PEOPLE – Vandana Shiva Speaks PART ONE

At the Slow Food Award ceremony, I had the chance to meet and speak to Vandana Shiva, physicists, economist, director of the Center for the Science, Technology and Policy of Natural Resources at Dehra Dun in India, and also a member of the award jury. Vandana is one of the world’s leading authorities on social ecology and for years has been fighting against processes of privatization of natural resources and against the effects of the liberalization of markets in developing countries, India in particular. She also collaborates with Slow Food on its International Presidia Project.

Q. The new millennium opened up with enormous problems in terms of natural resources and access to those resources, with potentially devastating consequences especially for developing countries. What do you think are the crucial nodes that governments and organized groups of people must face in the next few years?

A. In terms of natural resources, I think the there are three big threats. The first is the undoing of the land reform movement that was so much part of the liberation movement in the post-colonial era. Colonialism had entrenched unequal land ownership and had given rise to new forms of large landlord as in the case of India with zameendaari. An independence for us meant that those who till the land own the land. Globalization is undoing that and bringing back the colonial mode, that those who own capital can own the land and displace those who work from their basic rights. So displacements from land are very, very big threats creating unemployment, dispossessions, and poverty on scales we have never seen. The second is the privatization of life’s diversity, of biodiversity, both through genetic engineering and through patenting. The third is privatization of water. And all of these three ten years ago used to be something about the future, used to be plans written on paper that had yet to unfold. Today they are the biggest contests in the world. Anyway, this is where conflict is to stay. And in fact, even the old narrow left’s search for class conflict: this is where it is at. Except that it is not class defined only around the axis of labor, but it is defined along the axis of natural resources and access to natural resources. I would add as a post-script that there is a fourth node that we do not usually see as a natural resource, but that is becoming a major threat to us: survival of the species, and that has to do with climate change and – in a way – in effect with the privatization of the atmosphere.

Q. In the light of the picture of the present you just traced, it seems to me that the notions of political agency and political rights currently endorsed by movements that fight against the privatization of resources need actually be reconceived and expanded in such a way as to involve all living beings, and certainly not just humans.

A. Absolutely! That increasingly is becoming my own world view, that the most radical places for humans to act are where they re-embed themselves in the ‘earth-family’. That the narrower the political base, the weaker the resistance; the broader the political base, the stronger its presence. That includes giving public political subjecthood to all living beings, to all species, including the eco-systems we live in. In western industrial perspectives, they are not seen as living, but in India we see water as living, our rivers as our living mothers, our mountains as our living mothers, and their subjecthood is critical to our human struggle, today. But in order to take them seriously, we obviously need a different movement from the one that has been able to articulate itself in old political formations, because rivers and trees speak, they speak for themselves, but we have to learn to listen to their speaking. We have to learn to listen to the glaciers receding with climate change. We have to learn to listen to the floodwaters that come in our rivers with untimely rainfalls. We have to learn to listen to the drying of the soil due to drought. Or the diversion of water, which is becoming a very important source of induced drought and famine in the world, because privatization and putting water on the market mean it doesn’t flow everywhere it should for all species and all beings, but flows where money can attract it.

Q. To address the issue of the connection between economic power and natural resources and the specific sites where the global financial infrastructure reroutes natural resources and sets the terms of their access, how do you think financial institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization affect the economies and the eco-systems of developing countries? How do they change traditional systems of development, growth and security?

A. Well, usually World Bank loans and WTO rules are justified as ‘helping the poor’. It’s all supposed to be done in the name of the poor of the third world, but to see how it actually works, I can give you at best one or two examples. Take the case of shrimp, a luxury product that people used to eat once in a while: most southern communities along the coast used to have good access to shrimp. And then the World Bank started to give loans over the last decade to create industrial shrimp farming very much like the industrial factory farming of animals, growing shrimp on the land rather than harvesting it sustainably from the sea. This led to the total salination of ground water, the destruction of mangroves, the destruction of agriculture, the destruction of jobs. For every dollar earned by the international trade in selling shrimp on the global market, local communities lost ten dollars of life, food, and resources. For every acre of shrimp farm, two hundred acres of the richest eco-system, the nursery of the sea, were destroyed. That destruction never figures in the books of the World Bank; both because they are not looking for it—they are only interested in how money can make more money; how the shrimp companies and the shrimp traders can make more profits—and secondly because no way can a bureaucracy in Washington be sensitive to that small creek and how pollution will kill it. Shrimps are just fish. In Washington they’ve no idea of the water flow and how salt water pumped onto land will destroy drinking water. In Washington water comes out of taps and they have no idea that coastal women are pulling their water out of wells and those wells need to be kept clean; and they have a right to that clean water. So the centralized gaze is a blind gaze by its very nature. In addition, when they are guided by the economic logic of multiplying money, on capital accumulation, all World Bank projects are guided by one calculation: returns on investment. How do you put certain money into any economy and get more money out. But getting more money out means leaving more poverty behind. You can’t get more money out without taking something of it from nature and people. That is just one example, but this is happening in every sector. In the area of Mharash in the Eighties I was called by the government of Maharash who asked “Why is our water disappearing? Can you please tell us?” So I started to look at their development plans, and I found plans that on this area, that had 600 millimeters of rain a year, of which only 10% goes into the ground (meaning that only 60 millimeters a year are available from the ground for irrigation), and which people have managed traditionally by growing millets—you can grow millet with just 60 millimeters of rain, on this area the World Bank had said: “No, if the Government needed loans, one condition of the loans would be that agriculture shift to cash crops like sugar cane”. Sugar cane reeds require 1,200 millimeters of rain, twenty times more than what your eco system gives you in a renewable way. The World Bank created the present famine and drought in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Which is how it leaves ruins behind it, and has no capacity to make a link between the ruins it leaves behind it in people’s lives and in eco-systems and lending patterns designed to exploit eco-systems and local communities.

Maria Cristina Iuli is an expert on American literature and a researcher at the Humanities Faculty of the University of Eastern Piedmont. She collaborates with Slow Food as a translator and editor

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