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Vandana Shiva, Ph.D., is a physicist and activist who works tirelessly to defend the environment and protect biodiversity from multinational corporations. Her life’s work has culminated in the creation of seed banks that may one day save future generations’ food sovereignty, but how she got there is a fascinating story, chronicled in the documentary “The Seeds of Vandana Shiva.”
Shiva, “a brilliant scientist” who became “Monsanto’s worst nightmare and a rock star of the international organic food movement,”1 grew up in a Himalayan forest, where her father, a forest conservator, carried out inspections. She would travel up to 45 miles a day with her father as a young girl, and as they traversed the forest he taught her everything about the trees, plants and herbs therein.
“We had a classroom out in the forest,” Shiva said, but her formal studies were done in a convent which, at that time, didn’t regard science as a subject fit for girls. Shiva wanted to study physics, though, and she was especially intrigued by Einstein and his connections of intuition with science. “Everyone has their favorite person that they want to be,” she said. “Einstein was the shaper of the dream of my life.”
A Search for Knowledge as a Whole
Shiva got a scholarship to attend Chandigarh University in Punjab, India, and from there she went on to the Bhabha National Atomic Research Center in Mumbai, India, for training in atomic energy. Later, her sister, a medical doctor, asked her about the health and environmental effects of nuclear technology and radiation.
As Shiva grasped the devastation nuclear energy had caused, she said, “I realized that a science that only teaches you how to modify nature without the understanding of what that modification does to the larger world is not a complete science.”
She gave up her idea of being a nuclear physicist and instead went looking for knowledge as a whole. She studied on her own, finding quantum theory, and while pursuing a Ph.D. in Canada, went to visit some of her favorite spots, including an oak forest she held close to her heart.
When she arrived, the forest had been cut down to make room for apple orchards, changing the entire microclimate in the area. The loss of something that she felt was a part of her impacted her deeply and set the stage for her environmental activism.
The Tree Hugging Movement Is Born
Shiva states that her involvement in the contemporary ecology movement began with the Chipko movement in 1973.2 The timber mafia were cutting down trees throughout the Indian Himalayas, taking away this precious resource from the rural villagers who depended on the forest for subsistence.
The government denied villagers access to the land and the lumber, while the logging companies cleared out forests, leading to problems with erosion, depleted water resources and flooding.
The villagers, primarily women, fought back in the best way they could, by physically embracing the trees to stop the loggers. Chipko is a Hindi word that means “to hug” or “to cling to,”3 and the movement spread, creating what became widely known as the tree hugging movement.
The women of Chipko taught Shiva how much women who hadn’t been to school knew about the interconnectedness of nature, but it took a major flood to make the government realize that what the women were saying was right. The revenue that came in from the forest logging was little compared to what they had to pay for flood relief.
In 1981, the government listened to the women and ordered a ban on logging in the high-altitude Himalayas, while tree hugging became a worldwide practice of ecological activism.