Tag: Vandana Shiva

Where poverty comes from, a totally false history

He simply doesn’t understand where poverty comes from. He seems to view it as the original sin. “A few generations ago, almost everybody was poor,” he writes, then adding: “The Industrial Revolution led to new riches, but much of the world was left far behind.”

This is a totally false history of poverty. The poor are not those who have been “left behind”; they are the ones who have been robbed.

The destruction of nature and of people’s ability to look after themselves are blamed not on industrial growth and economic colonialism, but on poor people themselves. Poverty, it is stated, causes environmental destruction. The disease is then offered as a cure: further economic growth is supposed to solve the very problems of poverty and ecological decline that it gave rise to in the first place.

The second myth is an assumption that if you consume what you produce, you do not really produce, at least not economically speaking. If I grow my own food, and do not sell it, then it doesn’t contribute to GDP, and therefore does not contribute towards “growth”. People are perceived as “poor” if they eat food they have grown rather than commercially distributed junk foods sold by global agri-business. They are seen as poor if they live in self-built housing made from ecologically well-adapted materials like bamboo and mud rather than in cinder block or cement houses. They are seen as poor if they wear garments manufactured from handmade natural fibres rather than synthetics.

The indigenous people in the Amazon, the mountain communities in the Himalayas, peasants anywhere whose land has not been appropriated and whose water and biodiversity have not been destroyed by debt-creating industrial agriculture are ecologically rich, even though they earn less than a dollar a day.

– Excerpted from ‘Two Myths That Keep the World Poor’ by Vandana Shiva


The most powerful number of our times

Gross domestic product (GDP), which is supposed to measure the wealth of nations, has emerged as both the most powerful number and dominant concept in our times. However the concept of economic growth hides the poverty that is created through the destruction of nature, which in turn leads to communities lacking the capacity to provide for themselves.

GDP is based on creating an artificial and fictitious boundary, assuming that if you produce what you consume, you do not produce. In effect, “growth” measures the conversion of nature into cash.

Thus nature’s amazing cycles of renewal of water and nutrients are defined into nonproduction. When we look at the world through the lens of GDP and economic growth, the peasants of the world, who provide 72% of the food, do not produce. Women who farm or do most of the housework do not produce. A living forest (which may provide fertilizer, shade, fuel and food) does not contribute to growth, but when trees are cut down and sold as timber, we have growth. Healthy societies and communities do not contribute to growth, but disease creates growth through, for example, the sale of patented medicine.

– Excerpted and adapted from ‘How economic growth has become anti-life’ by Vandana Shiva, published in ‘the Guardian’.

How farmers’ plant breeding is appropriated

The production and use of landraces (indigenous varieties evolved through both natural and human selection) are essential to Third World farmers. These are termed ‘primitive’ cultivars, whereas those varieties created by modern plant breeders in international research centres or by transnational corporations are called ‘advanced’ or ‘elite’. Trevor Williams, the former Executive Secretary of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, has argued that it is not the original material that produces cash returns, and at a 1983 forum on plant breeding, stated that raw germ plasm only becomes valuable after considerable investment of time and money. According to this calculation, peasants’ time is considered valueless and available for free. Once again, all prior processes of creation are being denied and devalued by defining them as nature. Thus, plant breeding by farmers is not breeding; real breeding is seen to begin when this ‘primitive germ plasm’ is mixed or crossed with inbred lines in international labs by international scientists.

But the landraces that farmers have developed are not genetically chaotic. Nor do they lack innovation. They consist of improved and selected material, embodying the experience, inventiveness and hard work of farmers past and present; the evolutionary material processes they have undergone serve ecological and social needs.

As Pat Mooney has argued, “The perception that intellectual property is only recognizable when produced in laboratories by men in lab coats is fundamentally a racist view of scientific development.”

The denial of prior rights and creativity is essential for owning life. A brief book prepared by the biotechnology industry states: “Patent laws would in effect have drawn an imaginary line around your processes and products. If anyone steps over that line to use, make or sell your inventions or even if someone steps over that line in using, making or selling his own products, you could sue for patent protection.”

Jack Doyle has appropriately remarked that patents are less concerned with innovation than with territory, and can act as instruments of territorial takeover by claiming exclusive access to creativity and innovation, thereby monopolizing rights to ownership. The farmers, who are the guardians of the germ plasm, have to be dispossessed to allow the new colonization to happen.

