Shiva is an Indian activist, writer, and thinker. Her books include
Water Wars: Pollution, Profits, and Privatization
The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge
Stolen Harvest: The
Hijacking of the Global Food Supply
. I spoke with her in March
2006 about her latest book
Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability,
TIRMIZEY: What is your book
is really about life beyond corporate
globalization. It’s about other paradigms, it’s about
other practices, it’s not just about something in the future,
but it’s about another world being shaped in the here and now.
You write that we need to go from a dying democracy to a living
democracy. Can you explain what you mean by that?
The first thing I mean is that the democracy we have is actually
dead in terms of not responding anymore to the will of people. Whether
it is governments going to war against the will of the people or
it is governments imposing genetically engineered foods against
the will of the people. That is the death of democracy, when people
have no freedom. It is also a dead democracy because it is using
corporate “freedoms” to annihilate people. For me, the
most dramatic example of this was when 40,000 farmers took their
own lives within a decade because of the rules of corporate globalization.
When these rules are pushed as if they are about freedom, then that
is a killing democracy.
What would a living democracy look like?
A living democracy is people being able to make decisions about
their lives and being able to influence the conditions in which
they live—how they grow their food, what terms their clothing
is produced under, the freedom to choose the conditions in which
their children are educated, the conditions in which they get health
care. That is living democracy. For people, living democracy is
democracy where they are. Living democracy is democracy in which
all of life is embraced, not just human life, because we are at
that evolutionary moment where any freedom of the human species
has to include other species, otherwise we will never have human
A recent UN World Water Development Report says that 20 percent
of the world’s population doesn’t have access to safe
drinking water. How would an earth democracy manage water resources
I have watched this magnificent country, India, turn from
a country where every community had water—whether it was in
a well or from a clean flowing spring or a river—to being part
of that 20 percent that doesn’t have access to water. Water
scarcity has been caused by commercial logging of forests. The first
movement I participated in as a young ecologist and physicist was
the Chipko movement to stop logging in order to defend our rivers
and our streams. Water is destroyed when Coca-Cola mines 1.5 to
2 million liters per day per plant. That is the scarcity that has
inspired the women of Plachimada to shut a Coca-Cola plant in their
village. That is the scarcity that people are fighting in the 50
other Coca-Cola plants that have destroyed water. Water was destroyed
when the World Bank and the United States imposed the so-called
Green Revolution on us in 1965-1966. It was not a very green revolution
because it was based on intensive irrigation—growing crops
using ten times more water. That meant deep aquifer mining and the
damming of our rivers. Every community downstream of a dammed river
has no water. Every community in a region where the “green
revolution” has subsidized the pumping of deep ground water
has dry wells, dry tanks, and a deep water scarcity.
How would living democracy manage water resources?
Villages provide water. Dead rivers have come alive when communities
got together, insuring that they move from chemical farming to organic
farming. Our living democracy villages pledge never to allow chemicals,
genetically engineered organisms, or the privatization of water
into their villages. In a living democracy village people can use
10 times less water just by using water ecologically and conserving
every drop. In living democracy water is a commons, it is conserved
collectively because—unlike exploitation which can be done
privately—conservation must mobilize the community. You cannot
conserve as individuals, you have to conserve water as a commons.
You often refer to and quote Gandhi in your book, particularly
when you talk about seed democracy. Can you talk about Gandhi as
a source of inspiration for
My deepest inspiration from Gandhi comes from the recognition of
self rule. Self-rule not just at a national level,
but self-rule at a local level and at a personal level. You cannot
have self-rule unless you are self-organized. Therefore the concept
of democracy in Gandhian thought is the ultimate capacity of people
to collectively organize their lives and their community.
The second very powerful concept of Gandhi that has inspired me
is swadeshi—which means the creative ability of every human
being and every community to produce what they need. In globalization
and in this killing democracy we have the idea that everyone should
be a consumer, but no one should be a producer of things and a creator
of ideas and goods. That is at the root of poverty. We need to reclaim
our capacity to create and produce.
