Latin America

“It is a duty that we should save seeds for the future”

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Vandana Shiva scientist and philosopher born in India, in 1993 won the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. She founded the Indian-based Navdanya non-governmental organization to promote organic farming, food security, and seed conservation to counteract the proliferation of transgenic crops. At 59 years old, Shiva has also published books and articles for more than two decades, including A Third World Perspective on Biotechnology (1991), Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (1989), Ecofeminism (1993), Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology (1993), Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (2001), Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace (2005), and Soil not oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis (2008).
Shiva spoke at the National Agrarian University - La Molina in Lima on Aug. 3 as part of the National Meeting of Women Leaders in Agroecology, organized by the National Association of Ecological Producers in Peru, or ANPE Peru. Following are excerpts from her speech.
(…) Biodiversity is not empty, it is not pure nature, none of the varieties that have been evolved over centuries by peasant societies, particularly the women, are landrace. I think it’s just a wrong term to use because there’s intelligence in every bit of their breeding.
And as we think of how do we achieve systems of development, particularly rural development, there can be objectives of providing food of high quality, good nutrition, how do we assure that rural communities are not excluded, that women are not excluded, I think the first step along with development [is] food security as well as social inclusion, it is to start removing the boundaries and walls that have lead to exclusion. In my view the most important wall is a very invisible wall that gets higher and higher and higher.
Creation boundary
This is a wall I have called the creation boundary. This is a wall that is destroying our biodiversity, that is pushing our rural communities to marginalization and poverty, and it is a wall that has discounted the knowledge of peasant societies, especially the women.
And this wall started to get put in place when knowledge was suddenly demarcated between scientific knowledge and other [types of] knowledge that aren’t knowledge.
I’m a scientist, I’m trained as a physicist, so I’m very familiar with how this history has evolved and there’s a particular break that takes place.
It’s a break that has the same roots as colonization, the same roots as the hunting of knowledgeable women as witches, and the same roots that declared nature as dead rather than a living self-organized planet with tremendous diversity.
There are these so-called founding fathers of science who claim to have laid a new foundation of knowledge. Bacon is one of them. And he actually wrote a book called The Masculine Birth of Time, arguing that knowledge so far had been womanly, and now there had to be this masculine knowledge. What was this masculine knowledge? It was this knowledge that basically declared nature as dead, created this boundary that said women peasants, ordinary people have no knowledge. A master race of super heroes was created. This was a monoculture that started to change the way we related to the earth, [that] started to lead to the disappearance of biodiversity.
Elder women, seed experts
(…) So if we are serious about inclusion we have to be serious about diversity, if we are serious about sustainability we have to be serious about diversity, and if we have to be serious about diversity we have to start seriously taking into account the knowledge of our farmers, women peasants, [because] they have been the seed experts for most of human history.
When I started the movement Navdanya, which means nine seeds, I would travel the length and breadth of India to collect seeds, but also we interacted with communities, but of course when I spoke to the men they would say, “No, we don’t have that crop anymore.” They would know of sugar, cane, cotton, wheat.
But if you wanted to know about the crops that really fed people you would have to turn to the women, particularly the older women…
The elder women know everything about their biodiversity but they never went to school to read and write. The children go to school to read and write but they are never taught about biodiversity.
So we put the grandmothers and grandchildren together and they document the wealth of biodiversity in their culture and the ecosystem and it bridges the continuity into the future. Because now those children who have walked in the forest and the fields with their grandmothers know for the first time how much they have.
And there is no reason for them to feel that they must wait for the outside world to provide, [but] that they in fact are the source of what makes the world run. The creation boundary that led to the exclusion of knowledge and with it the destruction of diversity has reached a point where the old idea of 200 years ago that nature is dead and inert is now even being pushed to that part of nature which is quite clearly very alive. Our seeds and our plants are being declared as just containers of genes.
(…) I had to tell our minister in the lead up to the Rio Earth Summit [in 1992] that now biodiversity was the green oil of the future, [that] the amazing diversity that has been nurtured and protected and used sustainably via communities is exactly what the global economy has their eyes on. For many of them even at Rio+20 the term “green economy” referred primarily to the privatization and financialization of all the living wealth of our planet.
In the last 20 years we have witnessed the diversity that our farmers have evolved is being replaced by very large scale monocultures of just four crops. And if you want to see the monoculture of the mind in operation all we have to do is look at the acreages of soya bean, how all of Argentina has been turned into a green desert, how even the Brazilian Amazon is being chopped down, the savannas are being chopped down to plant more and more soya bean (…)
It is spreading because in 1995 when the World Trade Organization came into course it brought with it an intellectual property rights agreement, which for the first time in history created a property in life forms at a global level (…)
When patenting enters the very first link of the food chain it starts to do all sorts of things. I personally felt so outraged by the idea of patents, and in 1995 when the World Trade Organization was established a [transnational Monsanto] representative went on record to say, “We created this agreement, we wrote it, we were the patient, the diagnostician and the physician all in one.” And as they argued, they defined a problem and for them the problem was that farmers save seeds.
For us, that is not a problem; it is a duty that we should save seeds for the future. We should save the diversity of seeds for the future. We have to be both custodians and protectors as well as producers. But the consequence of forcing patented seeds on this world has been the growth of this monoculture. The reason corn, soya, canola [and] cotton have spread on the scale they do is because for every seed that is sold a royalty is collected.
