Women, Ecology and Survival in India Vandana Shiva

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Women, Ecology and Survival in India

Vandana Shiva

kali for women

Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India

was first published in 1988

in India by


N 84 Panchshila Park

New Delhi 110 017

in the U.K. by

Zed Books Ltd.

57, Caledonian Road

London Nl 9BU

©Vandana Shiva, 1988

All rights reserved

Cover design: Chandralekha

ISBN 81‑85107‑07‑6

Phototypeset by Wordtronic, 111/56, Nehru Place, New Delhi,

and printed at Indraprastha Press, (CBT),

Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, New Delhi 110 002




Development as a new project of western patriarchy- Maldevelopment as the death of the feminine principle ‑Two kinds of growth, two kinds of pro­ductivity ‑ Two kinds of poverty


Modern science as patriarchy's project ‑ The vio­lence of reductionism ‑ Profits, reductionism and violence ‑ Two kinds of facts ‑ Two kinds of rationality – Modern science and ecological crises ‑ The natural‑unnatural divide


Nature as the feminine principle ‑ Nature and women as producers of life – Gender ideology vs. the recovery of the feminine principle


Aranyani: the forest as the feminine principle ‑Colonialism and the evolution of masculinist fore­stry ‑ The women of `Chipko ‑ Afforestation pro­jects and reductionism ‑`Social' forestry and the ,miracle' tree ‑ The approaching tragedy of the commons ‑ The colonial heritage: commons as 'wasteland' ‑ Saving the soil, protecting the com­mons ‑Breeding 'super‑trees' ‑ Recovering diver­sity, recovering the commons


Green revolution a western paradigm ‑ The dis­placement of women from food production ‑Miracle seeds: breeding out the feminine principle ‑The myth of the miracle seeds ‑ 7he myth of high yields and food self‑sufficiency – From the green revolution to biotechnology ‑ The death of soils ‑Soil‑building strategies of traditional agriculture ‑Green revolution: a recipe for desertification –Diseases of micronutrient deficiency and toxicity ‑‑Waterlogged and saline deserts – Groundwater mining and the creation of dry deserts ‑ Respecting the rights of the soil ‑ Pesticides: poisoning the web of life ‑ The farce of improved varieties ‑Fostering pests with pesticides ‑ Non‑violent pest control learning from nature, women and peasants ‑ The violence of the white revolution –Hybridisation as genetic violence ‑ Fragmentation of nature: inte­gration of markets


The disappearing source ‑ Dams as violence to the river ‑Drilling deep and draining dry ‑ Women: the water experts


To my late mother

for her legacy of the courage

to think and act differently


This book is a gift to those who made it possible

- the many women, peasants and tribals of India who have been my teachers in thinking ecologically

- Rajni Kothari, who made such learing possible by creating the context for intellectual freedom

- Jayanto Bandyopadhyay, my husband, who has also been my partner in learning

- Rajuji, my father, who first mothered me and now mothers my son

- Kartikeya, my son, for his generous love which allows me to do What I do.

In the shift from the modernist, competitive and 'catching up' orientation of the first generation of feminists to a much more holistic, nurturant and non‑dualistic perspective that is beginning to emerge from recent thinking on feminism, this book may prove to be an important contribution. It also commends itself for choosing an ecological stance that distances itself from western conservationists for whom the 'wretched of the earth', fast multiplying and making demands on the resource pool of the planet, are the source of environmental degradation, who they would like to exclude from access to natural resources which are, in fact, being far more rapa­ciously depleted by what the author calls the modern 'development project' than by the poor and the deprived. The author throws her weight behind a far more inclusive conception‑of‑ecology in which the struggles of the marginalised and hitherto excluded segments ‑excluded largely because of the development project ‑ against inequity, exploitation and repression find resonance and support. She also warns us against the dangers of co‑optation posed by the more recent appropriation of the environmental vocabulary and metaphors by governments and elites, and by international agencies like the World Bank who, in the name of working with environmen­tal NGOs, are succeeding in both depoliticising voices of protest and struggle and making environmental protection into a surrogate for the same old development project on which corporate interests and technocrats are so keen.

