Click the audio player for an interview with environmental activist, ecofeminist and physicist, Vandana Shiva, who is the founder of Navdanya, a movement that promotes ecological diversity and the use of native seeds. She is also the founder and director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy and is the author of many books, including Soil not Oil and Earth Democracy.
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Edited interview transcript:
Earthgauge: Dr. Shiva, could you tell us about the work of your organization Navdanya?
Vandana Shiva: Navdanya was born in 1987. Its basic purpose is to defend biodiversity, the rights of farmers to their seeds and I started it because I had the privelege to attend a meeting at which the biotechnology industry laid out their plans for genetic engineering, patenting seeds and reducing themselves to 5 companies controlling food and health care. For me, that sounded like a dictatorship so I took inspiration from Ghandi’s spinning wheel and tried to make the seed into the spinning wheel of today.
EG: According to the World Food Progam, 1/4 of the world’s malnourished people live in India and India’s farmers are among the poorest. You’ve said that higher economic growth rates do not translate into higher food entitlements and less hunger, do you think countries such as India need growth to help alleviate poverty or do you have a different view of development?
VS: First, it is precisely in the period that India was having high growth as measured by GDP, hitting 9% last year, that large numbers were being added to the hungry and malnourished in our country. India was not the capital of hunger before 1965 but we have become that today. In my view, growth that only measures how much commerce takes place, how many financial transactions take place in fact is at the root of hunger and poverty because it robs the poor of the entitlements and resources that allow them to have access to food and land to grow food.
India can only be a land of small farmers. Small farmers grow more food. Small farms produce more biodiversity. So the solution to hunger and poverty is to strengthen the small farm economy rather than exploit it.
EG: This relates to your work on sustenance economies as well. You’ve talked about fictitious economies and an illusion of wealth that we have built in our current economy. What do you mean by a ‘sustenance economy’?
VS: I mean an economy that sustains nature, our ecological base and natural capital, and it sustains human society, which means that it meets the needs of all for water to land to food to health to education. It is created and built by people. You have the market economy that has become so bloated and hyper-inflated. All focus of growth has been on this economy, the financial economy, and we’ve seen how this focus on a fiction has led to in terms of the unwinding of the financial markets of the world.
We have to turn to sustenance economies for a number of reasons. First, we cannot afford to ignore sustaining nature. Climate change is such a huge wake-up call. Entire villages (in India) are now being washed away with flash floods. We’re talking about disasters happening today. So we have to sustain the earth and reduce our ecological footprint while increasing our cultural output.
The second reason for a sustenance economy is because a billion people going hungry – most of them in India- is absolutely unforgivable. It doesn’t matter how much some are making now, 2/3 of India is still going hungry.
The third reason is the sustenance economy is the only place where employment will be found in a period where the globalized financial bubble has burst taking with it the livelihoods and jobs of millions.
EG: What is the fundamental problem with the market economy as it is currently structured?
VS: You know I’m trained as a physicist. I’m trained to measure real things. If you have a theory, I’m trained to test it with evidence and proof. My suspicion of the market economy comes from the fact that it distorts reality. It discounts large chunks of reality – the work of small farmers producing food, the work of women maintaining sustenance, the work of nature in ensuring we have the water we need. So this discounting and excluding the real economy is why I find the market economy totally inadequate to explain to us how to live our lives on this planet.
EG: You see the results of the globalized growth-based economy on the ground with the farmers you work with in India. Do you see a role at all for so-called free market economics?
VS: Well, it depends on what you mean by the free market. A group of farmers coming together to sell their produce in a local market is a free market, free because the people are free, there is a direct interaction between buyers and sellers and each of them is free to make their choices.
What is called the free market today is actually an economy of slavery of dictatorship? It must enslave every small producer if that producers is to survive. Farmers must become slaves to seed companies like Monsanto and bonded to pay royalties. Producers must be willing to sell cheaply to Walmart. That enslavement means on the one hand that 90% of producers disappear, whether they’re farmers or manufacturers, and the other 10% get locked into a slave system allowing themselves to be exploited by giant corporations. This is not a free market economy.
EG: It sounds like what you’re talking about is a fundamental rethink of how we view our economic system and what our economic objectives should be. What in your view should our goals be in this new economy that you envision?
VS: We’ve seen how leaving things to maximizing profits can bring the whole house down. All those involved in the sub-prime mortgage meltdown were maximizing their self-interest and look what it has cost the world. Now every government involved in the rescue plan is having to counter the idea that you leave the market to solve itself. Suddenly every leader of the rich world talking about greed being a virtue and the self-regulation of the market is having to talk about regulation by public institutions.
We need an economy self-regulated at the local level by producers and receivers of products in a free exchange moving upwards to national economies and global economies. The further you go from the local level, the more that public intervention should increase. We need an international trade organization that would have as its first objective ensuring that natural capital is not destroyed, that no trade takes place at the cost of the Amazon. The second level of intervention has to be for the public good. Too many people are being excluded. The public good has to be the first objective of why an economy exists.
The largest production as possible should take place at the local level. Of course it makes no sense jets in local villages but we need a re-localization so what can be produced locally should be.
EG: Do you think your message is resonating more now more than ever given the financial crisis?