– Vandana Shiva, ‘Biopiracy’, p 55-57

Small farms feed the world

We tend to believe that we need big farms, big dams, big corporations to meet our needs for food and water. Giant corporations have grown bigger with five companies globally controlling the seed supply, food supply and water supply. Among these corporations are Monsanto, Cargill, Nestle, Suez and Wal-Mart. We assume that farms must grow bigger and bigger for food security.

But the reality is that “small is big” — ecologically, economically and politically. The future of food security in India and worldwide lies in protecting and promoting small farmers.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, in spite of all subsidies going to large farms, in spite of all policies promoting industrial agriculture, even today 72 per cent food comes from small farms.

If we add kitchen gardens and urban gardens, the majority of food people eat is grown on a small scale. What is growing on large farms is not food; it is commodities. Only 10 per cent of the corn and soya taking over world agriculture is eaten. Ninety per cent goes to drive cars as biofuel or to animals in factory farms as feed. Small farms feed the world.

– Vandana Shiva, Small is really beautiful, in Asian Age.

Primitive seeds, elite seeds: what’s the difference? (History, money, and power.)

The indigenous varieties, or land races, evolved through both natural and human selection, and produced and used by Third World farmers worldwide are called ‘primitive cultivars’. Those varieties created by modern plant breeders in international agricultural research centers by transnational seed corporations are called ‘advanced’ or ‘elite’.

– ‘The Violence of the Green Revolution’ by Vandana Shiva, p.67-68.

Land race: A traditional variety of animal, plant, or tree used in agriculture.

Germplasm: A germplasm is a collection of genetic resources for an organism. For plants, the germplasm may be stored as a seed collection or, for trees, in a nursery. (Source: Wikipedia).

Seeds of struggle

The following is an adaptation of portions of chapter 7, ‘Seeds of Struggle’ from the book ‘First the Seed’, by Jack Kloppenberg.

On the one hand, governments and companies of the advanced capitalist nations have encouraged the developing nations to adopt PBR (plant breeders’ rights) legislation – that is, to recognize private property rights in one form of germplasm. At the same time, they have argued forcefully for the need to collect and preserve other forms of germplasm such as primitive cultivars and land races. Plant genetic resources in the Third World have been held to be the common heritage of humanity, a public good to be freely appropriated.

The ideology of common heritage and the norm of free exchange of plant germplasm have greatly benefited the advanced capitalist nations. Every species of economic importance in the Industrial North has benefited from introgression of foreign genes. No systematic effort has been made to estimate the monetary value of these infusions of genetic material. In a few instances some rough valuations have been reported. A Turkish land race of wheat supplied American varieties with genes for resistance to stripe rust, a contribution estimated to have been worth $50 million per year. The Indian selection that provided sorghum with resistance to greenbug has resulted in $12 million in yearly benefits to American agriculture. An Ethiopian gene protects the American barley crop from yellow dwarf disease to the amount of $150 million per annum. The value to the American tomato industry of genes from Peru that permitted an increase in the soluble solid content of the fruit is reported to be $5 million per annum. And new soybean varieties developed at the University of Illinois by plant breeders using germplasm from Korea may save American agriculture an estimated $100-500 million in yearly processing costs. It is no exaggeration to say that the plant genetic resources received as free goods from the Third World have been worth untold billions of dollars to the advanced capitalist nations.

What is it about the germplasm in commercial varieties as opposed to the germplasm in land races that justifies classification of the former as a commodity and the latter as a free public good?

An answer to this question was provided by Dr. J.T. Williams, Executive Secretary of the IBPGR (International Board for Plant Genetic Resources), at the 1983 “Plant Breeding Research Forum”:


The empty lands of Africa

Land grabs and squatters

In 2009 alone nearly 60 million hectares – an area the size of France – was purchased or leased in these land grabs. Most of these deals are characterized by a lack of transparency, despite the profound implications posed by the consolidation of control over global food markets and agricultural resources by financial firms.

“We have seen cases of speculators taking over agricultural land while small farmers, viewed as “squatters” are forcibly removed with no compensation,” said Frederic Mousseau, policy director at the Oakland Institute.

