Is Globalization Killing the Environment?
An Interview with Vandana Shiva
By Frederick Noronha
Q: What do you think are the major challenges facing the country
today on this front?
Globalisation is quite clearly the biggest environmental problem.
Globalisation requires that we start to export things that we've
never exported before, and start to import things we've never
For instance, exporting our biodiversity, our livestock wealth,
products of our coastal ecosystem like shrimp, flowers produced
through intensive irrigation in low-rainfall zones (so that we're
exporting our water). Importing things like toxic wastes.
Q: So, what...
Globalisation is about liberalised imports and exports, which
makes India export our best natural wealth and import the junk
and wasted pollution of international production, including of
the Western economies.
This means India provides an environmental subsidy to global
economic growth, precisely by not counting that destruction.
Because the destruction is borne by local communities, and by the
destruction of local livelihoods. That, in a global economic
system has no place to enter.
Q: Is there some reason why this is happening just now?
Related very much to this, is a second crisis. We're going
through a very major rewriting of the Social Contract, or the
contract between governments and people.
What we're getting is a whole series of new policies that is
turning the government from being an instrument that people can
use, into being an instrument that only foreign corporations use
against the Indian people.
Behind this restructuring of the social contract, is a rewriting
of the rights of people. According to our Constitution, we have a
right to life, which means we have a right to water. We should
have a right to shelter. We should have a right to food.
Both under the World Bank structural adjustment, and from the
Finance Ministry -- it's feet might be in India, but it's head is
in Washington -- and then under the World Trade Organisation
obligations, we're basically getting a fundamental destruction of
notions of the rights of citizens.
Q:But how would you trace the impact of this on the commonpeople,
and also on the environment?
Very vital resources we need both for survival -- drinking water,
all the resources people need for livelihoods -- are just
disappearing so rapidly that life is becoming impossible.
This morning I was down on a South Goa beach, and I waited for
one hour to see the fishermen come back. They must have been 24
of them at work, and their catch was just one basketful of fish.
Not enough even to feed themselves. But they've got to go, sell
it, and buy something for their families who are waiting at home.
This fact that most of our people depend directly on resources
for their survival, and those resources are depleting so quickly,
we really have a very, very major crisis of survival at hand....
Q: Surely, there's another India being promised. Quite a few seem
to believe that more prosperous days are around the corner....
I think the big challenge is that you've got a vested interest of
the new investors, the new lackeys, the new mafias with them --
involved in granite mining, the acquaculture industry or lobbying
or selling of sand or whatever.
That whole group is trying to spread the rumour that
environmental protection is a luxury in this country. And the
environmentlists are a vested interest group. Really, you don't
have that many voices to talk about the survival rights of the
large majority of the people.
Q: Do you feel corruption has a big impact on the environment?
A tremendous impact. In 1991, when the economy was being so-
called opened up, this was justified as something which would put
an end to corruption. But corruption has not ended with
globalisation; it has actually increased.
Corruption is another force of environmental destruction. You
look at it in the acquaculture case. The Supreme Court judgement
put an end to the acquaculture industry.
By dishonest means now, the acquaculture industry is trying to
undo that judgement. It's not just corrupting science -- by
fabricating scientific research to counter the scientific figures
fed into the case -- but they're trying to corrupt our judicial
system by making it toothless.
They're definitely trying to corrupt the entire administrative
system by making every administrator, every politician, every MLA
get an interest in this industry. They feel if they're party to
it, they support and defend it. It's a tremendous threat to the
Q: Would you agree that as the environmental crisis gets worse,
the people are also getting more assertive and active about it.
It's no longer a small group of environmentalists who are
concerned about such issues?
Absolutely. That's precisely because it is a crisis for survival.
Any movement that can keep its focus on how seriously
environmental protection is related to the survival rights of the
poorest people -- 70 per cent -- of this country, that that is
a basic democracy movement. I see tremendous hope in that.
Q: What are the signs of hope you could point to?
I'm currently doing a five year evaluation since Rio. For
instance some of the major changes around natural resources that
Look at it it: fisheries, they tried to give foreign licences.
Movements. The National Fisheries Federation had strikes.
Licences withdrawn or no more issued. Acquaculture, they tried to
totally open up the coastal region to fish exports. There's a
Supreme Court ban. Animal livestocks and meat exports, the
Supreme Court is still heaving the case. DuPont in Goa has shown
the way on how you can throw a corporation out.
Everywhere where there's a major investment -- Enron, Cogentrix,
Gopalpur Steel Plant -- people are saying 'no, we won't move'.
Q: What is the message are you trying to get across in your latest book, "The Enclosure and Recovery the Commons"?
Very simply, at the very philosphical issue, the message is: the
privatisation of knowledge, and of biodiversity, is a threat to
the future of humanity.
It's an enclosure of the intellecutal and the biological commons,
and we need to recover it. Simply because we need biodiversity
and knowledge to continue to live.
Much of the rest of the book is really a very detailed argument,
analysis and proposal that says that the idea that the Western
style private-property intellectual property rights around
biodiversity and life-forms that people assume are the only
option is is not true.
Q: What, in your view, are the options then?
Exactly like, when land was privatised, there were still land-
commons. This is the parallel for the intellectual domain, for
the biodiversity domain.
Like not all land was private property, not all knowledge can
allowed to become private property. Not all seeds, not all
medicinal plants can allowed to become private property. It is
our right to defend the commons.
