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by Rachel Brinker

In Hindi, chipko means, “to embrace.”  The Chipko Movement in India became one of the most successful environmental activism struggles in the world.  Vandana Shiva was one of the women involved in this movement, which resisted industrial forestry and logging in rural India.  Local women physically put their bodies between the machinery and the forest that provided their livelihood–literally hugging the trees (Callicott, 218).  The largest success of the Chipko movement was convincing Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister in 1981, to declare a fifteen-year moratorium on logging in the Himalayan forests in Uttar Pradesh (Callicott, 218).

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a woman whose work is focused on embracing not only the principles of feminism, but also the principles of ecology.  In fact, as an ecofeminist, she sees these two movements as interconnected and believes that the worldview that causes environmental degradation and injustice is the same worldview that causes a culture of male domination, exploitation, and inequality for women.  Vandana Shiva titles her feminist theory “political,” or “subsistence” ecofeminism, to differentiate it from the more spiritually focused ecofeminism popular in Western countries (although, since the WTO protests of 1999 and the events of September 11, 2001, Western ecofeminism has become equally politically aware).   Both her activism and theory has had a global and concrete focus.  Her work has dealt with “third world” women, whose lives are adversely affected by the forces of corporate globalization and colonialism.

A tireless author, speaker and activist, Shiva has written over 13 books that reveal the true impact of globalization on the lives of women and men in developing countries. She has founded several organizations, including The Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology, Navdanya, and Bija Vidyapeeth, an organic farm and center for holistic living.

Born in 1952, she began training as a nuclear physicist.  When Shiva’s sister, a doctor, explained to Vandana the effects of nuclear radiation on life forms, Vandana was shocked because her science education had not addressed the risks and horrors of their work.  This was a pivotal moment that caused Shiva to critique science and the worldview behind scientific ideology.  This critique led to the development of her “subsistence” ecofeminist theories, and her relentless activism to protect both women and nature.

“Ecofeminism” was a term first used by Francoise D’Eaubonne in 1980 and gained popularity in protests and actions against continued ecological disaster.  Shiva and Maria Mies explain:

“We see the devastation of the earth and her beings by the corporate warriors, as feminist concerns.  It is the same masculinist mentality which would deny us our right to our own bodies and our own sexuality, and which depends on multiple systems of dominance and state power to have its way” (14).

From Shiva’s perspective, women’s liberation cannot be achieved without a simultaneous struggle for the preservation and liberation of all life on this planet from the dominant patriarchal/capitalist worldview (Mies and Shiva, 16).  Ecofeminism distinguishes itself from other theories of feminism, which maintain the hierarchical worldview of the Western world. “Rather than attempting to overcome this hierarchical dichotomy many women have simply up-ended it, and thus women are seen as superior to men, nature to culture, and so on” (Mies and Shiva, 5).

Shiva and other ecofeminists are explicitly anti-war and anti-capitalist, because both war and capitalism are seen as patriarchal structures. “The capitalist patriarchy perspective interprets difference as hierarchical and uniformity as a prerequisite for equality” (Mies and Shiva, 2).  For Shiva there is connection between the escalation of war, “musclemen” culture, and rape and other violence against women.  “It is no coincidence that the gruesome game of war—in which the greater part of the male sex seems to delight—passes through the same stages as the traditional sexual relationship: aggression, conquest, possession, control.  Of a woman or a land, it makes little difference” (Mies and Shiva, 15).

The historical context that radicalized Vandana Shiva and many others was the Green Revolution and the vast globalization of the mid to late twentieth century.  Shiva refers to this model of economic development as maldevelopment. “Maldevelopment militates against equality in diversity, and superimposes the ideologically constructed category of western technological man as the uniform measure of the worth of classes, cultures and genders” (Shiva, Staying Alive, 5).

The “Green Revolution” is a misnomer used by U.S. industrial agriculture and biotechnology seed and chemical corporations (Monsanto, Cargill, Dekalb, ADM, et al) to aggressively promote the implementation of their products to farmers in the “third world.”  As Shiva explains in a lecture given in 2003 (An Hour with Vandana Shiva), these corporations convinced farmers in India to shift from subsistence farming (where a family grows food primarily to meet their own food needs, and trades a small amount of their crop for other local goods and services) to growing a monoculture (growing a single plant species over a large area) of a cash crop bound for the global food market (for example, growing potatoes in India that end up as French fries at a McDonald’s in Detroit, Michigan).

This method of farming, aggressively forced on Indian farmers by the WTO (World Trade Organization) and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in the 1980s and 1990s, was disastrous for the farmers of India.  Cash crop industrial agriculture caused farmers to go into debt to the multinational seed and chemical companies, and when their crops failed, the result was over 20,000 farmers taking their own lives by drinking the chemical fertilizers and pesticides sold to them by the corporations that held their insurmountable debt.

Vandana Shiva credits Article 27.53b of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which allows corporations to hold patents on forms of life, for pushing her to become an ecofeminist activist.  Under this article, it is illegal to save seeds and plant them the following year if a corporation holds a patent on that plant.  For a farmer, this means that he or she cannot be independent, but must now pay the corporation every year to plant that seed.  For the corporation, it means that it can appropriate any life form (such as basmati rice, which had been developed over thousands of years in India through traditional breeding and selection techniques), apply for a patent, and is thereby granted complete legal and biological control over that species, anywhere in the world.  In resistance to these violent forces of globalization, Vandana Shiva founded Navdanya in 1991, an organization in India that saves seeds, promotes biodiversity, empowers women and children, and protects indigenous knowledge.

