How to Craft Water Democracy, Earth Democracy & Survive Climate Change: TreeHugger Interviews Dr. Vandana Shiva

Dr Vandava Shiva on stage speaking at an event.

Bond / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

I first became aware of Dr Vandana Shiva's work through the anti-globalization movement in the 1990s and the all documentaries produced at that time in which she managed to appear. Later I became more aware of her advocacy of environmental and social justice going back to the Chipko movement in the 1970s (India's original tree huggers).

More recently she's become one of the globe's most prominent people advocating for a (re)embracement of small-scale, organic, biodiverse agriculture on the grounds that not only is more productive and more environmentally benign that monoculture agriculture (even when that monoculture is certified organic), but is the key to producing enough food as our climate changes.

She's also written extensively about water privatization, water conflict, water management and how these are further disempowering people throughout the globe.

Recently I had a chance to talk with Dr Shiva on the phone and get a first hand report on how these issues are having an impact in India today:

TreeHugger: What effects are you already seeing regarding climate change & water in India? We know about glaciers receding for example, but how is that playing out today?

Vandana Shiva: I've been working on a one year campaign with the communities in the mountain regions on climate change, on climate change in the Himalayas.

The receding of glaciers and their rapid melting is doing two things: There's a disappearance of small glaciers, there's a disappearance of water; and large areas which used to get snow, aren't getting snow anymore. At least 20 of the villages I've visited in the last week used to have snow til 5-10 years ago and don't get snow now. So, there's no snowfall. Forget the melting, there's no snow falling.

In places like Ladakh, which is a desert, instead of snow they're getting rain...leading to flash floods, the washing away of villages, washing away of entire settlements.

We're not talking about tiny impacts. We've just had a huge cyclone in Bengal. The entire Sundarbans, which have never, never had these type of storms is today devastated. The cyclone impact went all the way to the mountains in Darjeeling, tearing down the railway lines. We haven't had cyclones go that far inland.

Arid areas, which already have vulnerability, in some cases have four years, five years with absolutely no rain. So we're talking about a large impact already.

We hear about farmer suicides right now, and have for some time now. Our readers probably are somewhat aware about how GM crops can lead to a cycle of debt, and how that's connected to the suicides, but how is water related to them?

The hybrid BT (cotton) seeds under chemical agriculture need irrigation. So what you have is a) a drawing out of more groundwater and b) with BT the entire soil structure, the soil organisms are being destroyed. We've done a study on this: When the soil looses its life, it tends towards desertification. So the water issue in the soil is very serious.

In addition, I don't know why the companies tell the farmers to basically burn all organic matter in their farms. I've seen at 48°C women picking up twigs and leaves, burning them. So, there is a deliberate destruction of organic matter. BT is monoculture. It has destroyed the food crops that you see return organic matter to the soil. It has destroyed the mixed farming which used to retain organic matter and give soil cover, returning soil moisture throughout the year.

So now, in the heat, at 48-50°C you've got totally exposed soil which is evaporating the little bit of moisture. Then you are destroying the organic matter that goes into the soil, to conserve the moisture.

At every level you are creating a water destruction system.

What's the best way to combat that? What's the most appropriate technology for dealing with this?

I've actually just released a report on all the climate-resistant crops we have been saving in our community seed bank. There are hundreds of varieties of rice which can withstand salt and cyclones, varieties which can withstand flood, and varieties which can withstand drought.

I think the first thing is conservation of biodiversity. That is the first technological solution. You cannot fight climate change through monoculture. You can only be resilient to climate change through biodiversity.

Second, soils with chemical farming are both sources of greenhouse gases are both sources of greenhouse gases and more vulnerable to climate change.

So a combination of biodiversity and ecological systems is the way my latest book

So a combination of biodiversity and ecological systems is the way my latest book Soil Not Oil talks about it. The manifesto we issued through the Commission on the Future of Food has detailed these steps, with a lot of data about how organic farming is a major mitigation and adaptation strategy for climate change.

It seems there's a gap here though. Even the UN now says that small, diverse, organic agricultural systems, more sustainable management of farming, is the way forward and can mitigate against climate change, but yet when you go to international meetings, and I'm thinking of the Clinton Global Initiative last fall, you hear people still saying we need a new Green Revolution in Africa, in Asia. How do we bridge that? There seems to be a disconnect even at the top level of international agencies...

I think the disconnect is very simple.

