26 June 2014

Tanzania: Dr Vandana Shiva - Physicist Who Has Put a Human Face On Agriculture

Photo: Flickr
Young maize growing on a farm in the Drakensberg, Natal, South Africa.

Women have a knack of understanding the environment in a way they ensure they do not destroy nature. Most of the gardens seen outside homes and small farms are cultivated by the very women who are labeled the weaker sex.

In Iringa, there is a woman who goes by the name Bi Mng'ong'o, who lived her entire life taking care of people she loved.

She owned a piece of land where she cultivated a variety of crops including maize, onions, beans and potatoes. She practiced traditional farming and made a point to select her own seeds from the harvest.

She fed a household of over 20 people and gave out food to other family members living in other regions and still had food left over to sell at the market.

She told every girl who visited her, "A woman is born strong enough to handle anything in life, although we have powerful emotions and the power to persuade, these are not weaknesses, but rather strengths to help us do good to communities by bringing peace and harmony, making the world a much happier, healthier and better place to live in."

Bi Mng'ong'o drove her own tractor and the only time that she hired help was during the planting and harvest seasons. She made sure trees grew and the surrounding environment was kept as clean.

There are a lot of women who are passionate about preserving our mother earth in various ways, like Bi Mng'ong'o. Among them is Dr Vandana Shiva from Indi , who has dedicated her life to preserving the environment through agriculture. Shiva's record has been that of a commitment, productivity and an effective environmental activist.

I met Dr Shiva in Dar es Salaam recently, she was the key speaker at a workshop hosted by environmental activists. Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity (TABIO), who promote the benefits of family farming.

At the workshop Dr Shiva covered a number of topics and shared her views and experiences on issues like industrial farming, family farming, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), and how traditional farming practices could be of more help in protecting ecology and biodiversity.

Speaking to her at the conference Dr Vandana Shiva had the following to say about herself. Born November 5, 1952 in Dehradun, India, an ancient city nestled within the Himalayan Mountains to a forest conservationist father and farming mother, Dr Shiva quickly developed a deep respect for nature.

With a strong physics background and a love of nature, Dr Shiva began questioning how science and technology impacted the environment, and started doing inter-disciplinary research in science, technology, and environmental policy.

As an environmental activist she has coordinated, supported and learnt from grassroots networks a wide range of issues across India. She has proven to be an articulate spokesperson on people centered development.

As an academician she has produced a stream of books and articles, which form and address the development debate and steer action. She says all the hard work she has done is invisible in the science of industrial agriculture and economics.

Dr Shiva says women in agriculture become visible when projects and programmes are concerned about who is producing and the nutritional value of the food crop. She would like to see women take nutrition and health seriously by joining hands with small holder producers and farmers in solving the issues of food and agriculture.

"The main thing that made me go into agriculture was back in 1984, when India experienced two disasters, first the Bhopal gas tragedy, a gas leak where a pesticide plant leaked, killing 3,000 people immediately. About thirty thousand people since then have died and thousands are crippled while many are still being born crippled.

The second disaster was the violence in Punjab where peasants were killed," said Ms Shiva. "By the end of the year 1984, I said to myself, why is agriculture causing so many deaths, destruction and violence? I made up my mind to study the green revolution and learn what is was all about.

I decided to dedicate my life to a nonviolent farming; agriculture based on diversity. I was interested in farming based on human and women's rights. And that's what I have been doing for thirty years," she added. Dr Shiva said that she decided to study agriculture as a result of the tragedies India was facing at that time in history.

Adding that "I understand there is a need to increase agriculture products but this should be done without destroying the ecological system and at the same time consider the nutritional factors in the food product produced and not just the quantity of the production."

There is a need to focus on small scale farmers and harvest the knowledge they have, said Dr Shiva. "What is needed is proper management on farming and husbandry by creating diversity by helping small farmers increase their production and not by removing them from their lands to give way to industrialised farming."

Dr Shiva is trained as a physicist and did her PhD in "Hidden Variables and Non-locality in Quantum Theory" at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. She later shifted to inter-disciplinary research in science, technology and environmental policy, which she carried out at the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, India.

Dr Shiva started a foundation which is an informal network of researchers, working in support of people's environmental struggles. The main objective is to articulate and justify people's knowledge. The foundation has done work in a number of areas, including agriculture and genetic resources biodiversity.

Asia Week has called her one of the five most powerful communicators of Asia. Among her many awards are the Order of the Golden Ark, Global 500 Award of the UN, Earth Day International Award, the Lennon Ono Grant for Peace and the Sydney Peace Prize 2010.

Dr Shiva has fought for changes in the practice and paradigms of agriculture and food. Intellectual property rights, biodiversity, biotechnology, bioethics, genetic engineering are among the fields where she has contributed intellectually and through activist campaigns.

She has assisted grassroots organisations of the Green Movement in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Ireland, Switzerland, and Austria with campaigns against genetic engineering.

In 1982, she founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, which led to the creation of Navdanya (meaning nine seeds symbolising the protection of biological and cultural diversity) in 1991, a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially indigenous seeds, the promotion of organic farming and fair trade.

Over the last two decades, The Foundation has worked with local communities and organisations serving both men and women farmers. Its efforts have resulted in conservation of more than 2000 rice varieties from all over the India and it has established 34 seed banks in 13 states across India.

More than 70,000 farmers are primary members of Navdanya. In 2004 Dr Shiva started Bija Vidyapeeth, an international college for sustainable living in Doon Valley, in collaboration with Schumacher College, UK. Dr Shiva has spent much of her life in the defense and celebration of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge.

She has worked to promote biodiversity in agriculture to increase productivity, nutrition, farmer's incomes and climate resilience. It is for this work she was recognised as an 'Environmental Hero' by Time magazine in 2002.

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