‘There is no food without forest; there is no forest without collective indigenous rights’: an interview with Vandana Shiva

By Nicolas Salazar Sutil

Vandana Shiva is a world-renowned activist, author, and anti-globalisation campaigner from India. In a recent interview with Tenure Facility, Vandana Shiva reflected on the state of food security flux and uncertainty faced by local communities in her country.

India is often said to be a forest civilisation. Loss of forest culture is an existential threat to millions of people across this country. “My own ecological journey,” Vandana Shiva confides, “has to do with the experience of having seen the forest go.” Why is it so important to preserve cultural memory in India and ancestral ways of forest life? Quite simply, Shiva explains, because a forest food system that was once highly self-sufficient, biodiverse, and stable, has now been replaced by a system marred by deficiencies.

Instead of supporting a sovereign system of food production, the Green Revolution in India instigated the loss of food sovereignty and sufficiency, leading to a money dependent economy that resulted in poverty, malnourishment, and inequality. Loss of biodiversity is at the heart of this deficiency. A country that is said to have once cultivated more than 6,000 varieties of rice is now reduced to growing only a few chemically engineered varieties of Basmati rice and wheat.


Photo courtesy of Vandana Shiva

"Why is it so important to preserve cultural memory in India and ancestral ways of forest life? Because a forest food system that was once highly self-sufficient, biodiverse, and stable, has now been replaced by a system marred by deficiencies"

- Dr. Shiva

“The colonial divide separated forest from farm,” Shiva explains, “then removed people from the forest in the name of conservation.” Yet people in India have been living in the forest, and have been nourished by the forest, for thousands of years. “A commercial plantation and a forest are not the same,” she concludes.

“Monoculture and mass scale, commodity-producing agriculture is the single biggest ecological problem in the planet, and the single biggest problem in terms of injustice and inequality,” says Shiva. In India, as in the rest of the world, more and more commodities are being manufactured, yet “commodities don’t feed people.” It is not the food system that needs changing, “what needs to change is the commodity system, which is consuming land, water, and biodiversity, while inducing climate change,” Dr Shiva insists.

According to Vandana Shiva, it is necessary “to move away from a commodity-producing system to a system where food is shared and distributed justly, and where food is our commons.” At the heart of this transformation is the need to protect different forms of biodiversity, including biodiversity of the mind, cultural biodiversity, biodiversity of plants and animals, and of course, biodiversity of food, all of which rely on the protection of forests.

In parts of India where tribal people have lived continuously, especially in areas inhabited by forest dwelling Adivasi communities, food systems are still practised in ways that protect forest life, for instance under sacred law. The 2006 Forest Rights Act of India (FRA), to which Dr Shiva was invited to provide expert advice and which serves as a framework for Tenure Facility’s partners land titling efforts among forest-dwelling Adivasi communities in the states of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, recognises the historic debt to tribal communities.

Photo by ã Rohit Jain/Tenure Facility

Dr Shiva further emphasises the need to understand food and land justice as correlated aspects of collective forest rights. Forest-dwelling people in India must gain “community rights to land” she remarks. However, this means providing Adivasi communities with “collective rights to the forest that grows on their land, to the food available in that forest and to the collective knowledge of that food. Only when territorial rights are protected hand in hand with cultural, environmental and food rights, does legislation work for the collective interests of local communities. And she adds: “There is no food without forest, and there is no forest without collective rights.”

Several positive changes are occurring in terms of mobilising change, according to Vandana Shiva, one of which is the recognition of indigenous worldviews within political and legal frameworks, such as India’s Community Forest Rights (CFR) framework. Because indigenous ways of life depend on forests, so the titling of ancestral lands for forest-dwelling Adivasi communities is an effective way of enhancing biodiversity, combatting deforestation, and addressing climate change.

Efforts to protect seeds from industrial food manufacturing and agribusiness is another example of positive change. Significant laws have been passed in India in recent decades, for instance the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act (PPVFRA, 2001), which as Dr Shiva points out, has boosted seed rights and seed movements across the country, especially in terms of regulating transgenic seeds and ensuring farmer’s access to seeds and seed breeding.

"Indigenous people and family-based forms of governance, where women play a vital role, is what we all desperately need"

- Dr. Shiva

A third positive change, Dr Shiva continues, is the upsurge of women-led environmental movements in India, starting with the Chipko movement of the 1970s aimed at protecting trees and forests. Women seed movements are part of a broader transition, whereby patriarchal structures are being eroded, while women rights and values— what Dr Shiva calls “earth family politics”— are being promoted. “Women want to be a dominant force because we want to protect forests, rivers, animals, seeds and future generations— this is not about including women in the patriarchal structure but about women incorporating all life on earth in systems of governance and leading through a different form of power: an empowering power.”

Food, Dr Shiva reflects, is not a commodity. “Food is our common nourishment, which comes from all places and connects us to the earth”, and she adds: “Indigenous people and family-based forms of governance, where women play a vital role, is what we all desperately need”. She concludes, “We are not masters of the earth. Resources are not private property. They are our commons to share and to be taken care of. This worldview will save not just indigenous people,” she concludes, “but humanity too.”


Nicolas Salazar Sutil is a researcher and award-winning author, formerly Professor of Transformational Practices at the University of Leeds, now director of Guardians Worldwide. He is a regular contributor to Tenure Facility’s website.


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