‘Hedge Funds Create Volatility in Global Food Supply with Land Grabs Across Africa’, the Oakland Institute

The “underutilized” commons

The lands of small-scale farmers like these are characterized as ‘under-used’. Since the state – which legally owns all territory – declared it had seven million hectares going spare, investors have snapped up 2.5 million. Mozambique has stayed in the ‘top 10 most targeted’ countries for large-scale deals ever since.

The age-old tussle over resources is nothing new. But the speed at which large swathes of the Global South are being transferred into private hands has not been seen since colonial times.

The cast has changed. Modern day landgrabbers are a varied bunch: (more…)

The disappearance of local knowledge

The disappearance of local knowledge through its interaction with the dominant western knowledge takes place at many levels, through many steps. First, local knowledge is made to disappear by simply not seeing it, by negating its very existence. This is very easy in the distant gaze of the globalising dominant system. The western systems of knowledge have generally been viewed as universal. However, the dominant system is also a local system, with its social basis in a particular culture, class and gender. It is not universal in an epistemological sense. It is merely the globalised version of a very local and parochial tradition. Emerging from a dominating and colonising culture, modern knowledge systems are themselves colonising.

‘Monocultures of the Mind’ by Vandana Shiva (PDF)

The scam of growth

The justification is always “growth”. However, no short-term economic policy can trump the long-term economic policy of protecting the ecological foundations of all economy. Everywhere in the world, especially in Bhutan, the scam of “growth” is being recognised. All it measures is commercialisation and commodification of resources, and hence is actually the rate of extraction of resources from local ecosystems and local communities. It should, therefore, be interpreted as measuring ecological destruction and the creation of poverty, not as measuring wealth.

The real meaning of “wealth” is well being. A process that destroys nature and dispossesses local communities and hence destroys well being cannot be justified as wealth-creating. What it does lead to as a result of ecological and social exploitation and the conversion of nature’s resources into cash is the concentration of cash in the hands of a few.

And this cash can then be used for kickbacks and buying political influence, to further erode nature, people’s rights and democracy.

This is the vicious cycle we have got trapped in. And only people’s movements in the defence of nature and their rights can break it.

The Asian Age: “The scam of growth” by Vandana Shiva

The link between sustainability, diversity, and decentred self-organisation

This post is an exerpt from “Monocultures of the Mind” by Vandana Shiva, p147, slightly paraphrased.


All systems of sustainable agriculture, whether of the past or of the future, work on the basis of the perennial principles of diversity and reciprocity. The two principles are not independent, but interrelated. Diversity gives rise to the ecological space for give and take, for mutuality and reciprocity. Destruction of diversity is linked to the creation of monocultures, and with the creation of monocultures, the self-regulation and decentred organisation of diverse systems gives way to external inputs and external and centralised control.


Sustainability and diversity are ecologically linked because diversity offers the multiplicity of interactions which can heal disturbance to any part of the system. Non-sustainability and uniformity means that disturbance to one part is translated to a disturbance to all parts. Instead of being contained, ecological destabilization tends to be amplified.

The imperative for growth generates the imperative for monocultures

Closely linked to the issue of diversity versus uniformity is the issue of productivity. Higher yields and higher production have been the main push for the introduction of uniformity and the logic of the assembly line. The imperative for growth generates the imperative for monocultures, yet this “growth” only exists when viewed from a particular, narrow, cultural and political perspective. When one takes a different perspective, a perspective that encompasses the whole system with all of its inputs and outputs and all of its diverse functions, this “growth” disappears. Therefore sustainability, diversity and decentred self-organisation are linked together, as are unsustainability, uniformity and centralisation.

Science and technology

What is science? What is technology?

The conventional answer is simply that science is what scientists produce, and technology is what technologists produce. Scientists and technologists are defined as people who have been formally trained in Western universities and institutions, or in Third World institutions mimicking Western ideas and traditions.

This answer is not very useful, so let us look for another. Let us define science broadly as “ways of knowing” and technology as “ways of doing”. From this perspective all societies, in all their diversity, have had science and technology systems on which their distinct and diverse development has been based. Technologies and systems of technologies bridge the gap between nature’s resources and human needs. Systems of knowledge and culture provide the framework for the perception and utilization of nature’s resources.

– Adapted from “Biopiracy: the plunder of nature and knowledge” by Vandana Shiva, p134-135.

A biological obstacle

The biotechnology revolution robs the seed of its fertility and self-regenerative capabilities, colonizing it in two major ways: through technical means and through property rights.

