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In Gandhi's footsteps 

Indian activist and philosopher Vandana Shiva now visits Norway at the Globalization Conference.


While Mahatma Gandhi is best known for his struggle to liberate India from British colonialism half a century ago, he devoted most of his life to the renewal of India's vitality and culture from the ground up. He was a tireless advocate for what he called swadeshi, or local self-sufficiency. He felt that India's soul was in the village community and that freedom for the Indian people could only be achieved by creating a confederation of self-governing people with faith in themselves as their own employers. They would live in villages and live off what they produced on their own land.

History wanted Gandhi's ideas largely unknown after India's independence, especially his teachings on austerity and resource conservation. Like many other developing countries, India flirted during a period of socialism, but dropped it in favor of Western market reforms. Today, all key political parties in India are advocating a high-tech future, a development that in the short term is likely to bring financial prosperity to some Indians, but not without long-term social and environmental consequences. However, a movement is emerging that will breathe new life into Gandhi's ideas. More and more people in India and elsewhere are starting to question the value of free market reform and deregulation. The way they see it, the pressure for economic globalization has had a plethora of negative consequences, from increasing economic inequality and overpopulated cities to ecological destruction and the blurring of local traditions and cultures.

One of the most prominent of Gandhi's intellectual heirs is Vandana Shiva. She is a trained physicist and philosopher of science and has received considerable recognition as a champion of sustainability, self-determination, women's rights and environmental justice. She has written over a dozen books, among them Monocultures of the Mind, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development og biopiracy. In India, she is also known for her grassroots efforts to conserve forests, organize women's networks and protect local biodiversity.

Before you know it, all common plant use will be patented by a Western company. For me, this is an absolute disgrace.

Vandana Shiva is the head of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in Dehra Dun. She has received numerous awards and awards, including the Alfonso Comín Award for 1998 and the Right Livelihood Award for 1993, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. The late environmentalist David Brower once stated that Shiva would have been his candidate for the post of world president if such a thing had existed.

- You have said that the most important challenge the world faces today is twofold: the need for biological sustainability on the one hand and for social justice on the other. Many, especially here in the United States, view these themes as separate and independent of each other, but for you are they inextricably linked?

"Yes, to me they are closely related, partly because my view of ecology comes from the more marginal part of Indian society, from farmers who make up 70 percent of the country's population – people who depend on natural resources, biodiversity, the earth, the forests, the water. Nature is their production tool, so for them, ecological destruction is a form of injustice. When the forest disappears, when the river is drained, when biodiversity is stolen, when soils become waterlogged or saline due to economic activity, it is a matter of survival for these people. Therefore, our environmental movements must be justice movements.

The reason it doesn't fade that way in North America, I think has a lot to do with this country's history. The occupation of America (and Columbus's arrival was an obvious occupation, no one can deny it) meant that the entire history of the American indigenous people was made invisible. The country could only occupied if it was first defined as blank. So then it was defined as wilderness, despite the fact that it had been used by indigenous people for millennia.

Historically, nature has been defined as wilderness. Later, as the wilderness movement grew, it happened independently of the question of social inequalities and the economic question of survival. It was a conservation ecological movement created by an occupational culture. It goes without saying that a wilderness movement started by Indigenous Americans would not have the same roots.

Today, therefore, there is a contradiction between the environmental movement and justice issues. You can see it on the frames these cases get. What is constantly going on is jobs versus environment, nature versus food to eat. These are extremely artificial dichotomies.

I think we have now reached a stage where we have to find solutions to economic injustice in the same place and in the same ways that we find sustainable solutions. Environmental sustainability and justice in the sense that everyone has a place in the production and consumption system – these are two sides to the same issue. They have been artificially divided, and in a Western way they must be brought back together. "

-  You have objected to patenting of plants and herbs, something that the pharmaceutical industry has strived for very aggressively in recent years?

“Yes, it's a phenomenon that started in the United States, where companies claim life forms, biodiversity and innovation that belong to other cultures, by applying for a patent on them. For example, insecticides made from neem tree in India are patented, while a patent now restricts the use of the herb Phyllantus in the treatment of hepatitis. An even more glaring example is the use of turmeric in wound care, which is well known by mothers and grandmothers in every single home in India. Now, Mississippi Medical Center claims to have "invented" the ability of the turmeric to heal wounds. "

- You describe a dramatic case where some American scientists went to India and selected old and well-known folk remedies for purely commercial purposes.

"Absolutely. Theft of common knowledge and folk medicine knowledge I have called "bio piracy" and "intellectual piracy". It should not be possible to patent what is a prior art. But the US patent system is pretty unreasonable. First, they do not treat prior art from other communities as ditto. Therefore, anyone from the United States can travel to another country, get involved in the use of a medicinal plant or find seeds used by farmers, come home again, claim that it is an invention or an innovation, take a patent on it and acquire an exclusive right to use any products or processes associated with this knowledge. ”

- Do you come up with other examples?