In the end, it would mean defending biodiversity as a community
resource -- or as a commons -- which means it's not available for
grabs. It is available freely to the community, but not to
outsiders. Outside commercial interests and the large
corporations that are coming in and pirating and prospecting,
have to take permission exactly like when you enter someone's
commons you've to take permission not of an individual, but of
the whole village community.
Q: Will this makes a significant difference in how we see things?
We've proposed the idea of community rights as an alternative to
the idea of intellectual property rights.
This alternative is at two levels. First, that the legal
personality is the community as a whole, not the individual. So,
it's not a private right of individuals but a community right.
It's also an intellectual right, because it's recognising the
intellectual contribution communities -- as collectivities --
have made cummulatively over time.
Again, this is different from the idea that individuals invent.
This is a Western idea. Even for the West, it's false. It's not
the case that suddenly a bright man thinks, and, you run to a
patent office and say 'This is my invention.'
Usually, a time is ripe for many people to think similar things.
One of them finalises it faster. But it's part of a whole
situation that allows a certain kind of creativity to evolve.
Creativity is a social phenomena; it's not an individual phenomena.
At least for indigenous or traditional knowledge -- which
supports 70 per cent of this country, in our report we've called
it the two-thirds economy because it is quite clearly the two-
thirds economic base, even today.....
Q: It's a complex issue, understanding the philosophy behind the
concept of intellectual property....
This issue is important to me, because it's redefining what it is
to be human. It's taking a greedy, Western corporate personality
as the paradigm of being human. Just like in colonialism, the
European was taken as the paradigm of being human, and the Third
World was then treated to being animals, to being flora and fauna.
In a way a similar thing is being done now, perhaps in more
clever ways. Your seed are natural; our seeds have a contribution
of the mind. Even though our farmers have used their minds,
except that they used them not for profit, and they haven't used
them as individuals. A farmer who breeds a new seed doesn't say
this is mine and you all pay me royalties. He just gifts it to his neighbours.
That culture, I believe, must survive into the future. Not just
because it is Indian, but because that's what the world needs right now.
Q: Your argument against profittering from knowledge is....
Greed creates scarcity, and we're living in periods of scarcity.
We need to have abundant thinking. We need to think generously to
be able to generate generously.
Of course, in the area of biodiversity and knowledge, this is
specially important. Because both diversity and knowledge
multiply. One seed can give rise to millions. One piece of useful
knowledge can travel and help millions.
By treating that as property, and blocking its multiplication and
flow, you're actually creating a scarcity and that could deepen
the universal crisis.
Q: What's you're experience in dealing with the Indian state over the years?
I don't give up. Even though the Government of India has not been
enlightened enough to work in the national interest, and in the
people's interest, at least this much one can say, we have
prevented them from taking away those rights in this area. By
blocking the patent law, blocking the plant variety legislation,
which would have REALLY taken away all rights of the Indian
people in this area.
I just feel that if we carry on -- not as isolated individuals,
but as part of movement building -- we WILL change the terms of
Look at Pattuvam (the village in Northern Kerala, which recently
created history by declaring its absolute ownership over all
genetic materials currently growing within its jurisdiction).
Similarly, the Chattishgarh Mukti Morcha has taken it on.
If people know what their rights are, then the government
literally has to follow. Because even if the government doesn't
follow and says 'this is the law', the people just won't follow.
Q: What is the response you've been getting from other parts of
the Third World?
The Third World has been very fragmented on other areas. But on
this group of areas -- living diversity, biodiversity, indigenous
knowledge -- we have really done work very well between Asia,
Africa and Latin America. We help each other tremendously. Each
time any of us gets some work done, it feeds into and builds the
next steps for the movements everywhere. Everyone is not having
to re-invent the wheel.
Because of that, we're moving very coherently and very
effectively. That takes transnational corporations by surprise.
Because they've just grown so used to the idea that the Third
World is available for manipulation.
Q: Is mainstream India -- and the Press -- more open to green
issues nowadays? Is the concern of a genuine kind?
I used to have columns in three papers. All three closed their
green pages, within a span of six months, two to three years ago
as a part of trade liberalisation.
India's elite wants not just cosmetic environmentalism, but a
consumer-environmentalism. It wants to have good areas to go for
tourism to. So it's happy to have national parks, because people
can go for wildlife tourism. Or good beaches. But they don't
want, and don't care about, a livelihood environmentalism.
Not only do they not care about it, for those who have stakes
in the new commercial opportunities available through
globalisation, they're actually part of the agression. Against
the environment on the first hand, and against the environmental
movement that would like to protect the environment.
So the elite -- as a whole, excluding a few -- is an enemy of the
environment right now.
Q: What is the future for environmentalism in 21st century India?
So, what really is the way out?
The environmental movement can only survive if it becomes a
justice movement. As a pure environmental movement, it will
either die, or it will survive as a corporate 'greenwash'.
Anyone who's a sincere environmentalist can't stand that role.
But it has limitless possibilities, as both an ecological and
What we have right now is a dual crisis of a corrupt national
system and a very greedy and corrupt global system, working in
tremendous partnership with each other. The antidote to both --
globalisation and a national elite that is corrupted -- is local
democratic action, and an assertion on the part of people to
Because the kind of period we live in, that kind of politics must
have some link with international citizen mobilisation. Some
helping each other in solidarity. If that happens, we'll have an
era beyond globalisation.
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