainstream Anglo-American media is that spiralling growth in recent decades, along with globalization, has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Some figures that have been put forward are that in 1978 half of all Indians lived below the poverty line and today only 20 percent do. As a critic of the growth paradigm, how do you respond to that and how do you understand the concept of poverty?

Vandana Shiva: I understand the concept of poverty as depriving people first and foremost of having a livelihood to provide for themselves; second, of being able to meet their basic needs with dignity, and third, of having the freedom related to an economic democracy. The absence of any of these conditions is poverty. Sadly, the figure that shows there are fewer poor people in India today than in the 1970s is a very manipulated figure. It’s been designed by the World Bank, by those who head many of our institutions and who have come from the World Bank and the IMF to replicate that manipulation. Let me give you just two examples.

The reality is that between 1991, with the advent of structural adjustment and globalization, and 1995 with the establishment of the World Trade Organization, the per capita food consumption of an average Indian was 177 kilocalories per day. Within about eight years it had dropped to less than 150. Today every fourth Indian is hungry: 250 million. These are official figures of government surveys. Today every second child is so severely malnourished that they are stunted. Half of India has been denied a future because a child that is so severely malnourished will never grow up to be a full person physically and intellectually. These are indicators of poverty.

Why is this happening? First, it is because farmers are being displaced, because the globalization project is, at bottom, a land-grab project. If you lose your land to grow food, you don’t have food. The second reason is that the entire agricultural fabric of India has been destroyed to make way for globalization. In the period from 1995 to today farmers’ incomes have dropped by 50 percent. I did a calculation for our commerce ministry for the negotiations of the World Trade Organization in Cancún where we were able to show that because of the global system of free trade, the continuing subsidies to agribusiness in the rich North of $400 billion and the phenomenon of dumping, Indian farmers were losing $25 billion annually in terms of lost incomes. That’s deeper poverty.

When you make way for a Monsanto to control seed, as in the case of cotton which is now 95 percent Monsanto’s GM cotton seed, prices become exorbitant—8000 percent higher—and indebtedness ensues. The only reason these corporations do genetic engineering is to own the seed and to collect a royalty. Collecting royalties from poor peasants has left them in debt. 284,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995 when globalization started through WTO rules and seed ownership could be established.

So when it comes to real indicators, India is not just poorer—the majority of Indians are being denied their right to life which our constitution guarantees under Article 21. How is the alleged reduction in poverty manufactured? They stop measuring how people are living and start measuring how much more people are spending. If you had land, you were spending zero on food. Now you don’t have land and you’re working as a daily wage labourer—and you’re spending more on food! But spending more on food is an indicator of poverty. If I have a clean river next to me, I drink clean water. I don’t spend on water. Then the waters get polluted. Industry starts to dump. Expanding cities turn our rivers into sewers. Even the poor have to start paying for water—maybe not bottled water, but at least tanker water.

Increased expenditure is what is being measured, but all you have to do to increase expenditure is privatize everything that is a public good and destroy self-provisioning systems. In fact, deeper poverty is being reflected as less poverty.

Reports of India’s soaring rate of farmer suicides have made the news in Canada. But there has been considerable controversy not only about the contributing factors, but about whether an upsurge in suicides occurred at all. You and others have linked the farmer suicides to the spread of GM agriculture and particularly Monsanto’s Bt cotton. But last year the journal Nature contested any alleged spike in the suicide rate for farmers since the introduction of Bt cotton. And some studies suggest that the rate of suicide among farmers is actually lower than that of the general population. Can you comment on these conflicting claims?

I started to look at farmer suicides when I heard about a farmer committing suicide in 1998 in a cotton area. At that time Monsanto had just started its trials on Bt cotton. They had already founded a joint venture with the biggest seed company of India called Mahyco, and they had started to lock Indian companies into licensing arrangements. Today 60 Indian companies can only sell Monsanto seeds. Today the price of seed is 8000 percent higher. Farmers who had no money, who had seed of their own, who today are buying seed at 8000 percent more not once but maybe three times in a season because these seeds haven’t been tested in local conditions and are not adapted to local conditions, will necessarily fall deeper and deeper into debt. I have never said GMOs are the only factor. That is the contribution of the biotech industry to decontextualize technology. The reality is that GMOs are embedded in a seed monopoly system and what is driving the farmer suicides is a combination of high seed prices because of this monopoly and the high costs of chemicals because it’s a failed technology.