Those, for example, who have worked on the international assessment report that you mention, that says small farms, ecological farms, biodiverse farms are the way forward, they are done be scientists, they are done by people who have independent minds and a commitment to farming and agriculture.

The people who say that chemical farming and Green Revolution for Africa, GM seeds for dealing with climate change, they are people who aren't speaking from their owns minds independently. They are speaking through their pockets, which have been lined through Monsanto bribes and influence.

I think it's very vital to distinguish between those who talk through money and those who talk through minds.

That's why it looks like there's a conflict in public opinion, and scientific opinion, but there's only one scientific opinion. And that's the independent scientist. The rest is propaganda, just promoting the false claims of these companies.

This report we released on our climate-resilient crops was also about the fact that most of these crops have now been patented. These traits of dealing with climate change have all been patented, though broad, sweeping patents. Many of the patents taken through speculative genomic just play games and say you think something will do something; and you own the entire spectrum of climate resilience.

I think we will very rapidly, every year is showing us that we have two options: We either go the way of corporate lies and put the whole planet at risk, or we go the way of people's truth and protect biodiversity, promote organic farming and find solutions.

We often hear that organic agriculture can't feed the world, but when you read you work and that of others, that's patently not the case. Can you give some examples of how organic farming and biodiverse farming can actually does increase crop yields?

Food really comes from the nutrition you produce on land. The more dense your biological production the higher the unit output of food and nutrition. That's basic baby common sense. Even a child can tell you that 20 plants growing together in a small plot will produce more food than three lines of herbicide resistant soil.

The trick that has been played is to talk not of the output per unit acre, but to talk about the yield of a particular crop per acre. That means that the more you destroy food production the more you claim you are increasing it.

You destroy 50%, 60% of the food production and food potential of a unit piece of land to grow legumes, to grow vegetables, to grow pulses, to grow oil seeds, to grow different millets, to grow rice, to grow barley, to grow fruit trees, to grow agroforestry, and you reduce it to lines of impoverished soil where Roundup has killed everything else and you falsely claim that those impoverished lines of soil are producing more food. Biologically it's not true in terms of unit output per acre. It's not true nutritionally. And it's not true economically because that soil does not go to feed people in any case.

You've reduced your food output by 40-50%. Then you take what you've grown and you feed it to cars as biofuel. Then you feed it to swine, like in the Smithfield Farms plant that spread swine flu all over the world. And the leftovers go to people.

Poor farmers who are being made to buy costly seeds to grow these crops end up having to sell them just to pay for the debt they've taken.

This kind of farming is creating hunger. The evidence is there: 1 billion people permanently hungry. Nature did not create permanent hunger. It creates localized and temporary hunger through drought, or a specific event, but then you got back and farmed well again.

Now a farmer can keep farming and producing and they don't eat what they produce because the system is designed to snatch every bit out of the soil and out of the farmer's fields. That system increases commodity trade at the international level and decreases the food available to farming families.

You just have to look at the data. Half of the hungry people in the world now, 400 million, are producers of food. Why is that happening? Because the system of food production is stealing their food.

What's the connection to dams in all this? How will the increase in dams fare in terms of energy production, changing water patterns? How would you characterize what's going now, in regards to dams?

In terms of dams, and hydropower generation not using dams, but using tunnels now increasingly (because they know people can see dams and by making tunnels they make the problem invisible) what is going on is three things:

You know, our rivers are sacred. For thousands of years we have had pilgrimage to the sources of the four major tributaries of the Ganges (the Yamuna, the Ganges itself, the Alaknanda, the Mandakini). Each of these is suffering from:

A) The melting of glaciers, so reduced flow over time;

B) A diversion of water through tunnels, so for miles and miles there is no river, which has never happened in India's history ever before;

C) Large dams, which in the fragile Himalaya are leading to multiplier effects in terms of displacement. An example of this the Tehri dam, near my home. It has triggered a hundred new landslides; and is displacing the remaining villages which weren't displaced by the reservoir itself. Now the landslides the reservoir has created are coming down, are bringing these villages down. This is what has happened with the Three Gorges Dam. There was permanent creation of landslides, so they have to keep moving people, displacing people.

D) As water scarcity grows and the demand for grows, major diversions which will trigger major conflicts. It is inevitable. I wrote in my book Water Wars, if you have high demand, low supply, and the powerful doing with rivers and water what they want to, this is a recipe for conflict.