Dr Vandana Shiva (born 1952) is an interesting figure in many respects. Firstly, she is an Indian physicist and philosopher. She trained in Ontario (Canada), where she gained an M.A. in the philosophy of science and a PhD in quantum physics. She is also an environmental activist, who has “specialised” in action to preserve biodiversity, particularly crop biodiversity. This has made her an expert in Intellectual Property Rights applied to natural resources. In 1982, she established the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology which in 1991 became Navdyanda, “a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seed, the promotion of organic farming and fair trade.”
Feminism and ecology
Shiva is also a feminist, and a major figure in the ecofeminist movement, which, as Wikipedia explains,
connects the exploitation and domination of women with that of the environment, and argues that there is a connection between women and nature that comes from their shared history of oppression by a patriarchal Western society.
Shiva thus asserts (notably in Coline Serreau’s film which we chronicled last year) that women in developing economies are experts in dealing with their environment in a holistic way, and that sustainable agriculture would benefit greatly from their point of view becoming dominant – an assertion which has led other feminists to criticise her as being essentialist. Through her feminist commitment, she has become one of the founding members of the Women’s Environment & Development Organisation (1990), which “advocates women’s equality in global policy”. The empowerment of women in agricultural and rural contexts is one of the major themes on which she works; in 1993, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (aka Alternative Nobel Prize) “for placing women and ecology at the heart of modern development discourse.”
Anti-globalisation activist and government adviser
This development discourse is coupled with fervent anti-globalisation activism and reflection: in an interview with French magazine Basta!, Shiva states that she is not “against trade, but against deregulated trade.” The protection of Indian farmers’ resources, livelihoods and well-being in the face of globalisation has in fact been at the heart of her action since the 1970s. She also wears several other hats. She is an adviser to governments and political organisations: she notably works with Bhutan, which aims to become the first 100% organic country, chairs the Tuscany Region Commission on the Future of Food (Italy) and is a member of the Spanish Socialist Party think tank’s Scientific Committee.
A major figure within environmental action in the developing world
Her commitment and strong positions, developed over the past 40 years, have led Vandana Shiva to become one of the major figures of environmental activism in the developing world. Fun fact: the expression “tree hugger”, which refers to environmentalists, was coined after Shiva and other activists hugged trees to oppose commercial logging in Uttarakhand (India) in the 1970s. Her methods may have changed since, but the strength of her commitment appears intact.
Photo © Shutterstock / Antonio Guillem