Finally, I believe his deepest gift to us is the celebration of
non-cooperation against unjust and immoral rule. He called it satyagraha
Recently our government has signed what I would call a Monsanto
agreement with President Bush to push more genetically engineered
organisms and crops on India. When our laws make farmers’ seed
saving illegal, but make it legal for Monsanto to sell seed, like
BT cotton, and kill our farmers, then we have to start saying we
will not cooperate with these laws. We will live by higher laws:
laws of the planet, ecological laws, and laws of humanity, our ethical
What do you see as the reasons for and the origins of fundamentalism
The recent upsurge of religious fundamentalism is for me the shadow
of corporate globalization. It has its roots in insecurity that
globalization creates. Last week when there was a terrorist attack
at a temple at Varanasi, one of our most ancient cities, 5,000 years
old, instead of turning it into a conflict, Hindus and Muslims joined
their diversity and pluralism and celebrated the welcoming of spring,
the colors of Holi, as the colors of our diversity. When does that
celebration of diversity fail? First, when people are made insecure
and, secondly, when politicians do not want economic democracy,
do not want people to make decisions about what they produce and
what they consume, they shift the entire debate about democracy
to hate and to fear of the other. In a context of insecurity and
in the context of death of economic democracy, the rise of religious
fundamentalism ends up becoming the best captive vote bank. It is
not a surprise that you have the rise of religious fundamentalism
in the United States. It is also not a surprise that the rise of
religious fundamentalism started in India after the new economic
policies of trade liberalization were institutionalized in 1991.
Terrorism has similar roots. Terrorism is the reaction of those
whose voice has been taken away. Terrorism is the scream of the
voiceless. Terrorism does not grow if democracy is thriving because
democracy then makes sure that your voice is heard and that dissent
is looked after. Even though everywhere in the world it is clear
that the issue of terrorism is the issue of lack of possibility
to influence your fate, the terrorist is not perceived in the mainstream
as the disenfranchised who is angry, but as having some internal
No one is born a terrorist, they are made a terrorist. The fact
that there is growing terrorism should force us to look into what
creates fertile soil for this growth. That fertile soil is the greed
of corporations wanting to control every drop of water, every drop
of oil, every inch of land, every bit of germ plasm on this planet.
That kind of greed creates deep exclusions. Deep exclusions will
create violent responses if democracy is not rebuilt non-violently
fast. Most people don’t realize that in India large parts are
already controlled by those subscribing to ideologies of exclusion
using violent means. It’s a phenomenon that is inevitable if
you disenfranchise and exclude millions of their very basis of life,
livelihood, and freedom.
How are women promoters of life-centered cultures?
Women are promoters of life-centered cultures because of this very
ancient division of labor. It was left to women to look after life,
whereas men broke off to get the glory, to get the conquest, in
less privileged situations to get the wage labor. The division of
labor left sustenance to women and the market to men. That expertise
of sustenance is now being called on to create living economies
and life centered economies and women are doing it whether it is
through seed saving, water saving, or water sharing. Whether it
is through creating ecological systems of food production and decentralized
control over agriculture, women are very much in the lead in reshaping
the economy that is not under the patriarchal control of global
corporations. Patriarchy is usually defined as something limited
to the household, yet increasingly patriarchal forces are defining
this beautiful planet as their household in which they would like
to take every bit of power, capacity, creativity, and productivity
away from women. Women are determined to not let go. We just had
a celebration on our farm two weeks ago of our women members from
Navanya, the movement I started, 150 of them, and all are committed
to keeping food security in women’s hands, keeping seeds in
women’s hands, not as empty rhetoric, not just as a slogan,
but as everyday life making a difference.
How do we go from the world we have today to an earth democracy?
I think the first thing to do is center our lives in the earth and
not in dependency on corporations or a ten-year-old institution
called the World Trade Organization. Of course, each of us is in
a different location: someone is a teacher, someone is a scientist,
someone is an unemployed youth, someone is working in slave conditions.
