Monocultures of the Mind
An interview with Vandana
by David Barsamian
Z magazine, December 2002
Vandana Shiva is an environmental activist.
She is director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology
and Ecology in New Delhi. She has pioneered research on biodiversity
and indigenous ethnoscience. Shiva is the recipient of the Right
Livelihood Award, also known as the alternative Nobel Prize. She
is the author of Biopiracy and Stolen Harvest and Water Wars.
Tell me about your latest book.
Water Wars is my synthesis of 25 years of ecological engagement
where every environmental conflict has been created around the
devastation of our water systems by wasteful, abusive development.
For example, large dams have flooded out tens of millions of people.
These dams don't really contribute to long-term development in
the areas that get the water. There's salinization. There's water-logging.
Agricultural systems which use five times more water to produce
the same amount of food are called productive and efficient. The
Green Revolution's so-called miracle is one very big reason for
the disappearance of our groundwater as well as surface water
in areas that should never have had intensive irrigation. The
shift from prudent irrigation, agriculture that depends on rain,
drought-resistant crops, nutritious millets, have all been replaced
by monocultures of thirsty wheat and rice varieties that have
ruined not just India's aquifers, but also aquifers around the
world. In addition to that are new threats coming from World Bank-financed
water privatization plans. The World Bank was responsible for
shifting India's water use to nonsustainable models. It's now
using that nonsustainability crisis to say neither the government
nor the people should make decisions about water. Water ownership
should now move through concessions and new arrangements called
public-private partnerships into the hands of the four or five
water lords who would like to own the water of this planet, like
the four or five life lords trying to own the seeds of this planet.
Moving from water to food-biotechnology has been hailed as generating
tremendous benefits for the world's hungry. You are one of its
I view biotechnology through the lens of my experience looking
at the Green Revolution. It left farmers impoverished, so much
so that today they're committing suicide. Biotechnology is working
on precisely the same linear path. The Green Revolution was about
selling more chemicals. Biotechnology is also about selling more
chemicals. You can make this out by looking at the two dominant
applications of the technology to the commercialization of crops.
The first is Roundup-resistant or herbicide-resistant crops that
can take high doses of chemicals and survive. That's a strategy
to continue to sell herbicides, not to reduce herbicide use.
The second most important category of
crops is called Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis. They take a toxin-producing
gene from a bacterium called Bt, put it into the crops, and the
crops and plants are producing this toxin in every cell of the
plant at every moment. This is supposed to be an alternative to
pesticides. In my view, ecologically, these are pesticide-producing
plants. So not only are you spraying once in a while, which is
what you do with normal pesticides, you are now literally producing
toxins all the time. They are going to go into our food. They
are going into the food chain and the ecological web of life.
The most important thing is, nature is intelligent. Species are
intelligent. The one or two species towards which these are supposed
to be defenses, namely the earthworm family of pests, evolved
rapid resistance. Now they're having a toxin released all the
time. They make mutations. Within a year or two you have an evolution
of resistance in the very pests you wanted to control. That means
you now have to use super-pesticides to control these resistant
pests. These again are not systems of reducing chemical and pesticide
As far as the miracles of providing us
with nutritious crops, crops to contain diseases, for one, it's
a myth. Golden Rice is a clear example of a highly inefficient
way to get vitamin A to the poor. It has been established by the
World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the Food and Agriculture
Organization that the only way vitamin deficiency has been removed
in poor communities is by giving women the diversity of seeds
that are sources of vitamin A. They are a thousand times richer
than Golden Rice will ever be. They haven't even started to assess
what it means ecologically if we have vaccine-producing plants
and what it means in terms of hazards in the food system. If they
could not keep Starling corn, which was not supposed to be eaten
by humans and was only for cattle feed, out of the human food
chain, what are they going to do about vaccine plants that are
not supposed to be eaten by humans? We know excessive doses of
any vaccine can become a source of problems rather than a solution
or a cure.
Your organization issued a report called "Seeds of Suicide:
The Ecological and Human Costs of Globalization. " What kind
of discoveries did you make?