The fact that this year we’ve had too much rain and the crops have failed will make the lobbyists write about how it is rain that caused the suicides, but you can have the same amount of rain, and if you have a resilient seed and an organic system of farming which can absorb the water and not damage your crop, you will not have crop failure. So they take what are derived causes and focus on them primarily. As far as the issue of rising numbers is concerned, this is government data, official statistics. The Nature article extracts from an International Food Policy Research Institute paper a flat graph that is of national averages. Cotton is grown in four states. Those are the states to look at for the relationship between Monsanto’s 95 percent control of the cotton seed supply and suicides. Even in that paper there are graphs of two states—Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra— which are climbing, but they did not extract that. In the first years of the decade, the annual suicide rate stood at 52. Today there are some years it is 2000. But taking an average is misleading because most suicides in India are in the cotton belt. Now the suicides are spreading to other areas where seed dependency is being created. Not a single suicide has taken place where farmers have their own seed supply and are practicing organic farming.

There are two things the biotech lobby ignores which are central to why Indian farmers are committing suicide. First is the issue of royalty collection and the fact that every year Monsanto is pulling out the equivalent of $200 million in royalties from peasants who have no money. The second issue that they always ignore is that the suicides are concentrated in the cotton belt.

Here in Canada, Indigenous peoples are at the frontlines of resistance because so many of the environmentally destructive projects like the Tar Sands are on or near their territories. In your book Making Peace with the Earth you describe similar struggles in India. Can you tell us a little about the resistance of tribal peoples in India to environmentally damaging projects backed by industry and government?

In 1996 as a result of major movements in India we were able to institutionalize what is called the extension of Panchayat Raj in certain areas, which basically means self-rule for the tribals. And I was called again and again by tribals who would say, “Come and be our witness. There’s a steam plant being set up and we are going to decide if we want it or not.” And in typical Indigenous fashion it would be days and days of consensus building at the village level, and at the end of it they would conclude that the financial compensation they would receive would not compensate for the forests and land and territories that they would lose. They rejected one plant, then a second plant, and a mine, and then the violence started. The constitutionally guaranteed right of the tribal peoples of India was now getting in the way of global investment and the global resource grab. So people started to get organized. Earlier they were organized through the constitution, but now the constitution itself was being shredded. So they have organized by arming themselves, and one third of India is governed by the Naxalites where neither corporations nor government can enter. All of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh—these are tribal lands. The interesting thing is a few years ago the Home Ministry tried to mobilize the army to flush out the tribals—they called it Operation Green Hunt. We organized a public hearing and brought the tribals from around the country because usually Indigenous lands and indigenous people are removed from visibility and the corporations get away with their violence because no one can see it. So we brought everyone from across the country to a public hearing in Delhi. We brought the parliamentarians and we managed to stop this Operation Green Hunt.

What do you think of the Naxalite movement?

If the government had not denied the tribal people their constitutional and democratic rights that were guaranteed under the 1996 laws, the tribals would not have had to arm themselves. And I’m convinced that the private militias that have been butchering them were created on US advice. It’s very much like what happened in Central America where tribals themselves are armed to kill other tribals—it’s a result of the destruction of democracy.

You have written about how the affluent elites create protective barriers between themselves and the massive ecological degradation stemming from the systems of production and technology they drive and profit from. For how long do you think they can maintain those barriers in face of the overwhelming evidence of climate change, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss? And if those barriers come down, how are elites likely to respond?

I think we are witnessing two trends. The first is that the elites who have become rich by plundering the planet and other peoples’ resources are now having to barricade themselves. One of the biggest growth sectors in the world is private security services. Of course, the elite wants continued access to the common resources for itself and the privateers make money out of it. I had to help women in Plachimada in Kerala who were fighting Coca-Cola which was mining 1.5 million litres of water per day. When it says “manufactured by” it should say “stolen by.”

The women eventually shut that Coca-Cola plant down, but when the rivers get polluted, the elite can buy bottled water and it supports the Coca-Cola enterprise. The elite of Delhi was more than happy to go along with the privatization project for Delhi’s water supply, which wasn’t just Delhi’s water supply —the Ganges was going to be privatized by Suez in 2002.