I shall let the book speak for itself. It is cogently written, is empirically sensitive, draws on a lot of relevant literature and is marked by a good deal of passion and conviction. There are places where I do not necessarily agree with the author, e.g., with her often explicit and often implied equivalence between women and nature, as if all women are by definition conservationist, life‑enhancing and equity-seeking. Although she is aware of the problem, she is not sufficiently discriminating between urban ‑ and urbanised ‑women devoured by consumerist ethics, and rural and tribal women whose identity with both nature and the human community is so organic and authentic. This is understandable, given the author's general mandate of locating women's problems in an ecological paradigm although at times it is more in the form of concessions to outdated jargon. The saving feature is that, unlike the older vintage of feminists imploring the State to treat them on a footing of 'equal­ity' with men, Vandana Shiva is interested in deeper meanings of femininity and Prakriti and in asserting these as far more humane and natural than the dominant 'scientific' paradigm which is essentially macho in its conception.

Let me draw the larger implications of Vandana Shiva's effort to organically relate the concerns of ecology with the feminine princi­ple. By doing so she has already broadened the arenas of both the environmental and the feminist movements and given a composite intellectual meaning to both. At the level of praxis, at least, but also in respect of theory, 1 should like to see this search for a more comprehensive framework continue to include other major grounds for restructuring the human enterprise that are presently under way (as well as other new grounds that may be in the offing). Thus, if the feminine principle asserts both a holistic perspective and an inclusive agenda of concerns based on its considerable respect for diversity ‑ both in turn being principles of nature ‑ it must of necessity take into both its logic and its agenda of concerns the whole issue of ethnicity, of the struggles of minorities and margina­lised communities for their rights of inclusion as autonomous and self‑governing entities in the larger political community. Again, as in the case of the struggles for preserving the environment, both the victims of and the prime movers against destructive forces happen to be women, so in the ethnic struggles the worst sufferers are women, and it is women who are struggling to pick up the pieces and rebuild shattered communities, not allowing either the mere anger of incensed young men or the cynical manipulation and trickery of those bent on dividing communities to cow them down.

It is not women alone who are involved in these struggles; that will be a gross exaggeration and exaggerating a process only distorts it (in both conceptualising the process and acting it out). it is rather that both as victims of modern technological development and the scientific paradigm from which such development derives its raison d’etre, and as possible deliverers (and liberators) from it, women are more central than men ‑ at any rate such women as still cherish and nurture the feminine principle (not all of them do). They also seem better equipped for opening up new civic spaces as part of both preserving and rebuilding communities. In sum, femininity and ecology on the one hand and femininity and ethnicity on the other are natural allies, mutually synergizing and often found in practice to be synonymous. They are all part of the larger struggle for endogeneity in a world threatened by the homogenising thrust of modernity. The holism implied in the feminine principle must be distinguished from the universalism of the modern scientific era. The former respects and nurtures diversity; the latter undermines it under its homogenising and centralising thrust and, in the end, destroys diversity.

I have for some time now been working on the phenomenon of ethnicity in a somewhat comprehensive way and 1 have been accused by a lot of conceptual purists for stretching the meaning of this phenomenon beyond its natural bounds (partly by traditional anthropologists and others working on specific populations like the tribals, but more by that breed of nationalists who consider any assertion of diversity and plurality as being, by definition, inimical to the integrity of the nation state). 1 want to add to the dismay of these detractors of mine by saying that 1 consider both the feminine gender and the feminine principle as essential ingredients of the upsurge of ethnicity in the contemporary historical process. 1 see the awakening of gender, ecology and ethnicity as close allies that share a lot of common ground and could, if those who participate in this awakening stood together and were not separately co-opted (which is what the dominant system is currently bent upon doing), make a difference to the prospects of humanity by arresting the continuing colonisation of nature and of ethnic diversity and, in the process, saving the feminine‑principle of holism, based on diversity, dignity of all beings and a shared sense of community, from eclipse.