I remember specifically it was winter 1997. The first few tiny,
two-line reports started to come out about farmer suicides. We
immediately rushed to the affected areas. In this particular case
it was Andhra Pradesh, one of the states that is supposed to be
the most integrated with the global economy. Why did the farmers
start to get into debt? We were able to establish through very
detailed studies that it was the shift from staples and ecological
agriculture done with no purchased inputs to cash crops like cotton,
which overtook 99 percent of these regions since globalization
started to change our agriculture. New seeds and hybrid seeds
can't be saved by farmers and the companies don't tell the farmers
these are non-renewable seeds. The hybrid seeds are very pest-prone
and therefore the farmers need pesticides. The farmers have no
The same companies, through their agents
at the local, village level, who happen to be the moneylenders
and landlords, end up providing the credit at very high interest
rates to move the seeds and the chemicals. Within a year or two,
farmers are in hundreds of thousands of rupees of debt.
Usually, in traditional agriculture in
Third World societies, farming is a collective decision. People
decide the weather will be like this, the rain is like this, this
crop will work, this is how much water we have. Let's plant this
way. The new package converts a farmer from being a member of
a community and a producer to being a consumer of purchased inputs
like seeds and chemicals. Quietly, the men will take a loan. The
family doesn't even know. The man doesn't have the guts to go
home and say, I have created 200,000 rupees of debt. Last year
there was a case where when the man couldn't pay back his debt,
the moneylender, the local agent of the multinationals, said,
Don't worry. Give me your wife. The man couldn't bear that violence
to himself and his wife and he drank the same pesticide that he
was using, that got him into debt.
Every village I have visited in the state
of Punjab has had suicides. Pesticide use has increased 2,000
percent in the last decade. The hybrid seeds are very costly.
They are advertised and promoted in the most unethical ways. Part
of what globalization has done is removed any regulation on the
seed sector. Globalization is the deregulation of commerce. Companies
can sell what they want on what terms they want, with no one to
keep a check. We call it "Seeds of Suicide" because
it is beginning with seeds. But we also have a program called
Seeds of Hope where we're getting open-pollinated varieties in
the hands of farmers, especially in Punjab. The enthusiasm is
In the early 1990s the Indian government embraced globalization.
There is an incident you recount when the U.S. Trade Representative
visited India and put a lot of pressure on the government.
The Indian government didn't embrace globalization voluntarily.
In 1991, the World Bank basically said, You've got to have structural
adjustment. During that period, because we had a very intense
movement starting in 1988 when the U.S. changed its trade law
and the trade representatives had more power. In addition, new
areas were brought into the U.S. Trade Act. Two clauses were added.
One is called Special 301. The other is called Super 301. These
clauses basically empowered the U.S. Trade Representative to announce
unilateral trade action against any country that did not respect
U.S. Iaws. Indians are supposed to respect Indian laws. But suddenly
we were supposed to respect U.S. Laws.
During the resistance against these 301
clauses, Carla Hills, the U.S. Trade Representative, visited,
in 1991 or 1992. She announced that the U.S. was going to open
the Indian economy for U.S. corporations through crowbar action.
That of course sent a trigger through the country. People could
not accept that a trade representative from another country could
decide that the economy of our country was not for the people
of India, but for the corporations of the U.S. The farmers used
that issue to tear down the Cargill plant in 1992. When they started
the action, they said, You said you were going to tear down our
economy by crowbar action. We are going to tear down your multinationals
by crowbar action.
You've been instrumental in bringing the neem tree to people's
The neem tree grows in every backyard of India. It also grows
in every ecosystem across the country. It's been called a miracle
tree, traditionally as well as by modern science. Its twigs are
used as a toothbrush. Its very tender leaves are used for eating.
It's a blood purifier, an absolutely amazing fungicide. We use
it for curing skin diseases. When you have a massage with neem
oil, you won't get bitten by a mosquito. It's been a cure for
malaria. Also, when you have neem trees planted, you don't have
mosquitos around. It's a nonviolent pest control treatment. It
doesn't kill the pests, it dopes them for a short while so they
don't reproduce that fast. We've used it for centuries.
