Acceptance speech – Vandana Shiva

Cultivating and conserving diversity is no luxury in our times: it is a survival imperative.


Distinguished guests,
Honorable Members of Parliament,
ladies and gentlemen.

Four passions have guided my work over the past two decades – search for knowledge, a longing for freedom, a concern for justice, and a deep love and reverence for nature.

It is the passion for knowledge and love for nature, which drew me to physics. Physics after all was supposed to provide the most fundamental picture of nature’s working according to the dominant view. But it did not, and I went on to philosophy of science to search for answers to foundational questions in quantum theory. Interaction with the Chipko movement widened the circle of my intellectual quest to include ecology combined with an activism guided by concerns for social justice. It is the combination of the urge for free enquiry and my concern for nature and people, that made me leave the narrow confines of academia where disciplines are fragmented from each other, where knowledge is separated from action but linked intimately to power. In 1982, I left an academic career with a dream to build an independent research initiative for generating a different kind of knowledge, which would serve the powerless not the powerful, which would not get all its cue from Western Universities and international institutions, but would also be open to learn from the indigenous knowledge of local communities, which would break down the artificial divide between experts and non-experts and subject and object.

We did not begin with big grants and big offices. Starting from a cow shed in Dehra Dun and extending a garage in Bangalore, later, we deepened our relationships with local communities and our understanding of local ecosystems.

I am increasingly sensing that the primary threat to nature and people today comes from centralising and monopolising power and control which inevitably generates one-dimensional structures and what I have called “Monoculture of the Mind”. The monoculture of the mind treats all diversity as disease, and creates coercive structures to model this biologically and culturally diverse world of ours on the privileged categories and concepts of one class, one race and one gender of a single species.

These simultaneous colonisations are the inevitable result – the colonisations of nature’s diverse species, of women and of the Third World. The politics of diversity is for me the ground for resisting all three colonisations. Monocultures have created a violent world order, since violence is intrinsic to the project of transforming diverse, self-organising systems in nature and in society into centrally controlled uniformity and homogeneity. Monocultures first inhabit the mind, and are then transferred to the ground. Monocultures of the mind generate models of production which destroy diversity and legitimise that destruction as progress, growth and improvement. From the perspective of the monoculture mind, productivity and yields appear to increase when diversity is erased and replaced by uniformity. However, from the perspective of diversity, monocultures are based on a decline in yields and productivity. They are impoverished systems, both qualitatively and quantitatively. They are also highly unstable and non-sustainable systems. Monocultures spread not because they produce more, but because they control more. The expansion of monocultures had more to do with politics and power than with enriching and enhancing systems of biological production. For the powerful, monocultures are an instrument of increased power and control. For the powerless and for nature, they are an instrument of impoverishment. Monocultures are maintained only through high levels of external control and inputs. Ecologically it leads to erosion of the earth’s resources and pollution of land, water and the atmosphere. Politically this creates centralised control and authoritarian structures.

Making connections between the erosion of biological and cultural diversity, whether violence ethnic or religious, and between centralised governance, has been an important preoccupation for me in recent times as region after region seems to slip into irreversible and violent civil strife.

Not till diversity is made the logic of production will there be a chance for sustainability, justice and peace. If production continues to be based on the logic of uniformity and homogenisation, women, Third World people and nature will continue to be marginalised and displaced, and vicious cycles of violence will engulf more and more communities.

The Green revolution was an exemplar of the deliberate destruction of diversity. The new biotechnologies, are repeating and deepening these tendencies, rather than reversing them.

Further, the new technologies in combination with patent monopolies being pushed through intellectual property rights regimes in GATT and other trade platforms as well as the biodiversity convention are threatening to transform the diversity of life forms into mere raw material for industrial production, and limited profits. They are simultaneously threatening the regenerative freedom of diverse species, and the free and sustainable economy of small peasants and producers which is based on nature’s diversity and its utilisation.

As my involvement in these issues grew, the seed started to take shape as the site and symbol of freedom in the age of manipulation and monopoly of life in its diversity. Ethically and ecologically, unrestrained biotechnology development gives new tools for manipulation, patents offer new tools for monopoly ownership of that which is by its very nature free. I thought of Gandhi’s Spinning wheel which had become such an important symbol of freedom, not because it was big and powerful, but because it was small and could become alive as a sign of resistance and creativity in smallest of huts and poorest of families. In smallness lay its power.

The seed too is small. It embodies diversity. It embodies the freedom to stay alive. And seed is still the common property of small farmers in India. Seed freedom goes far beyond freedom for the farmer from corporations. It indicates freedom of diverse cultures from centralised control. In the seed, ecological issues could combine with social justice. I could see that it was the seed that could play the role of Gandhi’s spinning wheel in this period of recolonisation through “free trade”.

I launched a national programme to save seed diversity in farmers fields in cooperation with the movements I have been working with over many years. We call it “Navdanya”, which literally means nine seeds and is a beautiful symbol of the richness of diversity.

In 1991, I started to contact the farmers organisations, to alert them on the new trends, to work with them on protecting farmers’ rights to freely conserve, use, exchange and modify the seeds. In February 1992, we organised a national conference on GATT and Agriculture with the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS). In October 1992, at a massive farmers’ rally in Hospet organised by the KRRS, the Seed Satyagraha was launched following Gandhi’s politics of Satyagraha as a fight for truth based on non-cooperation with unjust regimes. In March, we held a national rally in Delhi at the historic Red Fort under the leadership of the national farmers organisation, Bharatiya Kisan Union. Independence Day 15th August this year was celebrated with farmers asserting their “Collective Intellectual Property Rights” (Samuhik Gyan Sanad). On 2nd October 1993, one year of the Seed Satyagraha was celebrated in Bangalore with a gathering of 500,000 farmers. We also had farmers from other Third World countries as well as scientists who work on farmers’ rights and sustainable agriculture in an expression of solidarity.

For us, protecting native seeds is more than conservation of raw material for the biotechnology industry. The diverse seeds now being pushed to extinction carry within them seed of other ways of thinking about nature, and other ways of producing for our needs. Uniformity and diversity are not just patterns of land use, they are ways of thinking and ways of living.

Conservation of diversity is, above all, the commitment to let alternatives flourish in society and nature, in economic systems and in knowledge systems. Cultivating and conserving diversity is no luxury in our times. It is a survival imperative, and the precondition for the freedom of all, the big and the small.

Thank you!

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