That brings me to yet another as yet unresolved issue in the theoretical basis of the feminist movement. It is the issue of class. It is clear by now that the issue of women as victims of modern technology and development cannot be 'reduced' to that of class. Those who believe that if it cannot be so reduced, it is not a real issue but a result of some version of 'false consciousness' with no historical relevance, are clearly prisoners of a rather dated theory of revolution and are unable to fathom a far more complex historical situation that was not anticipated by the founders of 'scientific socialism'. But having said that, 1 do want to hasten to say that feminists ought indeed to be involved in the economic struggles of the oppressed poor, the growing ranks of the impoverished (to no small extent because of the development project) and the still further growing ranks of pauperised, marginalised and dispensable peoples for whom the State and the modem economy have no use. The issue of class is central to the historical process as are the issues of femininity, ecology and ethnicity. Such a large spectrum of wom­anhood generally (including in the agricultural sector), and in particular in the wake of the new national and international division of labour, is exploited by the capitalist mode of production. But it is not just a question of women. It is a much larger issue of a new technological basis of economic and cultural exploitation which is crying for a new spirit of democratic resistance against what is undoubtedly a considerably changed (transnationalized, corporate, computerised, militarized and televised) model of capitalist growth and integration. The feminist movement will continue to be casti­gated as petit bourgeois in its thrust unless it comes out of its present undimensional derailing and makes common cause with the struggles of the world proletariat and the proletarianised lower classes of all societies. It is particularly qualified to do so given its natural penchant for empathy, compassion, solidarity and nurtu­rance, particularly towards suffering humanity and the victims of history. Scientific solidarity does not seem to have taken us very far. Feminist solidarity may.

Finally, there is the whole constituency of those who stand at the frontier of people's struggles but who, too, need new inputs, new insights and new self‑definitions. This is the constituency of human rights which in India spans a large spectrum of civil liberties, demo­cratic rights and peoples rights (meaning the rights of specific nationalities, minorities and peripheral communities). Many of those who are engaged in the 'women's movement' do identify with struggles of civil liberties and democratic rights, and not just on behalf of women's rights (witness the considerable expansion of concerns of a journal like Manushi). But there are so many who shy away from these struggles which they consider to be 'too political', or because they think they are male‑dominated, or because they do not wish to be 'submerged' in vaguer terrains and preserve their autonomous character. For the first lot I have not much to say; these are women who have set up their own maths and think that taking on too dissenting and political a stance will make them vulnerable. I have nothing to say because at bottom they want to use State patron­age and the patronage of international agencies to better the status of women. Being part of the system, the ruling paradigm of science and development and the emerging elite, they have no other choice. I do not doubt their bona fides, I only find their perspectives too limited and I have little doubt that they are either already coopted by the State and the capitalist market or soon will be. As for 'male ­domination', the charge is valid and can only be changed if the perspectives change on both sides. It is the third type with whom I have a problem. I shall now turn to it and with that end this Foreword.

Any approach to the 'liberation' of any segment of society that is based on a polarised view of social reality (men versus women, majority versus minority, Centre versus State) is for me at once unreal and apolitical ‑ and indirectly a tribute to the attempts of the dominant structure to create a dualist situation and to push the I other' out and dispense with it. Second, it is in grave danger of being marginalised or coopted ‑ if you stand aloof and unidimensional and fearful of contamination, you are bound to be either margina­lised or coopted. But third, and for me more serious, those who take so exclusivist a view of any movement suffer from a high degree of arrogance and insensitivity. For they refuse to see that the struggle for femininity is a struggle for a certain basic principle of perceiving life, a philosophy of being. It is a principle and a philosophy that can serve not just women but all human beings. Femininity, by defini­tion, cannot and should not be a limiting value but an expanding one ‑ holistic, eclectic, trans‑specific and encompassing diverse stirrings. It is only by bringing the as yet disparate perceptions and struggles of gender, ecology, ethnicity, class and human rights in a shared conception of restructuring the human enterprise that there s a future for the feminist movement. Not otherwise.

