INTERACTION Dr. Vandana Shiva talks about environmental issues to Savitha Gautam
I think the biggest threat we face today is the total collapse of our food systems.
Champion of the farmers, eco-feminist, physicist, writer, environmentalist… all these monikers fit Dr. Vandana Shiva like a glove. For, she is all these and much more. Her simple demeanour and disarming smile belie a fiery spirit that rages within her to fight for a cleaner, greener planet.
During a short visit to the city on an invitation from Prakriti Foundation to talk to students of Loyola College on earth matters, Dr. Shiva spoke of the various worrying issues that we, as a human race, face today. Lack of clean drinking water, genetically modified foods, food patenting, industrial pollution, conversion of farm lands into factories… these are but a few that have taken up Dr. Shiva’s time and energy for over three decades now.
Dr. Shiva is not new to this kind of eco-struggle. “My journey on the road to ecological sustainability started with the Chipko Movement in the 1970s when women in the region of the Himalayas protected forests by hugging trees. That led to the shut down of mines in that region. Ever since, I have been raising my voice against corporate control over Nature,” she says during a quick interview.
So, what in her opinion is the biggest crisis facing the country today? She rues, “I think the biggest threat we face is the total collapse of our food systems. The farmers’ suicides across the country are only the tip of this giant iceberg. And if we don’t act fast, the agro-economy is heading for a collapse which will in turn lead to an overall economic disaster. And India is said to be an agrarian nation!” Sounds ominous! “Yes, but it’s true,” she says emphatically.
Birth of Navadanya
It was to “protect Nature, our environment, water and food’ that Dr. Shiva set up Navadanya in 1984, the year of the Punjab violence and the Bhopal tragedy.
“The violence demanded a paradigm shift in the practice of agriculture. And that’s what led to the birth of Navadanya. We wanted to protect the biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming.”
The organisation, through its 46 seed banks across the country, has been actively and successfully promoting organic farming.
Besides, it has initiated vociferous “campaigns against the GM (genetically modified) foods, defended people’s knowledge from bio-piracy and food rights in the face of globalisation.”
Does she feel there’s a solution to this alarming situation?
“I believe I do. For starters, if we are able to rid society of what I call ‘racism of food,’ and adopt crops that consume less water, we would have taken a step forward. Simple measures such as replacing rice with ragi and millets will not only help conserve water but also lead to healthy food habits. Also, the Government needs to seriously address the issue of converting agricultural lands into industries.”
Another area that Dr. Shiva is passionate about is eco-feminisim. “It’s a simple philosophy. I believe women are like the canaries in a coal mine. Thanks to division of labour, it is the women who collect firewood, tend to animals and take care of children. So when the ground water gets polluted because of a Coke factory dumping, it is a Mariamma who raises her voice. Or when children are born deformed because of the chemicals that leak from a Bhopal factory, the women protest. They are the ones who are directly affected and so they are the ones who are aware of the ecological pillage.”
However, she signs off on a positive note. “Youth are the transformers of society. Today’s youngsters are able to see clearly what’s happening and prefer other options. If they are sensitised and engaged, I believe changes will become inevitable.”
To learn more about organic farming options and Dr. Shiva’s Seeds of Freedom Movement, log on to http://www.navdanya.org/
The Belo Horizonte model
Over 10 years ago, Brazil’s fourth-largest city, Belo Horizonte, declared that food was a right of citizenship and started working to make good food available to all.
One of its programmes puts local farm produce into school meals. This and other projects cost the city less than two percent of its budget. Yes, the city became a hunger-free zone!
Belo, a city of nearly three million people, once had 11 per cent of its population living in absolute poverty, and almost 20 per cent of its children going hungry. Then in 1993, a newly elected administration declared food as a right of citizenship.
The new mayor, Patrus Ananias set up a city agency, which assembled a 20-member council of citizen, labour, business, and church representatives to advise in the design and implementation of a new food system.
During the first six years of Belo’s food-as-a-right policy, the number of citizens engaging in the city’s participatory budgeting process doubled to more than 31,000.
The city put up farm produce stands throughout busy downtown areas. The agency developed dozens of innovations by weaving together the interests of farmers and consumers. It offered local farmers dozens of choicest public spaces on which to sell to urban consumers, essentially re-distributing retailer mark-ups on produce — which often reached cent per cent — to consumers and the farmers.
Farmers’ profits grew, since there was no wholesaler taking a cut. And poor people got access to fresh, healthy food.
So if Belo Horizonte can do, why can’t we?