Processes like hybridization are the technological means that stop seed from reproducing itself. This is an effective way of circumventing natural constraints on the commodification of the seed. Hybrid varieties do not produce true-to-type seed, and farmers must return to the breeder each year for new seed stock.

To use Jack Kloppenburg’s description of the seed: it is both a means of production and a product. Farmers all over the world do not only produce a product, they also reproduce the means of production, and the seed thus presents corporations with a biological obstacle. Modern plant breeding has been an attempt to remove this biological obstacle, to transform the seed into a mere product by removing its capacity to reproduce itself.

– Vandana Shiva, “Biopiracy: the plunder of nature and knowledge”, p53, paraphrased.

The one-dimensional tree

The text of this post is taken from Vandana Shiva’s book “Monocultures of the mind”, but I’ve rearranged and simplified the text so it’s more like a remix than a straight quotation (and therefore any errors are my fault, not hers). The images were created using Inkscape. The bar graph image is a mash-up which includes the Public Domain image ‘Tree icon’ by Hashim Al-Attas.

When the West colonized Asia, it brought with it ideas of nature and culture derived from the industrial factory. Commercial forestry looks only for the industrially useful species that can be profitably marketed, and measures productivity in terms of industrial and commercial biomass alone.

A cartoon drawing of a tree stump. Above it an arrow shows the diameter of the stump, and is labeled 'Commercially useful biomass'.

As the paper and pulp industry rose in prominence, the hybrid eucalyptus, which was good for pulping, came to be the preferred species. Natural forests were clear-felled and replaced by monocultures of the exotic eucalyptus.


Science and openess

The historical experience of non-western culture suggests that it is the western systems of knowledge which are blind to alternatives. The ‘scientific’ label assigns a kind of sacredness or social immunity to the western system. By elevating itself above society and other knowledge systems and by simultaneously excluding other knowledge systems from the domain of reliable and systematic knowledge, the dominant system creates its exclusive monopoly. Paradoxically, it is the knowledge systems which are considered most open, that are, in reality, closed to scrutiny and evaluation.

– Vandana Shiva, “Monocultures of the mind: perspectives on biodiversity and biotechnology”, p11-12.

Neither God nor tradition is privileged with the same credibility as scientific rationality in modern cultures… The project that science’s sacredness makes taboo is the examination of science in just the ways that any other institution or set of social practises can be examined.

– Harding, S. 1986, “The science question in feminism”, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, p8. Quoted in the Vandana Shiva book referenced above.

Knowledge and power

In 1973 I was training to be a nuclear physicist. Some of my most exciting times were the periods I spent at the Bhabha Atomic Center in Bombay, working as a summer trainee in the experimental fast breeder reactor. But I gave up a career in nuclear physics after my sister Mira, a medical doctor, humbled me. She pointed out that while I was trained in all the minutiae of energy transitions and chain reactions, I was illiterate when it came to nuclear hazards. It was that lesson in humility that precipitated my shift toward sciences that defend life and away from those that annihilate life. It also made me more conscious of the links between knowledge and power, the construction of social irresponsibility built into war- and profit-centered science, and the field’s willful mystification of the public regarding all matters of social consequence, which shuts out democratic control of dangerous technologies.

– Vandana Shiva, “India divided: diversity and democracy under attack”, chapter 1 p. 42-43.

Patents, colonization, and recolonization

An oil painting: Christopher Columbus kneels on a rocky shore holding a flag, in the background is the sea with several ships.
Image: “Christoper Columbus arrives in America”, 1893. The image is in the Public Domain, and more info can be found at Wikimedia.

An excerpt from “Protect or Plunder? Understanding Intellectual Property Rights” by Vandana Shiva:

‘Litterae patents’ were first issued in Europe in the sixth century. Charters and letters were given by European monarchs for the discovery and conquest of foreign lands. They were used for colonization and for establishing import monopolies. This is evident in the charter granted to Christopher Columbus… to assert rights to all ‘islands and mainlands’ before their discovery. Given that Columbus’s voyage was supposed to have been to India, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that what Columbus carried as a piece of parchment was the potential right to own India. It was instead used to conquer and own the lands of America’s indigenous people who have been called Indians ever since as a reminder of Columbus’s mistaken ‘discovery’.