I started a campaign in India called No
More Bhopals, Plant a Neem. It came out of the Bhopal disaster
of Union Carbide's pesticide plant that killed 3,000 people. Having
been involved in ecological agriculture for a long time, I thought
neem has to be the alternative to chemical pesticides. A decade
after we had this campaign, spreading neem among farmers, even
more than their conventional practice, and you must remember,
traditional use had been forgotten because of the magic bullet
Why do we have to waste our time getting
the extracts out, getting the oil out? Here's a spray. Just spray
it. Because of that shortcut, I call it the lazy and careless
technology, farmers had stopped using neem in large areas. We
were setting up oil extractors. In 19941 find a claim, in a biotechnology
journal, to invention on the use of neem for pesticide
and fungicide. So we sued. We started
a campaign and collected signatures. We went to the European Court
and even came to the U.S. Patent Office. They said we couldn't
really challenge the claim because we were not establishing a
commercial hurt. If we had public hurt, hurt of the public interest,
it's not good enough. But the European challenge was admitted.
We made that challenge jointly with the International Federation
of Organic Agriculture Movements and the Greens in Europe. We
won that case. It was a very important victory. It took the data
on our use of neem, including scientists who had worked on neem
over the last 40 years. We were able to establish that the claims
of W. R. Grace, which owned this patent, along with the U.S. Department
of Agriculture, were false. They had not made anything new. They
had just taken existing knowledge and put it into a very complicated
You make a connection between the creation of poverty, monopoly,
A patent basically is a right to exclude anyone else from making,
selling, distributing that which is patented. Quite clearly, that
right to exclude establishes a monopoly in the marketplace. If
Grace's patents on the pesticide use of neem had not been challenged,
it would have emerged as the monopoly supplier of neem pesticide
in the world markets. They already are in the U.S. Of course,
now they've been bought up by another company. But today in India,
because we don't have similar patent regimes, every farmer can
Every small-scale cottage industry can
make pesticide. And that pluralism of the economy is fine. But
a patent gives a legal right to shut down other people's making,
selling, buying. Patents on seed, which are now very prevalent
in North America, allow a company like Monsanto to use detectives,
to go into a farmer's field or home, and find not just the seed
but even the trace of the seed that might have come through pollination.
What does this have to do with neem, tamarind,
pepper, that have been patented and are under corporate control?
It means that sooner or later they can invoke this legal right
to exclude others from the marketplace or from making their own
thing. There are many judgments already in patent issues where
corporations say, It doesn't matter if you're making your own
seed, even if you're saving it for yourself and not selling it
commercially. Your saving it is cutting into the commercial market
of the company that could have sold it to you if you weren't.
Therefore they interpret even subsistence activity as commercial
More and more in your talks you're using the terminology of violence
The issue of violence is important because the entire technology
paradigm as it's emerging and the economics paradigm of globalization
are based on warfare. You begin to genetically engineer a seed.
Where does that begin'? It begins with gene guns. You make genetically
manipulated organisms by shooting genes with a gene gun. All the
language in genetic engineering is a language of warfare. Cargill
uses the language of warfare to talk about preventing bees from
usurping the pollen. It's a war against the pollinators.
Monsanto uses the language of creating
herbicide-resistant crops to prevent weeds, which in our view
is diversity and biodiversity essential to our health, our food,
to vitamin A sources, they call it "stealing the sunshine."
It's a war against the weeds. It's a war for sunlight, which you
can never have restricted. It's in such abundant quantities. The
entire WTO regime is based on one single concept of trade wars,
turning trade from being a mutual, cooperative arrangement of
selling and buying what you really need into a coercive arrangement
of being forced to buy what you don't need and being forced to
sell what you should be using domestically. India is being forced
to sell millions of tons of grain.
Globalized arrangements are preventing
India from getting food to the people who need it. The hungry
are dying. Farmers are committing suicide. The Cargills of the
world walk off with the state subsidies because that is allowed
in the globalized system. Even more importantly than that, a system
of technology and economics that makes large numbers of people
dispensable and commits such violence to the earth and its species
must get a response. The British got a response. During the struggle
for independence, we had peasant movements. When the British tried
to force us to accept a law that would make salt-making a monopoly,
Gandhi and his followers walked to Dandi beach and made salt.
They said, No, we will not obey your laws. We will make our own
You will get a reaction. As the reaction
comes, we saw it in Seattle, Prague, Gothenburg and elsewhere,
systems that have decided that the planet is their monopoly property
and the entire world lives for their model of commerce have been
forcing states that were not militarized, like Sweden and Switzerland,
to create new laws where civic action is being redefined as terrorism.
It is a system that creates violence. It creates war on the part
of those who have decided that they must appropriate and steal
as a right. It's also pushing violent reaction because democratic
responses are not being heard.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the ruling party in India
with roots in Hindu fundamentalist doctrine. Is the rise of the
BJP connected with globalization?
Before globalization arrived in India, the BJP had exactly two
seats in the Indian Parliament. As globalization started to destroy
more livelihoods, destroy the small-scale sector, destroy the
farming sector, the BJP, like every other right-wing fundamentalist
party, was able to play on people's insecurities. That is what
happens when electoral democracy is emptied out of economic democracy.
Countries lose the capacity to make economic decisions to the
benefit of their people. Elections can no longer be fought on
the basis of how you provide health care, education, and jobs.
It starts to be, how can you mobilize hatred and tear against
another community that might be a different race or religion or
speaking a different language. Globalization, by taking economic
decision-making out of communities and out of countries, leaves
in the hands of the fundamentalists a tremendous vote bank of
hatred which they can exploit.
Do you see the possibility of an alliance between right-wing formations
like the BJP and their counterpart in the U.S. ?
It has already happened. When President Bush announced his missile
shield program, the only country that actually welcomed it, was
India. Buddha's India, Gandhi's India, even Nehru's India was
suddenly getting aligned, at the wrong time in history, to the
worst of militarized imperialistic forces in the world.
In May 1998, the Indian government exploded
nuclear weapons, leading a month later to similar explosions in
Pakistan. Where does the nuclearization of the subcontinent fit
in with globalization ?
The nuclearization of the subcontinent
provides a sense of greatness in a period where people are feeling
a deep sense of loss. A nuclear explosion was used as a surrogate
show of masculine power. Interestingly, when India called its
bomb the "Hindu bomb" and Pakistan called its bomb the
"Islamic bomb," they were the same bomb. One reason
I've launched Women for Diversity, which is a global movement
of women for diversity and peace, was because I felt we were getting
the strange phenomenon of men in power using bombs as their little
playthings to show, I am the smart one, I am the tough one, I
have the scientific genius. But it was totally monocultures of
You said that India's granaries are full, but at the same time
there has been an increase in starvation and incidents of famine.
This seems to be a contradiction. Granaries full, people hungry.
Starting with globalization and trade liberalization pressures,
India has been prevented from allowing food to reach its people.
The government expenditure involved in moving grain around the
country from areas that produce lots to areas that don't produce
as much has been treated as a subsidy that must go. Unfortunately,
as a result of this, government expenditure has decreased because
the World Bank changed the universal right to access to food into
a targeted scheme. Targeting is a fond strategy for the World
Bank, saying the universal scheme subsidized the rich. You should
not subsidize the rich. So let's go to the really, really poor.
What this has done is increase the price of food to the point
that people can't afford it. As they don't buy food, what is called
off-take, which is buying from the warehouse, the movement of
grain stops. The stockpiling of 60 million tons is a result of
people buying less. More and more people are starving. We predicted
this tour years ago.
You're sometimes described as an "ecofeminist. "
I've never been very comfortable with labels. Ecofeminism mixes
things. It's too neat, in my view. It leaves out many other aspects
of who I am and what I do. It leaves out the part of my parents'
legacy of fighting caste. My name, Shiva, was adopted by my parents
to erase their caste identity. Today, wherever I find caste discrimination,
I will fight it. In our own organization we make sure we have
Muslims, Hindus, and Christians working together, not allowing
any of the typical rigidities to cripple the potential we have
as a group. But at one level, I really don't mind ecofeminism
because I think the combination of feminism and ecology creates
two potentials. First, I have seen feminism that is not ecological
become a new oppressor. I have seen environmentalism that is not
feminist enough also become a new elitism. Ecofeminism prevents
those two new forms of elitism by saying, No, it's about society
and nature. It's about other ways of thinking. You can't just
have a few women get into power. Carla Hills and Madeleine Albright
do not symbolize a new equality for women.
Look at water privatization in the U.S.
It is being led by environmental groups, only because they don't
think of society. They think of one species and say, OK, if I
can buy water from that river and save the species in this particular
canyon, buying is fine. They don't realize how in the process
they're creating an entire social and political arrangement around
natural resources that will be abusive to millions of other species,
and of course millions of our brothers and sisters on this planet.
So ecofeminism, because it is intrinsically about social justice
and ecological limits, is a good counter to the kind of problems
we see with mainstream feminism and mainstream environmentalism.
Where are the openings that activists can enter to create wider
Militarization is a weak spot. Usually militarization is seen
as a strong force. But I believe any kind of violent power is
weak power in the ultimate analysis. I'm saying that literally
in terms of how I personally experience life, how the most brutal
form of violence against oneself as a person or as a community
is easiest to deal with because it ends up being extremely rigid
and loses its flexibility, its moral power, its democratic basis.
That's its weakness.
The second weakness is being so out of
touch with reality that the projections into the future of how
much trade, growth, and wealth there will be are way off base.
There is more disease, more hunger, more unemployment and that
lived reality is a barometer that people have in their lives.
The more the dominant system talks from a place of falsehood and
people's real experience goes in a different way, the weaknesses
of the system of domination will increase.
You've also talked about the need to recover the commons. Explain
what you mean by that.
Commons are those spaces that we need
to keep as shared systems, as systems of common responsibility
and common rights in order to make life possible. Ecologically
we have always needed water. We've needed biodiversity. Peasants
have needed pastures. People in Third World societies have needed
forests and woods to collect fodder and fuel from. Those are the
systems that have been the commons in terms of natural resources.
Quite clearly, every one of these commons is being enclosed.
My fight against patenting and genetic
engineering is a fight against the enclosure of the biological
and intellectual commons that is the basis of survival of the
large majority of the people of the world. It's also the basis
of cultural diversity and cultural richness. Water is being enclosed
through privatization. Water is a commons. The atmosphere is a
commons that has been privatized by pollution from fossil fuels
and the oil companies. They are taking what doesn't belong to
them, using it as their private sink. They are destabilizing the
climate for all of us.
We need to recover these as commons over
which we have collective control. The saving of seed is a recovery
of the commons. Keeping knowledge outside the privatized domain,
knowledge of how to use neem, tamarind, pepper, and basmati rice
is a fight for the commons. Water is a commons. In Maharashtra,
a lake belongs to Coca-Cola. They're preventing the tribals whose
lake it is from having access to it for drinking water.
Coca-Cola owns a lake in Maharashtra?
Villagers were being prevented from having access to water in
that lake because Coca-Cola had got exclusive rights to it for
a bottling plant. Another extraordinary thing that's going on
in Maharashtra is the privatization of the energy sector. Enron,
the Houston-based energy giant and also one of George W. Bush's
biggest contributors, has taken over the energy sector there.
Enron is a good example of globalization.
Enron had been rejected by the people and government of Maharashtra.
It had also been turned down by the Ministry of the Environment
at the federal level as having ecologically devastating effects
on the coastline where the plant in Dabhol was to come up. A11
kinds of things were done to clear the project.
As was predicted, electricity prices went
up sixfold. People couldn't afford to buy. But the contract said
that the government, which was not allowed to make electricity,
still had to buy all of it from Enron, no matter how high the
price. Enron had a guaranteed market. These kinds of guarantees
are some of the most abusive systems that are being put in place,
partly through World Bank pressure. But the Maharashtra State
Electricity Board said, Sorry, we don't have the money. We're
not going to pay you. There is a huge conflict brewing. The courts
are hearing the case. The people are protesting.
What gives you hope?
One area of hope comes from the fact that the trajectories that
have been laid out by these monopolizing monoculture minds are
so nonsustainable that something will have to happen. The system
will crack. When you industrialize food and farming too much,
there will be outbreaks of disease. People will want local, organic
food as a secure supply. Alternatives are built into the very
logic of the system because it's designed to fail and will lead
to environmental catastrophe.
The second reason I'm hopeful is the work
we are doing. We begin with tiny steps. We say, OK, there are
suicides of farmers. Let's take ten quintals (1,000 kg.) of wheat
to the farmers of Punjab. They're not satisfied with ten. They
want a hundred. We rush back and multiply seeds again. Wherever
there are initiatives to build sustainable, just, democratic systems,
they are spreading like wildfire.
People want another world, and they're
building it. People's love for freedom is more powerful than any
coercive authority. That love for freedom is more powerful than
the love of the dominators who are trying to control the planet.
David Barsamian is the author of many
books, the latest being Culture and Resistance, Conversations
with Edward W. Said (forthcoming South End Press). To obtain cassette
copies of this or other programs, contact: Alternative Radio,
PO Box 551, Boulder, CO 80306; 800-444-1977.