How will the elites respond as resources totally run out? They will have to respond in the same way as the poor. They will face extinction, and that is where they are being stupid. Because they have managed to buy their way out of every past crisis they imagine they will be able to buy themselves out of the next crisis, but a tipping point is being reached. The arrogance and the greed of the elites has made them blind to basic realities that ordinary human beings can see and therefore they’ll be the last to bring corrective measures. That’s why they have to be shaken up and woken up, and only democracy can do that.

Can you speak a little about the idea of the “rights of nature” and what you think of the value of that concept as a way of thinking about the relationship between the human species and the rest of the natural world?

Well, in my talk yesterday for the Natural History Museum, the University of Manitoba and the CBC, I said that nature’s rights and Earth’s rights are human rights. The entire system of exploitation was based on separating humans from nature. Not ecologically, because you can’t. If we didn’t have water, breathe oxygen, or have food to eat, we wouldn’t be alive. The fact that we live is an amazing expression of how we are a part of nature. If we were separate from nature in reality we wouldn’t exist. But in the mind a separation has been created and it has worked very conveniently for those who would rape nature, those who would accumulate the resources of nature at the cost of others.

The rights of nature have become central in our time to achieving justice for human beings as well as justice for other beings who are part of this Earth family. Why are the rights of nature and the rights of Mother Earth so vital in our time? Because it’s only through that lens that you can see the narrow-mindedness and the shallowness of the ruling paradigm that has given capitalist patriarchy primacy, that has allowed men of power to hide behind the façade of a corporation, that has allowed the privileged to treat other human beings as not human beings. There have been different times—indigenous people denied their humanity, women denied their humanity, and today, in my view, all future generations and youth denied their humanity, and all working people denied their humanity. It’s as if to work and earn is a crime, but to loot and accumulate is citizenship. This perversion we have arrived at where we give personhood to corporations has to be corrected. And that can only happen when we realize that every being is a subject, not an object. The objectification of the earth and of human beings is part of the architecture of exploitation. To go beyond it to sustainability and justice we have to recognize the rights of nature.

You call for re-embedding the economy in the ecology of the earth. How can we work towards that end? And what are the implications for industrial civilization: does it have to go?

Well, industrial civilization is self-destructing anyway. Gandhi said it very powerfully in his little book on freedom: you just have to be patient and the system will destroy itself. What is climate change, but self-destruction? What is the economic collapse, but self-destruction? The point is that self-destruction brings with it so much other destruction.

How do we embed the human economy in the earth economy? Agriculture is a very clear place to see how it can work. We’ve had an industrial model of agriculture based on more chemicals with a lie told that this is feeding the world. Only 10 percent of GM corn and soya is going into the food system and feeding people, while 90 percent is going toward biofuel and animal feed. This is no longer a food system; it’s a commodity production system. Commodities don’t feed people. Food does. It’s the small farms and the family farms—and the UN has recognized this—that produced 75 percent of the food that people eat. The work that we’ve done in Navdanya for the last 30 years now shows that when you work with nature you produce more food. This idea of having to perpetuate a war against nature to maximize food production is manipulated evidence at every level. And since it’s peddled through all kinds of spin, a lot of people believe it; but talk to a farmer, talk to a gardener, and they will tell you working with nature is the only way to grow food. We have to align ourselves with the ecological processes of this planet to be able to provide for the needs of a growing population by using fewer resources. Agriculture has shown it in every sphere of life. We can show that embedding ourselves in the earth economy is a better way to live and it improves our well-being. It might not help the circulation of money, and it might very well bring down corporate power and monopolies and the misapplication of the industrial mind. We have taken the ideal of industrialization and imposed it everywhere to deny the processes of actual creation, production, reproduction. We need to recognize that, and that is why the ecology movement, the women’s movement and the indigenous movements are so very important as well as the working class movement. At the end of the day, who produces wealth? The people who work, not those who exploit. We need to start redefining wealth as the well-being of people.

Canadian Dimension spoke with Vandana Shiva in Winnipeg on March 29, 2014. It was edited by them for length and clarity.