Protecting the Earth with Vandana Shiva

by John Dear 

Photo of Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya organic farm courtesy

As I follow the regular, dire reports on global warming, I recall my visit two years ago (2007) into the foothills of the Himalayas near the border of China and Nepal, north of Dehradun in India. There I met Dr. Vandana Shiva, a leading anti-globalization and environmental activist, a brilliant, engaging scientist and Gandhian activist.

She has taken up a formidable challenge, a nonviolent civil resistance campaign to resist globalization and protect farmers, not to mention the earth itself. Her strategy is to harvest every endangered seed and indigenous plant, restore the soil to its original richness, and save the seeds from corporate patent theft by creating “seed banks.” She is a modern-day Noah, gathering for the future the plants of the world.

I toured Navdanya Farm, her farming commune and laboratory for biodiversity conservation and farmers’ rights, then moved on to see Bija Vidyapeeth (Earth University), a college she founded to teach sustainable living and global alternatives. There one learns new ways to cook, garden, compost, farm, organize politically, and practice yoga.

The fields of Navdanya Farm teem with every imaginable crop and spice. Over 600 species of plants grow there, along with 250 types of rice. White egrets pace gracefully among the fields. Here agricultural scientists have also embraced Gandhian nonviolent resistance methods to protect the earth.

I toured the seed banks, dark, cavernous underground rooms, their walls stacked with tin cans holding indigenous seed. Seed is the latest target of the multinational corporations. They’re out to patent seed, forcing farmers to come to them payment in hand for the right to plant next year’s crops. But at the farm, seeds are kept patent- and copyright-free. Seeds are in the common domain, reserved for humanity, and seed banks are being set up all over India — a twist on Gandhi’s nonviolent swadeshi (handmade) movement to make cotton cloth.

“Gandhi’s Salt March was so imaginative, so inspirational,” Dr. Shiva said. “Unjust laws must be disobeyed if we are to create a moral order. Gandhi shifted the mind of the world. Environmentalists started to do with forests what Gandhi did with salt. A huge forest satyagraha campaign (Chipko Movement) was started by women in India in the 1980s. Thirty-nine people were killed, but now there are forest satyagraha campaigns around the world. Why? Unjust laws need not be obeyed. We must have the courage to break them nonviolently to protect humanity and the earth.

“When the new world order called ‘globalization’ was being formulated, the powerful sought to create a monopoly on seeds, control all the farms, and claim patents for every seed. A handful of companies wanted to control all the food in the world, and so, all health. Gandhi opposed England with the spinning wheel by getting people to make their own clothes. So we grow every crop, save all the seeds, and build model farming villages so that we can take care of our own lives.

“Satyagraha is the courage to non-cooperate with injustice, as Gandhi taught. Swadesh means making your own things through your own hard work. Swaraj is the ability to govern yourself, not just on the state level, but at every level — personal, communal, regional and international. Instead of a pyramid, with the top crushing the bottom, Gandhi envisioned oceanic circles, where every person is the center of the world, where everyone relates with respect and dignity to everyone else. So our nonviolent civil resistance campaigns are based on the three principles of satyagraha, swadeshi, and swaraj.”

Dr. Shiva spent many years studying and opposing free trade agreements. “Free trade is meant only for a handful of businesses,” she said. “It does not promote freedom for people with small shops. Walmart requires the disappearance of all small shops. This so-called free trade will lead to the total control of society, nature, economics and politics, a new economic totalitarianism. Today we no longer have a state, but a corporate state. All decisions regarding agriculture around the world are now run by the World Trade Organization (WTO). Globalization has reduced all agriculture to three crops — soy, corn, and potato, which creates disease; a billion people go hungry, and another billion get sick from eating wrong foods. This crazy system leads to poverty. Gandhi urged us to work with the earth to produce for ourselves what we need and to non-cooperate with such injustices.

“The WTO is wrecking the world’s agriculture,” she continued. “We have no farming communes. Within just a few years (by 2004) 16,000 farmers had committed suicide in India because of the debts they owed. The violence of the chemicals used in agriculture is the new weapon of mass destruction. So this is war, and we are a peace movement, protecting the species and farmers and all people. We don’t call people consumers. Anyone who eats participates in the food chain. We have to be conscious about food and choose what to eat. So we have started three Gandhian movements based on the three principles I mentioned previously.

“First, we started a campaign not to pay India’s unjust tariffs for water. When we announced this campaign, the government postponed the collection. Now we will protest the diversion of the rivers to Delhi, so that this water will remain for the villages. We work village to village, creating units of water democracy. We are fighting privatization and river diversion.

“Second, we disobey the new patent laws claiming ownership of all seeds. Gandhi collected salt. We grow indigenous seeds and collect them and save them, which is a crime. We violate the patent laws. A higher moral duty calls us to break these patent laws. We are starting seed banks and cooperate with the higher law that seeds belong to all the world’s peoples, not five or six companies.” (Apparently, there are now some 1,600 existing seed banks worldwide. Norway, for example, is preserving seeds from every one of the world’s known food crops in a frigid underground vault some 600 miles from the North Pole.)

“Third, we are protesting against Coca-Cola, which uses toxic chemicals to wash bottles and leaves the chemicals in the ground water. So we targeted the Coca-Cola plant in Kerala. They shut down the plant. Some 87 other Coca-Cola plants pollute the water. We are trying to protect our water, and we have more protests coming up. These movements are all grounded in a Gandhian philosophy and are run primarily by women. The environmental movement is more robust here in the Third World because the issues are so deadly. These are terrible times and exciting times and we do our best.

“The 2004 tsunami was a dress rehearsal for the disasters that are coming ahead,” Dr. Shiva concluded. “The ice caps are melting. Islands and coastal areas will disappear. This is where we are headed. We have to take responsibility for what we are doing to the earth, and help protect it.”

Walking through her beautiful fields and learning about her extraordinary projects and campaigns reminded me once again that every one of us can make a difference, that every one of us can get involved in the struggle to protect creation, and that our work for peace includes, of course, making peace not just with people and animals, but creation itself. Heroes of nonviolence like Vandana Shiva inspire me to do my part and sustain my hope.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rev. John Dear is a regular contributor to this site. Please click on his byline for further biographical information and an index of other of his articles that have appeared here. Dr. Vandana Shiva is a world-renowned physicist, ecologist and author, and Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. In her role as a visionary activist, she has been battling for India’s food security and farmers’ rights, as well as global ecological sustainability, for decades.  Among her many awards is the Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize), 1993, for her pioneering insights into the social and environmental costs of the dominant development process, and her ability to work with and for local people and communities. Besides contributing to, she also maintains, and her own site We previously posted her article “Swaraj: A Deeper Freedom” here, and as well “Declaration on Seed Freedom” here. Article is courtesy National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company,; May 29, 2007.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi