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Vandana Shiva: 'Gandhi of Grain' featured in documentary

Torsten Landsberg
December 1, 2022

Camilla Becket's "The Seeds of Vandana Shiva" tells the story of the Indian eco-activist and her international crusade for more sustainable agriculture.

A scene from the film "Vandana Shiva - A Life for the Earth" shows the activist at a rally on a stage.
Vandana Shiva is an Indian ecology activist and regenerative agriculture advocateImage: mindjazz pictures

Footage of idyllic, almost untouched nature with lush greenery cuts suddenly to hustle and bustle and crowds of people. The energetic protagonist Vandana Shiva leaves home, making her way to the next conference. She has tirelessly spent more than half of her life like this.

The documentary film "The Seeds of Vandana Shiva" accompanies the Indian activist and tells the story of her evolution into one of the world's most renowned activists for sustainable agriculture — from the first local protests to personal battles to global commitment against opponents who seem overpowering.

Vandana Shiva, born in 1952, grew up in the forests of the Himalayas. As a child, she often accompanied her father, who worked as a forest conservationist, walking 50 kilometers a day with him.

The forest was a lifelong teacher for her, she says in the film. Shiva attended a missionary school, which had imparted traditional views of women. After completing high school, Vandana went on to study physics and attained her Master's degree before studying philosophy in Canada in the early 1970s and earning her doctorate.

Gandhi’s Legacy - Where is India Headed? - Part 1

During semester breaks, she used to return to her home country to support the "Chipko movement" initiated by women from small villages, one of the first Indian environmental movements. Protesting against the clearing of forests and the resulting loss of habitat, the women would hug trees to prevent them from being felled. With their non-violent protest, years later they achieved a ban on logging, which often has adverse consequences for the environment like altered water cycles, landslides, floods.

"The Seeds of Vandana Shiva" is also a story of feminism and self-empowerment in a patriarchal environment — both socially and personally. When her husband was automatically granted custody of their son after their separation under the law in force at the time, Shiva took the matter to the Supreme Court. She won, was granted custody of her son and set a precedent in India.

Vandana Shiva sits on a stage next to director Camilla Becket, who speaks into a microphone.
Director Camilla Becket is 'impressed' by Vandana Shiva's charismaImage: Michelle Magulski/mindjazz pictures

'Having the power of a Mandela or a Gandhi'

"We were impressed by her charisma, also her capacity to make so clearly the complex connections between the climate, the environment and significant social issues," documentary director, Camilla Becket, told DW.

Becket, a South African who grew up during apartheid, said she witnessed how Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Nadine Gordimer inspired people to act and change. "When I met Vandana I immediately thought she had the power of a Mandela or a Gandhi."

Vandana Shiva has been fighting for sustainable agriculture since the mid-1980s. The film focuses on Monsanto, the agrochemical company bought by German pharmaceutical company Bayer in 2018. "When you sell real weapons, you control armies," says Shiva in the documentary. "When you control food, you control society. But when you control seed, you control life on Earth."

In the documentary "Vandana Shiva - A Life for the Earth" men carry the decorated corpse of a farmer on a stretcher.
Are the many suicides among rural farmers a consequence of Monsanto seeds?Image: mindjazz pictures

Not long ago, Monsanto was pushing into the Indian market with expensive, genetically-modified seeds, luring farmers with the prospect of higher yields — a germ was added to cotton to prevent pest infestation. Monsanto portrayed traditional farming methods as primitive and advertised their genetically-modified seeds as progress.

However, the seeds failed to deliver on Monsanto's promise and crop production proved not to be more resilient. Many rural farmers had to invest into more pesticides, lost more money and got into debt.

Shiva says that the suicide rate among small farmers dramatically increased as a direct result of their hopeless indebtedness. There are reports that support this account, while other studies contradict it.

What is undisputed today is that the so-called "Green Revolution" — the introduction of new technologies in agriculture in developing countries — creates monocultures. It replaces human labor with chemicals and machines, interferes with the cycles of nature, poisons soil and water and contributes to the extinction of species.

"Our documentary seeks to highlight how industrial food production in the hands of a few multinationals is not only a huge part of the problem of climate change, but that ecological farming and food practices can actually draw carbon down into the soil where it belongs, restore biodiversity and environmental degradation, and feed the world," says Camilla Becket.

Nutrition through diversity

To test alternatives and train farmers, Vandana Shiva established a foundation, founded a school and built a farm for sustainable living. In more than 40 seed banks, rural farmers can learn which seeds can be grown, how productive the harvests are and how adaptable the varieties are.

Shiva is also trying to promote this knowledge in Africa and Latin America. However, she is oftentimes met with hostility, and some specialist publications even deny her expertise. In the film, Shiva also openly talks about threats made against her and her family. She says that these threats are inevitable when one is dealing with a multibillion-dollar industry.

A scene of the film "Vandana Shiva - A Life for the Earth" shows the feeding of hundreds of cows and cattle with grain.
Modern agriculture: grain that could feed people is fed to animalsImage: mindjazz pictures

"Her attackers do not discourage her but actually energize her to work harder," says filmmaker Camilla Becket. "She has said she is sustained by her love for the planet and for people. She is a real warrior in that regard."

Whether she is working with global leaders, advising governments, or setting up seed banks with small farmers in far flung corners of the world, "she is always the same. She awards everyone the same attention."


This article was originally written in German.