Vandana Shiva (1952 - )

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

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Since the death of Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, the nonviolent tradition in India maintains his legacy in a number of ways, through numerous non-governmental organizations, such as the Gandhi Peace Foundation, International Center for Gandhian Studies and Research at the Raj Ghat, and the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Smriti, at Birla House, Delhi. Gandhi’s legacy also remains vital in the lives and campaigns of activists over the past half-century. They include the Sarvodaya movement, led by Vinoba Bhave (1895-1982) and J. P. Narayan (1902-79), more recent initiatives such as the Shanti Sena (Peace Army) and, in 1981, Peace Brigades International, co-founded by Narayan Desai, and, in Sri Lanka, the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement headed by A. T. Ariyaratne. Acknowledging the achievement of Gandhi and the National Movement, Arundhati Roy, a nonviolent activist and critic of the Narmada Dam Project, argues that circumstances “are entirely changed now,” with “The Hindu Nuclear Bomb” as legacy of that National Movement.

“Women’s understanding of the social systems in which they live has been profound and often pathbreaking,” as Elise Boulding wrote in Cultures of Peace (2000). Such women would include Roy as well as Dr. Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Peace Laureate from Kenya, and Dr. Vandana Shiva, a physicist and ecofeminist, also from India. Born in Dehra Dun in 1952, the daughter of a forester, Vandana Shiva grew up in the Himalayan forests, was educated in India and abroad, and completed her doctorate in the philosophy of science in 1978. During graduate study in Canada, she was shocked to learn that the World Bank had provided huge subsidies to finance the conversion of food-growing land to timber-growing land in various parts of the world. Returning home, she taught herself agricultural science and biotechnology and established her reputation as a thoughtful, persistent critic of Western-style agriculture and development. An activist and scholar, she initiated the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, a modest enterprise “started in my mother’s cow shed,” in 1990.

Brought up by a mother who was a staunch Gandhian, Shiva wore handspun clothing (khadi) as a child, and maintains very political links with Gandhi, “because I do not believe there is any other politics available to us in… a period of a totalitarianism linked with the market. There is no other way you can do politics and create freedom for people without the kinds of instruments he revived. Civil disobedience is a way to create permanent democracy, perennial democracy, a direct democracy.”

In criticizing the Tropical Forestry Action Plan, Vandana Shiva was deeply influenced by the Chipko “embrace-the trees” Movement, in which Alakananda Valley peasants and farmers in the Himalayan foothills stopped lumber companies from clear-cutting mountain slopes. Logging and destruction there led to a dramatic increase in floods and landslides that endangered water and fuel sources. Crying, “You will have to chop us up before you chop this tree,” ordinary women initiated a resistance movement that spread from village to village, dramatizing the connection between ecology and community development. As Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Chipko’s founder, argued, “If we are not in a good relationship with the environment, the environment will be destroyed, and we will lose our ground. But if you halt the erosion of humankind, humankind will halt the erosion of the soil.” Vandana Shiva was drawn to the movement in progress “long after it had been given its articulation by the women,” without external leadership. She named its source “stri shakti” (women’s power), “that amazing power of being able to stand with total courage in the face of total power and not be afraid.”

Relying on Indian spiritual and nonviolent traditions, Dr. Shiva exposed the bias of modern science and politics on environmental issues in her area of the world, in a movement to conserve native seeds and to prevent the domination and seizure of genetic processes by multi-national corporations. She challenged the RiceTec corporation, for example, in its attempt to patent Basmati rice “which women farmers in my valley have been growing for centuries,” she said, as well as other corporations who claim property rights as a reward for their investment in food research. Navdanya (nine seeds), a movement initiated by Shiva, advocates for biodiversity conservation and farmers’ rights, and identifies forces driving water scarcity and threatening its future supply.

Shiva maintains that agribusiness is subsidized by the poorest of families and children, with Monsanto, for example, “making money by coercing and literally forcing people to pay for what was free,” such as water. That company patented genetically engineered seed that didn’t germinate on harvest, so that farmers remained at the mercy of the company for renewal of their crops. She quoted the head of the Coca-Cola Company saying that its biggest market in India “comes from the fact that there is no drinking water left. People will have to buy Coca-Cola.”

In a significant contemporary crisis, “governments and political processes have been hijacked by the corporate world,” with immediate access to, and a heavy influence over, votes in the U.S. Congress and the Indian Parliament. Shiva calls this phenomenon “the inverted state, where the state is no longer accountable to the people. The state only serves the interests of corporations.” Free trade policies associated with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), she argues, are the modern counterpart to the Papal Bull, an edict in 1493 that legitimized European conquest of the world. She remains very sceptical, also, of the forces of globalization, whose theme is “find markets where you can.” Expanding the market in this manner leads to the privatization of everything: “seeds, medicinal plants, water, land. All the land reforms of India are being undone by trade liberalization,” which Shiva calls “anti-reform reform.”

Sometimes regarded as a person who offers critiques rather than alternatives to globalization, through an analysis combining ecofeminism and sustainable development, Shiva has successfully dramatized relationships among a wide range of concerns related to justice and peace. The Right Livelihood Award, which she received in 1993, and the Earth Day International Award of the United Nations, 2000, recognized her success in bringing complex issues of environmentalism, feminsm, and community action to a large audience.

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by Vandana Shiva
  • Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. London: Zed, 1989.
  • Ecofeminism, with Maria Mies. London: Fernwood/Zed, 1993.
  • Biopolitics: A Feminist and Ecological reader on Biotechnology. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Zed Books, 1995.
  • Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000.
  • Water Wars: Privitization, Pollution, and Profit. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002.
  • Interview by David Barsamian. Progressive, September 1997, pp. 26-29.
  • Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke (Earth Summit, Johannesburg, South Africa), Motion Magazine, March 6, 2003.
Selected material about Gandhian Movements in India
  • Roy, Arundhati. The Cost of Living. New York: Modern Library, 1999.
  • Shepard, Mark. Gandhi Today: The Story of Mahatma Gandhi’s Successors. Cabin John, MD: Seven Locks Press, 1986.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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