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Environmental Activist Questions the Goals of Globalization

March 23, 2007 at 5:25 PM EST
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In the fourth installment in a series of conversations about the impact of globalization, NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman interviews Vandana Shiva, an activist at the forefront of the fight against globalization for nearly three decades.
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PAUL SOLMAN: For three decades, physicist Vandana Shiva has been a key activist in the fight against globalization, especially in her native India, where she says it threatens hundreds of millions of peasants still down on the farm.

She’s accused beverage companies of stealing the people’s water in India, this footage by a new documentary by Swedish filmmakers PeA Holmquist and Suzanne Khardalian.

Outside the European patent office, Shiva challenged corporate patents of seeds, what she calls the biopiracy of natural resources.

VANDANA SHIVA, Physicist: Our world is not for sale.

PAUL SOLMAN: She joined protests against the World Trade Organization in Cancun.

VANDANA SHIVA: WTO is an instrument of corporate unilateralism.

PAUL SOLMAN: At home at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains, Shiva is trying to hold back the forces of globalization, and return to what she says would be a more sustainable way of life, traditional agriculture. She’s using the Indian farm she grew up on to preserve native crops by maintaining a seed bank, promoting the use of India’s equally native fertilizer.

This had led the likes of free-market think tanker Barun Mitra to bestow a B.S. award on Shiva for sustaining global poverty.

VANDANA SHIVA: Why did you give me an award in Johannesburg for making the world starve because of organic farming?

MAN: It is because the agriculture today is not economically viable.

PAUL SOLMAN: Everywhere she goes, Shiva fights globalization. We met up with her recently at the University of Oregon Law school, and its 25th annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, where Dr. Shiva was to give a keynote speech, before which she sat down to answer some questions — among them, doesn’t Barun Mitra have a point, that small-scale farming isn’t viable?

VANDANA SHIVA: Farming on small plots of land is viable if it’s done without generating super-profits for agribusiness and the seed corporations.

Our farmers in the organic movement are doubling their incomes and their production, and are not in a desperate situation. Farming, as a vocation, is something the small farmer of India or the small farmer of Africa or the small farmer of Latin America is not voluntarily giving up.

PAUL SOLMAN: But we have a term, a phrase in America: How are you going to you keep them down on the farm after they have seen Paris? There’s a draw to urban areas, to the excitement of the city, to the idea that you can better yourself. You don’t have to stay down on the farm.

VANDANA SHIVA: Yes, but for one indicator. The new national sample survey of India, which is the official data collection, shows there’s absolutely no growth of employment in urban areas at all.

Slums are being cleared out. Earlier, you get flushed out of the rural areas, went and settled in the slum, somehow did some petty servicing, and made a living. Today, for the poor, either it is a dignified and free life as a peasant or nothing, because the options in the cities that used to be able to become the alternative are also closing down under globalization.

They have to now become investment centers for foreign direct investment. Cities have to get cleaned up of people.

Disenfranchisement of workers

Vandana Shiva
When measured in terms of national economies, there's growth. But, when measured in terms of the worker, the peasant, the farmer, the woman, there's a huge, huge dis-enfranchisement.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, in the countryside, says Shiva, the government, in the name of globalization, clears out farmers to create corporate-friendly, tax-free enterprise zones to build their economies.

VANDANA SHIVA: No environmental law, no labor law, foreign territories within India, that's the way these corporations compete. They compete on a totally false economy. They have every advantage against any honest industry that is domestic, against any honest farmer who works through hard work.

PAUL SOLMAN: But the history of economic progress and growth has been exactly the -- the process that you're now trying to resist.

VANDANA SHIVA: In the last decade, one-third of the world's hungry and malnourished kids are now in India, in the India that is growing at 9 percent.

And I think we need to recognize that globalization means that we get larger and larger-sized middlemen, fewer and fewer of them making bigger and bigger margins, and therefore leading to a growth figure. When measured in terms of national economies, there's growth. But, when measured in terms of the worker, the peasant, the farmer, the woman, there's a huge, huge disenfranchisement.

PAUL SOLMAN: If we didn't have this market system that you're condemning, would we have the bicycle, for example? Would we have penicillin?

VANDANA SHIVA: Well, the penicillin came out of the will to do public good, the treatment for malaria, the -- most of the medicines, most of the antibiotics...

PAUL SOLMAN: The bicycle? The bicycle came out of somebody's desire to do public good? It was somebody trying to figure out how he or she could make more money, no?

VANDANA SHIVA: But I think that's one of the biggest false assumptions, particularly in America is prevalent, that you don't think unless you can privately profit out of it. In fact, the entire intellectual property edifice is built on that.

