Conservation for Survival

India has been hit by globalization. One of the results is that movements are developing at every level – around agriculture, around seeds, around fisheries, around aquaculture, around our forests and pastures. These ecosystems support our life, and these movements are saying that the water, the land, the biodiversity belong first and foremost to the communities that take care of them.

In India most people are farmers, so one of the very important areas of organizing has been to say "no" to ownership monopolies in seeds, "no" to forms of agriculture that push farmers off the land, destroy the earth, and our water resources, our biodiversity.

But we don't merely say no. For instance, I started a program for seed conservation – a program called Navdanya, which means nine seeds. The name came to me while traveling in a tribal area where a farmer had nine crops growing together in a field. It instantly clicked because in India at birth, at death, and at marriage we have ceremonies using nine seeds, which reflect the cosmos and planetary constellations. So the name symbolizes the relationship between the cosmos, the seed, and the human situation.

Navdanya is now a very active movement. We started with three community seedbanks where farmers rejuvenate their own seed rather than depending on company seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides, and then getting into debt to pay for these inputs. Now the program has spread to five new states in about eight new locations from the north in Kashmir and Ladakh to the south in Tamilnadu. My dream is that by 1997 we will be able to cover every region of the country with community seed banks. This would save biodiversity and stop the extinction of the varieties that remain. A lot has already been lost. We used to have a hundred thousand rice varieties. Our program has already saved up to 600 varieties of rice, 100 varieties of kidney beans, and hundreds of varieties of millet.

For us, conservation is not separate from providing a base of survival for people, especially poor people. Conservation makes possible a means of livelihood for communities that are poor and who don't have other resources. It protects bio-diversity as well as human society.

Now we are connecting that with issues of consumption. I recently organized a huge exhibition in which I brought farmers from each region who are in this seed conservation program to connect with urban groups. We brought the grains produced from this conserved seed, and the farmers cooked their local recipes. In India we have so much diversity of food; every area has a different cuisine. The farmers' cooking just blew people's minds; they couldn't believe it! The farmers were so thrilled at the reaction to what was considered low-level eating. The women peasants went home saying, "My God, they loved our mumus. They were from Lodakh, and did you see how quickly they lapped up the jungurah dessert that I had cooked?"

Over the next few years, I'm going to be working on increasing the awareness among consumers and urban groups about the fact that they need to support such conservation efforts, both because they have an obligation to those who produce food for them, and because they have an obligation to themselves to eat better than those pesticide-laden foods that are reaching their tables.

So in a way, this is a politics of connection – connection between the earth, its biodiversity, producers who use the biodiversity as farmers, and consumers who need that biodiversity to eat healthy diets.

Vandana Shiva, a physicist, philosopher, feminist, and ecologist, is director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy in Dehradun, India; director of Navdanya, a seed conservation project; and co-chair of Women, Environment, and Development Organization. Vandana Shiva is also the author of, among others, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development, and Monocultures of the Mind.
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