"I've just been told that Nestlé has patented the manufacture of pull out. (pullao is the way we prepare our rice in India, with vegetables or meat or whatever.) Before you know it, all common use of plants will be patented by a Western company. For me, this is an absolute disgrace. It is worse than slave trade, because what it deals with is the knowledge that enables 80 percent of the people in the world to survive. These 80 percent live on the biodiversity and knowledge they have developed as part of a rich common heritage that includes the use of seeds for crops and medicinal plants for healing.

The claim that this type of piracy is an "invention" is reminiscent of the claim that Columbus was the first to "discover" this country. Indeed, America had been "discovered" by the American indigenous people for thousands of years.

The fencing of the biological and intellectual public in this way is truly a threat to the future of mankind worldwide, since it creates a situation where what has been common practice in people's lives for generations is monopolized by the pharmaceutical industry and companies in commercial agriculture and agricultural chemicals. Then people will be unable to attend to their own needs. Each farmer must go to the seed grain industry annually to buy their seeds and pay 80 percent royalty to a company. This is already happening here in the US. Barter trading "over the fence" is increasingly viewed as something criminal. This means that if you need a biological pesticide, you can no longer use what you find in your own garden. Instead, you are at the mercy of Grace Corporation or something similar. This type of addiction leads to increasing poverty and increasing ecological destruction. "

- You quote Gandhi on the following statement: "Embedded in the resistance lies the creative creation of an alternative." So resisting is not just a way of saying no, I assume. It is also part of a constructive effort to find a better alternative?

"Yes. We are still learning something about the independence movement. Gandhi not only said no to the clothing imports that destroyed our textile industry; he started to spin everyone. The rock became the symbol of Indian independence. So we always say, "If the rock was the symbol of our first independence, the seed is the symbol of the second independence."

- The most pressing ecological problem facing the world today is, in many people's opinion, overpopulation. Especially here in the West, this is often defined as a "third-world problem", as the birth rate is highest in poor countries. What is your perspective?

The problem of overcrowding can only be solved if one recognizes that people have a fundamental right to financial security.

“People who look at the population explosion in the Malthusian way – as a geometric series – forget that population growth is not a biological matter. People do not increase in numbers based on stupidity or ignorance. Population growth is an ecological problem that is very closely linked to other issues, such as the exploitation of resources that enable people to live.

In England, the population explosion is very clearly linked to the fencing of the public, which drove the peasants off their land. In India it was like this: The population increased at the end of the 18th century, when the British took over and Indian soil was colonized. Instead of nourishing the earth, it began to feed the British Empire. So we got poverty and food shortages. Poor people who do not have their own land to obtain food can only feed themselves by being more numerous, therefore increasing in number. It is the rational answer from a displaced people.

Population explosion is an ecological phenomenon associated with forced displacement. Unless we solve the ecological problem of moving people – to build large dams, build highways, take away what people need to survive – we will continue to pump money into population programs. We will have more and more methods characterized by coercion and violence, which will treat the female body as the experimental arena for new contraceptives. Nevertheless, we will not find a solution to the population problem. ”

- How do we handle it?

“The problem of overcrowding can only be solved if one recognizes that people have a fundamental right to financial security. If you give them financial and environmental security, the population will stabilize themselves. The example of Kerala clearly shows this. Kerala is a state in southern India where the trend is opposite from the rest of the Third World and India by the way. There are two or three reasons for this. There is a striking resemblance between the sexes in Kerala. In addition, the state has implemented a very strong land reform, so that even the poorest own the land patch where their hut is listed. For example, it is true that workers without land may not own the land they are working on, but they do, as they say, own the land patch their hut stands on. This resource guarantee has serious implications for people's security.

When I was in the capital of Kerala, I remember some rich person saying to me, “Out here you can't get the maids to come every day. They have a house and do not have to work every day, because even if they are at home, they do not starve. ”

This is where one has to address the issue of population control. Population control is not about contraception for women in the Third World. It's about ecological justice. "

- Are you optimistic when you look to the future?

"I'm absolutely sure things will change. I think we will see a lot of destruction, but I also believe that if we can see the right patterns and draw the right lessons from this destruction, we can build up again before it is too late. And then I have the ultimate optimism that tells me that even if we can't, life will rebuild itself. In a way, the global economy may collapse, but neither will Gaia, nor will people's ingenuity. We will rebuild societies, we will recreate local economies, we will revive human goals. The kind of global monoculture where everyone feels they have to run faster than they are now running to maintain the same place cannot be continued. I think we will be disillusioned by the glamor of globalization. ” 

This interview is an adaptation of the radio series Insight & Outlook.
London is a writer, writer, speaker and consultant living in California.

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