I am glad to introduce this book as an effort in this direction.


Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
Delhi, April 1988


'Let them come and see men and women and children who know how to live, whose joy of life has not yet been killed by those who claimed to teach other nations bow to live.'

‑ Chinua Achebe1

The Age of Enlightenment, and the theory of progress to which it gave rise, was centred on the sacredness of two categories: modern scientific knowledge and economic development. Somewhere along the way, the unbridled pursuit of progress, guided by science and development, began to destroy life without any assessment of how fast and how much of the diversity of life on this planet is disappearing. The act of living and of celebrating and conserving life In all its diversity ‑ in people and in nature ‑ seems to have been sacrificed to progress, and the sanctity of life been substituted by the sanctity of science and development.

Throughout the world, a new questioning is growing, rooted in the experience of those for whom the spread of what was called 'enlightenment' has been the spread of darkness, of the extinction of life and life‑enhancing processes. A new awareness is growing that is questioning the sanctity of science and development and revealing that these are not universal categories of progress, but the special projects of modern western patriarchy. This book has grown out of my involvement with women’s struggles for survival in India over the last decade. It is informed both by the suffering and insights of those who struggle to sustain and conserve life, and, whose struggles question the meaning of a progress, a science, a development which destroys life and threatens survival.

The death of nature is central to this threat to survival. The earth is rapidly dying: her forests are dying, her soils are dying, her waters are dying, her air is dying. Tropical forests, the creators of the world's climate, the cradle of the world's vegetational wealth, are being bull‑dozed, burnt, ruined or submerged. In 1950, just over 100 million hectares of forests had been cleared ‑‑ by 1975, this figure had more than doubled. During 1950‑75, at least 120 million hectares of tropical forests were destroyed in South and Southeast Asia alone; by the end of the century, another 270 init lion could be eliminated. In Central America and Amazonia, cattle ranching for beef production is claiming at least 2.5 million hec­tares of forests each year; in India 1.3 million hectares of forests are lost every year to commercial plantation crops, river valley projects, mining projects and so on. Each year, 12 million hectares of forests are being eliminated from the face of the earth. At current rates of destruction, by the year 2050 all tropical forests will have disap­peared, and with tropical forests, will disappear the diversity of life they support.

Upto 50 per cent of all living things ‑ at least five million species ‑ are estimated to live in tropical forests. A typical four square‑mile patch of rainforest contains up to 1,500 species of flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 125 of mammals, 400 of birds, 100 of reptiles, 60 of amphibians and 150 of butterflies. The unparalleled diversity of species within tropical forests means rela­tively few individuals of each; any forest clearance thus disrupts their life cycles and threatens them with rapid extinction. Current estimates suggest that we are losing one species of life a‑day from the 5-10 million species believed to exist. If present trends con­tinue, we can expect an annual rate of loss as high as 50,000 spe­cies by the year 2000. In India alone, there exist 7,000 species of plant life not found anywhere else in the world; the destruction of her natural forests implies the disappearance of this rich diversity of animal and plant life.

Forests are the matrix of rivers and water sources, and their destruction in tropical regions amounts to the dessication and desertification of land. Every year 12 million hectares of land deteriorate into deserts and are unable to support vegetation or pro­duce food. Sometimes land is laid waste through desertification, at other times through ill‑conceived land use which destroys the fertility of fragile tropical soils. Desertification in the Sahel in Africa has already killed millions of people and animals. Globally, some 456 million people today are starving or malnourished because of the desertification of croplands. Most agricultural lands cropped intensively with green revolution techniques are either water­ logged or dessicated deserts. Nearly 7 million hectares of land in India brought under irrigation have already gone out of production due to severe salinity, and an additional 6 million hectares have been seriously affected by water‑logging. Green revolution agricul­ture has decreased genetic diversity and increased the vulnerability of crops to failure through lowering resistance to drought and pests.