To the western worldview, the patenting of seeds or the deforestation of the Himalaya may seem completely unrelated to feminism.  For women in the global South, however, the “environment” is the place where they live, and it encompasses everything that affects their lives (Shiva, Close to Home, 2).  According to Shiva and Maria Mies, “urban, middle-class women find it difficult to perceive commonality both between their own liberation and the liberation of nature, and between themselves and ‘different’ women in the world” (5).  This disconnect is due to the fundamental dualistic nature of the western worldview, where the nature of reality is divided into opposing parts, and hierarchically arranged.  Thus, humans are seen as separate to nature, technology is seen as superior to indigenous knowledge, men are superior to women, and humans are superior and separate from animals, etc.

Shiva and Mies write, “The women’s movement…had fastened it hopes on the progress of science and technology, particularly in the area of reproduction, but also of house- and other work” (7). This progress would have to be based on the continued dominance over nature, and pursuing the goal of “catching up” to men in “advanced” societies (Mies and Shiva, 7).  But if the definition of “equality for all” is that all people in the world are able to live at the same level of consumption of resources enjoyed by men in advanced societies, this equality is quite simply impossible.  “With a limited planet, there can be no escape from necessity.  To find freedom does not involve subjugating or transcending the ‘realm of necessity,’ but rather focusing on developing a vision of freedom, happiness, the ‘good life’ within the limits of necessity, of nature” (Mies and Shiva, 8).

Dr. Madronna Holden points out that, “Political or subsistence ecofeminists such as Shiva and Mies place part of the blame for the oppressive influence of patriarchy on the rise of Western (and Marxist) ideas of development and ‘progress’” (6). To further show this disconnect between Western views of feminism and ecologically based feminism, Shiva explains:

“A common criticism leveled at ecological feminist approaches to the current crisis, is that of ‘essentialism’; relating environmental issues to women in a specific way is seen as an ‘essentialist’ world view. Yet the charge itself emanates from a paradigm that splits parts from whole, fragments and divides, and either sees the part as subjugating the whole (reductionism) or the whole as subjugating the parts—in other words, essentializing both” (Close to Home, 7).

The alternative worldview promoted by Shiva is one of partnership and cooperation. Shiva believes different definitions of freedom, knowledge, and progress are needed for the liberation of both women and the environment, from those definitions held by Western culture since the Enlightenment. Shiva’s ecofeminist perspective makes no distinction between “basic needs” (food, clothing, shelter) and “higher needs” (freedom and knowledge).

For women in the affluent North such a concept of universalism or commonality is not easy to grasp. Survival is seen not as the ultimate goal of life but a banality—a fact that can be taken for granted.  It is precisely the value of the everyday work for survival, for life, which has been eroded in the name of the so-called ‘higher values’ (Mies and Shiva, 13).

Modernization brings with it new forms of dominance to subsistence cultures.  Subsistence, on the other hand, has been shown to be a model of interdependence and cooperation.  “The complimentarity (sic) of the separate male and female domains of work is the characteristic mode, based on diversity, not inequality” (Shiva, Staying Alive, 5).  Modernization, however, brings domination and the devaluing of women’s work, which is not done for financial gain, but for meeting the daily needs of people and families.

Shiva argues that as long as the Western world sees the environmental movement and the women’s movement as separate and unrelated, the environmental movement will be co-opted by the forces of ‘maldevelopment’ and used as a “new patriarchal project of technological fixes and political oppression” (Shiva, Staying Alive, 48).  She explains that oppression will continue in the Western worldview because it devalues what she terms the feminine principle.  This concept is often confused with the promotion of gendered femininity, but Shiva sees the feminine principle as the larger creative force in the world.  “The new insight provided by rural women in the Third World is that women and nature are associated not in passivity but in creativity and in the maintenance of life” (Shiva, Staying Alive, 47).

The feminine principle is based on inclusiveness and its recovery in men, women, and nature, is the recovery of “creative forms of being and perceiving” (Shiva, Staying Alive, 53).  Shiva proposes that the feminine principle is killed in Western women by the association of passivity as a category with the feminine (53).  In men, this principle is squashed by the notion that “activity” is destruction rather than creation, and “power” is domination rather than empowerment (53).

As natural resources become more and more limited on our finite planet, a shift in our worldview will become compulsory.  Vandana Shiva’s vision for a combined movement to end oppression of both women and nature is part of the answer to how we can achieve sustainability on this planet and find our place as a species.  We must acknowledge that we are part of the larger web of life that provides for our survival, and therefore it is imperative that we protect that fragile web of life, not as dominators—men over women and humans over nature—but as partners with every other life form on the planet.

References

Callicott, J. Baird. Earth’s Insights. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1994.

Democracy Now! An Hour with Vandana Shiva. 27 November 2003. http://www.democracynow.org/2003/11/27/an_hour_with_vandana_shiva_indian.

Holden, Madronna.  WS 450 Ecofeminism Class notes. Oregon State University. 2009.

Mies, Maria and Vandana Shiva. Ecofeminism. Halifax: Fernwood Publications. 1993.

Navdanya. http://www.navdanya.org.

The Complete Marquis Who’s Who (R) Biographies.  Marquis Who’s Who LLC. 2008. Lexis-Nexis. 18 January 2009 http://www.lexisnexis.com.proxy.library. oregonstate.edu/us/lnacademic/search/loadForm.do.

Shiva, Vandana, ed. Close to Home: Women Reconnect Ecology, Health and Development Worldwide. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers. 1994.

Shiva, Vandana. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. London: Zed Books. 1989.

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