Vandana Shiva talks to reporters in Cancún during last September’s World Trade Organization ministerial. (Victor Tan Chen)

When tens of thousands filled the streets of Seattle to protest a summit of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999, many news reports focused on the spectacle of the moment — the tear gas in the air, the smashed storefront windows, the clashes between police and black-garbed anarchists. Drowned out were the issues that had sparked the mass demonstrations. On the streets, protesters were denouncing the WTO’s role in overturning a range of local laws (from regulations protecting sea turtles to bans on hormone-laden beef) and its “undemocratic” means of making decisions that affected billions of people. The activists shouted; few heard.

Seattle was the birth of a “new democracy movement,” Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva wrote at the time. Shiva was present in Seattle, making her case in public against the genetic engineering of crops, the patenting of seeds, and other attempts by corporations to establish “control over every dimension of our lives — our food, our health, our environment, our work, and our future.” She praised the demonstrations in the streets, and argued that they represented history in the making. Citizens around the world, in poor as well as rich nations, would no longer “be bullied and excluded from decisions in which they have a rightful share,” she said.

If Shiva and other critics were largely ignored by the mainstream media in Seattle, they have doggedly persisted in making their case against “corporate-controlled globalization” in the years since. The author of the books Stolen Harvest and Water Wars and the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”), Shiva has become one of the most quoted spokespeople of a protest movement that prides itself on its leaderless, democratic structure — and one of its few voices from the “global South,” the so-called “Third World” where the poorest people on earth reside.

Shiva was born in northern Indian city of Dehradun, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Trained as a physicist, she eventually left the academic world for life as an activist, and in the two decades since then has worked primarily on issues of biodiversity, the earth’s variety of plant and animal life. In her native India, the fifty-three-year-old activist is best known for founding the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology and the national movement known as Navdanya, both of which work on behalf of agricultural diversity and farmers’ rights. One of Navdanya’s more recent initiatives is Diverse Women for Diversity, an international campaign on behalf of biodiversity, cultural diversity, and food security.

When trade ministers met in Cancún, Mexico, for another WTO ministerial this September, Shiva and thousands of other protesters were there to greet them. Once again, violence dominated the headlines — this time, the suicide of a South Korean farmer, Kyung-hae Lee, who killed himself at the police barricades in an act of political protest (the agricultural policies of the WTO, Lee had claimed, were “killing” small farmers like himself). InTheFray Editor Victor Tan Chen caught up with Shiva in Cancún for a chat about the current state of the world’s social movements, the recent struggles against corporate power, and the meaning of one man’s ultimate sacrifice.

Q: What changes have you seen in social movements over the last several decades?

A: Well, all the new social movements that have emerged — even in the South, even movements that are terribly local — have been able to sustain themselves and build strength through global solidarity. And that’s partly because beginning with the eighties, the worst problems we face do not get created from within our societies. They get created because of World Bank lending, IMF lending, World Trade Organization rules, global corporate crimes — and to deal with these global risks you need global solidarity. And movements have been extremely ingenious in creating new strategies, new styles of actions, new combinations of intellectual work and research and grassroots actions. My own institutions that I founded — one in 1982 [the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology], the other in 1987 [Navdanya] — are both children of globalization, of responding to globalization, and both of them work very much at the local level and at the national level, through advocacy and influencing parliament, and at the international level, through global solidarity. They also combine, I believe, the highest quality intellectual work with the deepest engagement in society. And I think those are totally new trends.

Q: Do you think it’s an energetic time for social movements today in the world?

A: I think it’s the only place where there is energy. At least energy that deserves to be called energy. Because in India, fortunately, we have different terms for destructive energy and creative energy.  We don’t use the same word for two. But in the West, you only have one word. So the energy of Mr. Bush bombing Iraq, is still energy. The energy of a Monsanto wiping out agriculture is still energy. But we have a different word for that. And for us, in my view, social movements are the only place for positive, creative energy.