Empty earth syndrome
There was another time where we had a very huge colonization. You were colonized by the Spanish which is why you speak Spanish. We were colonized by British which is why we speak English. That colonization was based on an assumption of the empty earth. The earth was empty, there were no human beings except the European colonizers, and therefore they could take over any land, any territory, grab all the gold and the silver of Peru and load it on the ships and take into Europe (…)
But the most important point about the empty earth syndrome was that you could take over the resources of the people. I think what we are living through is a period when some people with power, particularly a handful of corporations, are defining the biodiversity of the world and the planet as if the life itself is empty, so they can own it with a patent. And so they collect royalties, and the royalty collection of course is a flow of wealth out of the community, pushing it into deeper poverty (…)
Most of the time the farmers who buy the seed on credit are the men, because they go to the town. As long as women maintained the seed we never had crop failure. As long as women were the seed custodians and the seed breeders we never ever had debt because the seed was theirs [and] we never had to pay for it. Every year $200 million is extracted from poor Indian peasants as a royalty for cotton and oil.
We put huge movements to stop other GM crops from being introduced, because there is enough scientific evidence to show that they have held an environmental impact. The most important environmental impact is the contamination and cross pollination. All your purity of seed gets destroyed. Even the organic cotton is now being found contaminated with GM traits of Bt. Because the Bt toxin is a gene that’s taken from the soil organisms and put into a plant, now the plant is producing the toxin every moment in cell.
There are studies that show that butterflies who feed on the pollen of Bt cotton are dying because of its toxic. We did a soil study four years and found that Bt cotton had killed 22 percent of all the beneficial soil organisms, which are the very basis of soil fertility and sustainable production. And we need to do far more studies.
Seed freedom
But it isn’t just the environment impact. For us the most important impact is the social economic impact and the political impact of extracting royalties from already marginalized communities, who can only pay those royalties through their very lives as we see in India. That’s why we started a campaign and the movement called the Seed Freedom where we bring the old seeds, we grow organic cotton. We work with women for handcrafting textiles from the old method of hand spinning and hand weaving and even the dyeing and printing by hand with natural dyes. So there is no violence at every level of the chain.
There is another problem that starts to take place when the knowledge of peasants and women is excluded, especially in this period when a new property has been created in seeds and plants and biodiversity.
I do a festival every year called Origins in which we try and make the urban consumer remember that each thing they touch has come from biodiversity, whether it is wool or cotton as fiber or the natural dyes or the amazing perfume and essences [and] all the herbal medicines. And since the war the West, the industrial economies, tried to replace everything living with toxics. So clothing became petrol chemical based, medicine became chemical based, even energy became fossil fuel based and the whole planet gets linked back to that.
And the two reasons why that chemical paradigm is coming to an end [are that] the first is its toxic impact and people want to live healthy so they are looking for more natural products. The second is we are reaching the end of oil and so alternatives must be found. The very companies that created the raw chemicals which then became the agrochemicals are now coming round and patenting everything we have known about biodiversity. And I call this biopiracy.
It is a form of piracy. One of the first cases we had to fight was the case of the patenting of a beautiful Indian tree. In 1984 we had the worst industrial disaster in Bhopal in India where a pesticide plant leaked and that leak killed 3,000 people immediately and 30,000 have died since then. Babies have been born with deformities and more than 100,000 people are suffering from illnesses.
Why do you have pesticides when we have things like the neem tree?
In 1994 I’m reading a biotechnology journal and I find an article talking about the world’s first invention of the use of neem for pesticide. So all our centuries of learning were suddenly an invention of a company called [W.R.] Grace, which had been a chemical company.
We decided to challenge this patent in the European patent office; it took us 11 years to fight this case. But we had the patent struck out. We mobilized people from India. I went with 100,000 signatures to Munich. We formed an alliance with people in Europe, the International Federation of Organic agriculture Movements, the Greens of Europe. We had the patent struck down.
(…) We need to keep our seeds in the hands that care for those seeds, in the hands that have the knowledge about the seeds.
The seed in my view is the embodiment of millennia of the past, of nature’s evolution. And the potential for millennia in the future. We have a duty to protect and care for those seeds for the life of future generations to come, both human and other species. And that is the way after working 25 years in India saving seeds. We have saved three thousand varieties of rice, 150 varieties of wheat; we have saved the forgotten foods. These forgotten foods are future foods. But we realize now that each of us in every community where we are working needs to join hands globally. Because it cannot be that the destructive forces are globally organized and start to capture every institution, and start to write laws that should not even be in place in any human society. Laws have [doing] patenting of seeds. A patent is granted for an invention. A seed is not an invention.
(…) We can either make the choice to be the destroyers of that life through creating Terminator seeds that are sterile, or creating laws that terminate the renewal of seeds by making seed saving and seed exchange illegal. In 1987 when I found out about these patenting laws I took a pledge that the freedom of seed is fundamental to life on earth. Farmers’ freedom to save and exchange seeds is fundamental to food security and so Navdanya’s very basis is to recognize that saving and exchanging seeds is an ecological and ethical duty, an ethical duty for the future of life on earth. Because we now need to become a force connecting all these dots across the planet, every community that is involved both in protecting biodiversity and creating sustainable systems. We need to start connecting.
And that is why this year we have started the Seed Freedom Movement, and by seed freedom we mean not treating [them]. In India when we say seed we mean the foundation, the very source, so it is the source of all freedoms. If you don’t have freedom in seed you don’t have freedom in food (…) —Latinamerica Press.
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