Understanding biopiracy

Vandana Shiva
Why should people die for horrible toxic pesticides, when we have wonderful trees, like neem, which give us pest control?

PAUL SOLMAN: To Shiva, by contrast, intellectual property is often piracy by the rich from the rest of us. Take the neem tree for example, N-E-E-M.

VANDANA SHIVA: It's called the village pharmacy in India. It can be used for hundreds of things.

PAUL SOLMAN: People brushing their...

VANDANA SHIVA: We brush our teeth with it. We use it for skin treatment. It's even used as a contraceptive, the oil. We use the oil for lighting, but we also use the oil for therapeutics. It's ayurvedic medicine. It's -- it's wonderful to get rid of pimples. It's the magic treatment.

PAUL SOLMAN: Wait a second. This is...I think you're selling me a bill of goods here.

VANDANA SHIVA: No, but it is.

PAUL SOLMAN: The magic neem tree? I mean...

VANDANA SHIVA: It is. It is magic.

PAUL SOLMAN: Magic enough, anyway, to make an organic pesticide from neem seed oil.

When the infamous union carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked poison gas in 1984, killing thousands, Shiva asked herself a question.

VANDANA SHIVA: Why should people die for horrible toxic pesticides, when we have wonderful trees, like neem, which give us pest control?

And I started to plant trees. I started to distribute neem to farmers, train them. And then, in 1994, I find a patent held by W.R. Grace. Well, Grace claims to have invented the neem, invented the use of neem for biopesticide.

So, we challenged a patent held jointly by them and the United States Department of Agriculture. We fought that case 11 years. We won it. But this was a case of biopiracy.

PAUL SOLMAN: Biopiracy, says Shiva, further encouraged by globalization's new trade regime, since it's committed to protecting intellectual property.

VANDANA SHIVA: There's a case of basmati. A company in Texas called RiceTec claims to have invented the basmati that grows in our valley.

So, when I find RiceTec in Texas claims to have invented the height of the plant, the length of the grain, the aroma, and the methods of cooking, I said that, my grandmother taught me when I was a 6-year-old, took on that challenge. We fought that one four years.

And, then, much later, Monsanto, who claims to always invent new seeds, had the cheek to steal an old Indian wheat variety and patent it as an invention. That was struck down in a four-month legal battle in the European patent office.

Problems with industrial society

Vandana Shiva
I think we are in a deep, deep mess, in terms of providing well-being and satisfaction for people. And we can't use the assumption of today's industrialized society with huge pressure on the world's climate, as the model.

PAUL SOLMAN: But you're not saying that a patent is necessarily a bad thing. I mean, don't you want companies and entrepreneurs to have the incentive to create something?

VANDANA SHIVA: I would like them to have an honest incentive for an honest innovation.

PAUL SOLMAN: More than that, she thinks, we need to rethink globalization, so-called wealth creation, at the expense of our common property, our natural resources, our environment.

VANDANA SHIVA: I think we are in a deep, deep mess, in terms of providing well-being and satisfaction for people. And we can't use the assumption of today's industrialized society with huge pressure on the world's climate, as the model.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, a key part of your critique, then, is that there are all these hidden costs associated with the way we do things that...

VANDANA SHIVA: Totally, totally.

PAUL SOLMAN: And we're just not acknowledging them, at our peril?

VANDANA SHIVA: That, to me, is the heart of the issue, that the so-called growth, as defined in the indicators that have been evolved to suit those who control the wealth of the world and the political decision-making in the world, that that growth hides behind it huge amounts of destruction in the lives of people, in the lives of the Third World, and in the planet's life.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, how would you measure economic growth?

VANDANA SHIVA: I would measure economic growth by seeing, how much food are people eating, how much clean water do they have in their rivers and their wells, how much clothing do they have access to, how much education and health services can -- are they provided as public systems?

PAUL SOLMAN: You're trained as a quantum mechanics nuclear physicist, right? How did you make the leap from that to one of the world's most vocal and -- and, in some sense, most extreme activists on environmental issues?

VANDANA SHIVA: If globalization had not been forced on us, I can imagine I would have gone back to doing my puzzles with quantum theory.

But now that we have, A, the WTO and its massive destruction -- and I can't watch our farmers die as if they were flies that are being swatted in a global economy. And then you have climate change. And I do feel we need a massive shift in thinking, massive shift in the way we live. We could crash in the next 20 years, not just as a civilization, but as a species.

PAUL SOLMAN: Vandana Shiva, thank you very much.

VANDANA SHIVA: Thank you, Paul.

JIM LEHRER: In his next conversation, Paul will speak with students from other countries about globalization.