States are failing in their duties. [They] are either failing because they are prevented from acting, through these very, very dictatorial rules, or they’re volunteering the sacrifice of their power. But their power is not their power in total sovereignty; their power is the … power of the citizens. So when states give up their power, they’re giving up the rights and powers of their citizens, which is an illegitimate step. So we have crippled states or corporate states — the only actor states are corporate states. The other states are crippled states. And social movements [are] the only place where a future is being shaped because the corporations are shaping an annihilation of the future.

Q:  What do you think the biggest challenges are facing activists for social justice today?

A: I think the biggest challenge is the fact that never before has humanity needed to respond to assault on the very basis of life. To patenting of seeds, to privatization of water, to total takeover of agriculture. As movements and political organizations, we’re geared to fighting for better wages, freedom of speech. And now we have to fight for survival. And fighting for survival is the common bottom line for everyone, and yet we are divided by the legacy of a divided world between rich and poor.

The biggest block social movements face is not addressing the issues of survival of the species but slipping into the polarizations, where the biggest corporations use the richness of the North to prevent solidarity and engagement of citizens of the North with citizens of the South.

And you can just notice after Seattle how campaigns and movements of the North are constantly criminalized [as] “rich people,” “white people,” “anti-poor.” And the “pro-poor” are precisely the corporations that are wiping us out. So I think that’s a huge leap we need to make in our political analysis and in our action strategies.

Q: Do you think movements are doing a better job organizing across lines of nationality, race, gender, class?

A: I think we need to do an even better job. And that’s why I formed Diverse Women for Diversity. I believe we do still have divisions on the basis of race and class, and that’s precisely what we need to transcend.

Q: Are women’s issues becoming more prominent, do you think, in the global justice movement?

A: Well, the thing is women’s leadership is prominent. And women are defining all social issues as their issues — food, water, the destruction of livelihoods — and you can see that everywhere, at least at the grass roots, women are shaping the agenda.

Q: What kind of advice would you give to activists today who are struggling for social justice?

A: To have sustainable energy — it’s a long, drawn battle. To stay cheerful, have joy in their struggle. To not be overburdened by the struggle itself. To relish their humanity, and not let political activism dehumanize them. To be engaged passionately, but be detached while engaging passionately.

Q: Do you have any words for people here protesting the WTO?

A: My main words are we all need to pay deep homage to the Korean farmer who gave his life for all of us, and through it wanted to focus that this is about life. And I would just say if we can keep our minds and hearts focused on that sacrifice and move from there. And not be distracted by [this question of] “oh, does market access help the Third World?” And the nonsensical diversions that divide the movement. I think we need to just focus our energies on Mr. Lee and say, “This is what it’s about.” He gave his life to remind us; let us not forget.



Diverse Women for Diversity
A global campaign of women on behalf of biodiversity, cultural diversity, and food security.

An Indian movement to conserve agricultural diversity. “Navdanya” means “nine seeds,” a reference to India’s collective source of food security.

Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology (RFSTE).
Organization that “works on biodiversity conservation and protecting people’s rights from threats to their livelihoods and environment by centralised systems of monoculture in forestry, agriculture and fisheries.” Based in New Delhi, India.

The Right Livelihood Award
Considered the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” an award established that recognizes “outstanding vision and work on behalf of our planet and its people.” Presented annually since 1980 in Stockholm at a ceremony in the Swedish Parliament.


“Short Curriculum Vitae of Dr. Vandana Shiva”
Biography of the Indian environmentalist. Published by her organization, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology (RFSTE).


“Enough IMF/World Bank Policies”
By Scott Harris. Published by AlterNet. April 1, 2000.

“Globalization: A Primer”
By Mark Weisbrot. Published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. October 1999.

“The Historic Significance of Seattle”
By Vandana Shiva. December 10, 1999.

“Interview with Dr. Vandana Shiva”
Broadcast on NOW with Bill Moyers. September 5, 2003.

“The Long Arm of the WTO”
By Jim Hightower. Published by AlterNet. April 26, 2000.

“Monsanto — World’s Most Unethical and Harmful Investment”
Compiled by Ethical Investing.

“World trade barricade”
By Dustin Ross and Victor Tan Chen. Published by InTheFray Magazine. October 27, 2003.
URL: content/view/84/39

Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Site: | Facebook | Twitter: @victortanchen

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