Every one of us is in a different location and each of us has to
begin this recovery where we are. We have to then join hands with
others who might be doing the same thing as we are or something
different. It doesn’t really matter. Take something like food:
every one of us can make a decision—every meal that we eat
we are either shaping an earth democracy or we are reinforcing corporate
globalization. Every drop of water we drink is the same kind of
choice. Every bit of energy we use is making a choice towards earth
democracy or for a dictatorship in our times. The choices are limitless,
we just have to start recognizing that there is never a situation
where any human being doesn’t have a choice. If you have no
other choice then at least you have the choice to say no.
Can you talk about how this book came about?
The book was inspired by two issues: one was that for too long the
movement of people defending their freedoms was labeled as the anti-globalization
movement. Repeatedly it was said that, “Oh, these people know
what they don’t want, but they have no idea what they want.”
I thought it was time to tell those who think that we don’t
know what we want that we know it well, and through what we know
we will be there when corporate globalization has collapsed because
of its social and ecological non-sustainability.
The second reason I wrote the book was because I felt the movements
of people were strong and yet they could be stronger if they recognized
that no matter how different they were—whether it was someone
working on human rights, someone else working to defend a wild species,
someone else working for the food sovereignty of small farmers and
family farmers the world over—that every one of these was part
of a mosaic, part of a fabric combining care for the earth and defending
the conditions of human life on earth while also striving for social
justice. These strivings were not separate strivings, they were
the same and these were actually the strivings for peace. They created
the condition for peace in a period where we are repeatedly being
told that the way towards peace is more war and more violence.
Can you talk about how your own political and ecological consciousness
My own political and ecological consciousness has grown in a number
of steps. I was a very enthusiastic nuclear physicist training to
join our nuclear energy establishment. My sister, who was a medical
doctor made me aware of what a physicist is never taught: that nuclear
radiation has health hazards. That is the first time that I woke
up to a world beyond harmless equations.
My next step was becoming active in the Chipko movement when I saw
the forests of the Himalayas disappearing rapidly. I had grown up
in the Himalayan forests. I’d trekked and walked those forests.
My father used to be a forest conservator and in my childhood and
youth I could see a dramatic change. That led me to become a volunteer
in the movement. The next step was in 1982 when the ministry of
environment started to call on me to do studies. That led to the
creation of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and
Ecology. Through it I did participatory studies with communities
and successful action research. We won legal victories, stopped
mines, monocultures, and shrimp farming.
The next watershed was in 1984, the year that we had the rise of
terrorism in Punjab. I studied the Punjab to figure out why the
land of the green revolution, which was given a Nobel Peace Prize,
had become a land of war. I started making connections between violence,
fundamentalism, terrorism, ecological degradation, undemocratic
economic systems, and anti-people development. It was the same year
as the Bhopal disaster, which killed 3,000 people in one night and
has killed 30,000 people since. I was forced to look at industrial
agriculture as a system of war. I committed myself to ecological
agriculture as a system of peace.
In 1987 I happened to get invited to a meeting where corporations
laid out their plan for how they would patent seed, genetically
engineer seeds, and have free trade treaties to prevent anyone else
from being free to do their own thing and grow their own food. I
decided that I had to start saving seeds and protecting biodiversity.
Since then I have worked with millions of farmers to say no to the
WTO and GATT and with thousands of farmers—200,000 farmers—to
build an alternative.
I mentioned the farmer suicides. For me 2006 is the year I will
dedicate a lot of my energies to creating hope among our farming
communities, that the dead end, the genocidal economies, the suicidal
economies of globalization is not the only way. We can build our
own economies and we don’t have to wait till our governments
tell us how to do it. We don’t have to wait till the WTO gives
us permission to do it. We need to turn to ourselves for that permission.
Tirmizey is an independent journalist who has reported for community
radio CKUT in Montreal and Free Speech Radio News.