Vandana Shiva: What is Earth Democracy?

Excerpted from an interview by Sarah Ruth van Gelder for Yes! Magazine
photo by Linda Wolf

photo by Linda WolfVandana Shiva: [Earth Democracy] comes from a very ancient category in Indian thought. Just like Chief Seattle talked about being in the web of life, in India we talk about vasudhaiva kutumbkam, which means the earth family. Indian cosmology has never separated the human from the non-human—we are a continuum.

When the issue of the patenting of life emerged, for example, there were two levels of response from those opposing this practice in India. The one level was resistance: “This is immoral. Life is not an invention. Life cannot be a monopoly. You cannot sell us the seeds you stole from us, and you cannot charge us royalties for the product of nature’s intelligence and centuries of human innovation.”

The second level was the reclaiming of democracy: people claimed the right to look after their biodiversity and use it sustainably. This came out of discussions among the movements we’ve been building at the grassroots.

I remember one meeting of 200 villagers who had been involved in seed saving and seed sharing with Navdanya, the trust that I founded to save seeds and promote organic agriculture. These 200 villagers gathered on World Environment Day in 1998 and declared sovereignty over their biodiversity—not sovereignty to rape and destroy, sovereignty to conserve. These 200 villagers, gathered in a high mountain village near a tributary of the Ganges, said, “We’ve received our medicinal plants, our seeds, our forests from nature through our ancestors; we owe it to them to conserve it for the future. We pledge we will never allow their erosion or their theft. We pledge we will never accept patenting, genetic modification, or allow our biodiversity to be polluted in any form, and we pledge that we will act as the peoples of this biodiversity.”

These discussions in villages all over India, in many different languages, led to amazing actions. Some wrote letters to Mike Moore, director-general of the WTO saying, “We noticed you have passed a law called ‘Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights.’ We also notice that under this law you want to monopolize life forms. Unfortunately, these are resources over which you have no jurisdiction, and you have overstepped your boundaries.”

Similar letters went to the prime minister of India: “You are the prime minister of this country, but we are the keepers of biodiversity. This is not your jurisdiction. You cannot sign away these rights. They were not given to you. We never delegated them to you.”

But the ones that were the most beautiful were crafted literally under the village trees and addressed to Ricetec, Inc., which patented Basmati rice, and to the Grace Corporation, which patented the name. The letters said, “We’ve used Basmati for centuries. … Now we hear you’ve got a patent number for this, and you claim to have invented it. This kind of piracy and theft we know happens. There are people who steal in our village, and we treat them with understanding. We call them and ask them to explain what is the compulsion that led them to steal. So we invite you to come to our village and explain to us the compulsion that made you steal from us.”

These communities started in years past by saving locally bred seeds and saving biodiversity. Now they are seeking self-governance over food systems, water systems, and biodiversity systems.

If you think of the fact that corporate globalization is really about an aggressive privatization of the water, biodiversity, and food systems of the Earth, when these communities declare sovereignty and act on that sovereignty, they have developed a powerful response to globalization. Living democracy then is the democracy that is custodian of the living wealth on which people depend.