With the destruction of forests, water and land, we are losing our life‑support systems. This destruction is taking place in the name of 'development' and progress, but there must be something seriously wrong with a concept of progress that threatens survival itself The violence to nature, which seems intrinsic to the domi­nant development model, is also associated with violence to women who depend on nature for drawing sustenance for them­selves, their families, their societies. This violence against nature and women is built into the very mode of perceiving both, and forms the basis of the current development paradigm. This book is an attempt to articulate how rural Indian women, who are still embedded in nature, experience and perceive ecological destruc­tion and its causes, and how they have conceived and initiated processes to arrest the destruction of nature and begin its regeneration. From the diverse and specific grounds of the experience of ecological destruction arises a common identification of its causes in the developmental process and the view of nature with which it is legitimised. This book focuses on science and development as patriarchal projects not as a denial of other sources of patriarchy, such as religion, but because they are thought to be class, culture and gender neutral.

Seen from the experiences of Third World women, the modes of thinking and action that pass for science and development, respec­tively, are not universal and humanly inclusive, as they are made out to be; modem science and development are projects of male, western origin, both historically and ideologically. They are the latest and most brutal expression of a patriarchal ideology which is threatening to annihilate nature and the entire human species. The rise of a patriarchal science of nature took place in Europe during the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries as the scientific revolution. During the same period, the closely related industrial revolution laid the foundations of a patriarchal mode of economic develop­ment in industrial capitalism. Contemporary science and develop­ment conserve the ideological roots and biases of the scientific and industrial revolutions even as they unfold into new areas of activity and new domains of subjugation.

The scientific revolution in Europe transformed nature from ter­ra mater into a machine and a source of raw material; with this transformation it removed all ethical and cognitive constraints against its violation and exploitation. The industrial revolution converted economics from the prudent management of resources for sustenance and basic needs satisfaction into a process of commodity production for profit maximisation. Industrialism created a limitless appetite for resource exploitation, and modern science provided the ethical and cognitive license to make such exploita­tion possible, acceptable‑ and‑desirable. The new relationship of man's domination and mastery over nature was thus also asso­ciated with new patterns of domination and mastery over women, and their exclusion from participation as partners in both science and development.

Contemporary development activity in the Third World super­imposes the scientific and economic paradigms created by western, gender‑based ideology on communities in other cultures. Ecological destruction and the marginalisation of women, we know now, have been the inevitable results of most development programmes and projects based on such paradigms; they violate the integrity of one and destroy the productivity of the other. Women, as victims of the violence of patriarchal forms of development, have risen against it to protect nature and preserve their survival and sustenance. Indian women have been in the forefront of eco­logical struggles to conserve forests, land and water. They have challenged the western concept of nature as an object of exploita­tion and have protected her as Prakriti, the living force that sup­ports life. They have challenged the western concept of economics production of profits and capital accumulation with their own concept of economics as production of sustenance and needs satis­faction. A science that does not respect nature's needs and a devel­opment that does not respect people's needs inevitably threaten survival. In their fight to survive the onslaughts of both, women have begun a struggle that challenges the most fundamental cate­gories of western patriarchy ‑ its concepts of nature and women, and of science and development. Their ecological struggle in India is aimed simultaneously at liberating nature from ceaseless exploi­tation and themselves from limitless marginalisation. They are creating a feminist ideology that transcends gender and a political practice that is humanly inclusive; they are challenging patriarchy’s ideological claim to universalism not with another universalising tendency, but with diversity; and they are challenging the dominant concept of power as violence with the alternative concept of non‑violence as power.

The everyday struggles of women for the protection of nature take place in the cognitive and ethical context of the categories of the ancient Indian world‑view in which nature is Prakriti, a living and creative process, the feminine principle from which all life arises. Women's ecology movements, as the preservation and recovery of the feminine principle, arise from a non‑gender based ideology of liberation, different both from the gender‑based ideol­ogy of patriarchy which underlies the process of ecological destruction and women's subjugation, and the gender‑base responses which have, until recently, been characteristic of the west.

Inspired by women's struggles for the protection of nature as a condition for human survival, this book goes beyond a statement of women as special victims of the environmental crisis. it attempts to capture and reconstruct those insights and visions that Indian women provide in their struggles for survival, which perceive development and science from outside the categories of modern western patriarchy. These oppositional categories are simultane­ously ecological and feminist: they allow the possibility of survival by exposing the parochial basis of science and development and by showing how ecological destruction and the marginalisation of women are not inevitable, economically or scientifically.

Chapter I traces the historical and conceptual roots of develop­ment as a project of gender ideology, and analyses how the particu­lar economic assumptions of western patriarchy, aimed exclusively at profits, have subjugated the more humane assumptions of eco­nomics as the provision of sustenance, to make for a crisis of poverty rooted in ecological devastation.

Chapter 2 addresses itself to the myth of the neutrality and universality of modern science. It traces its beginnings in the scientific revolution which, on the one hand, subjugated nature, and on the other, excluded women as knowers and experts. The structure and methodology of modern‑ science are reductionist; this chapter shows how reductionism as a patriarchal mode of knowing is necessarily violent to nature and women.

Chapter 3 goes on to describe the world that Indian women inhabit, both philosophically as a world‑view, and in their daily practice, in the production and renewal of life. For the women who are leading ecological struggles, the nature they protect is the liv­ing Prakriti. It is the awareness of nature as a living force, and of themselves as partners with her in the production of sustenance that guides their ecological struggles. These movements, while dependent on women's insights, are not based on a gender ideol­ogy, and make for an oppositional category, conceptually.

Chapter 4 traces the beginning of the destruction of forests and women's expertise in forestry with the colonisation of India's forests. It shows how what is called 'scientific forestry' is actually a narrow, reductionist view of forestry that has evolved from the western bias for maximisation of profits. Chipko, the famous movement of the peasant women of Garhwal is viewed here as a response to this paradigm. The destruction of forest ecosystems and the displacement of women who generate survival through the forest are structurally linked to this reductionist paradigm of fores­try. Responses to the severe repercussions of deforestation that emerge from centres of capitalist patriarchy deepen both the eco­logical and survival crises. These attempts are contrasted with women's initiatives at forest protection and regeneration which are sustainable and just, recovering both the diversity of forests as well as sharing the wealth that they produce.

Chapter 5 is an analysis of the food crisis as rooted in masculinist agricultural science and development which have destroyed nature's capital and have excluded women as experts and produc­ers of food. The violence inherent in the green revolution for food‑crops and the white revolution for dairying, is located and linked to shifts in the perception of food as a commodity, pro­duced and exchanged for profit.

Chapter 6 is about the water crisis which is threatening the survi­val of plant, animal and human life on a cataclysmic scale. It is related to land and water use for profit, such that limited water resources are over‑exploited or diverted from survival needs to the imperative of profit maximisation. The reductionis view of water and water management is contrasted with the holistic knowledge women have for conserving and using it for survival.

The concluding chapter recapitulates the rationale behind the dominant science and technology and development paradigm that is responsible for the current economic and ecological crises, and posits the reclaiming of the feminine principle as a non‑violent, non‑ gendered and humanly inclusive alternative.

Women of the Third World have conserved those categories of thought and action which make survival possible, and which there­fore make justice and peace possible. Ecology movements, women's movements and peace movements across the world can draw inspiration from these categories as forces of opposition and challenge to the dominant categories of western patriarchy which rule the world today in the name of development and progress, even while they destroy nature and threaten the life of entire cul­tures and communities. It is to focus on and pay tribute to the leadership of millions of unknown women in India, struggling for a life that is simultaneously peaceful and just, that this book has been written.

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