Characters

  1. Vandana Shiva: She started her ecology movement by volunteering with the famous Chipko movement. She has been at the forefront of the fight against the imposition of genetically modified seeds on Indian farmers by global conglomerates.
  2. Bachin Devi: The woman who led the Chipko Movement.
  3. Cormac Cullinan: a practising environmental attorney and author based in South Africa.
  4. Carolyn Merchant: an environmental historian interested in the relationships between humanity and nature
  5. Francis Bacon: Popularized the idea that the Earth can serve as a source of raw materials for scientific experiments.
  6. Rabindranath Tagore: A great nature poet, he expresses a deep love for Nature in his writings.

Introduction

The lesson is based on two articles written by Vandana Shiva. The first part of the lesson titled, ‘Everything I need to know I learned in the forest’ was published in the winter issue of ‘Yes!’ magazine 2012. The title of the winter issue was ‘What Would Nature Do?’ The second part titled ‘Right of Nature on the Global Stage’, was adopted by the author from her own article ‘Forest and Freedom’, which was published in the May-June 2011 edition of ‘Resurgence Magazine’.

The two parts are thematically interlinked and supplement each other. In the first part, the author tells the reader how she learned the basic principles of environmentalism from the uneducated women of Garhwal, Himalaya and how she became a proactive environmentalist. In the second part, she presents a historical account of how the concept of Earth as a living entity got transformed to Earth as dead matter and its consequences.

Summary

Vandana’s beginning of her journey as an activist

The essay begins with the writer narrating how she learned the basic principles of ecology. She learned the concept of ecology in the forests of the Himalayas because her father was a forest conservator. Thus, whatever she knows about ecology was learned from the Himalayan forests and ecosystems. Incidentally, her mother who was brought up in Lahore (which became Pakistan later) settled in India after partition and became a farmer.

She then narrates the history of the Chipko movement. It was a non-violent response to the large-scale deforestation that was taking place in the Himalayan region in the 1970s. Vandana Shiva describes that her involvement in the contemporary ecology movement began with the Chipko movement. During that period, the local women from the Garhwal Himalaya had come out to shield the forests by protesting against the ruthless cutting down of trees on a large scale for logging.

This resulted in landslides and floods, scarcity of water, fodder, and fuel. Women had become the victims because they were in charge of fulfilling the daily requirements for cooking, washing, and other household chores. They had to walk long distances for collecting water and firewood which was a heavy burden.

The local women’s unique way of revolting against deforestation 

The women were aware that the forests were the real source of springs and streams, food for their cattle, and fuel for their stove. Therefore, the women decided to hug the trees, and the loggers would have to kill them before killing the trees. They appealed to the loggers not to cut them and to keep those trees alive.

In 1973 Vandana went to the Himalayas to visit her favorite forests and swim in her favorite stream to see these spots before leaving for Canada to do her Ph.D., but the forests were not there and the stream had become a trickle. It was then she decided to become a volunteer for the Chipko movement. She spent every vacation doing padayatra (walking pilgrimages), documenting the deforestation, the work of the forest activists, and spreading the message of Chipko.

The Unsung hero that led the Chipko movement

Next, the author narrates the Chipko action that took place in the Himalayan village of Adwani in 1977. She tells about a village woman named Bachni Devi who led the movement and fought against her husband who had obtained a contract to cut trees. When the logging officials arrived at the forest, the women held up lighted lanterns even when it was broad daylight.

The logger mocked them saying that they were foolish women and did not know the value of the forest. He added that the forests produced resin and timber which would be very profitable. The women sang back in chorus replying that the forests bore soils, water, and pure air and also sustained the Earth and all that she bears.

In the next section titled ‘Beyond Monocultures’, Vandana Shiva tells the readers that she learned about biodiversity and biodiversity-based living economies, from the Chipko movement. Further, she remarks that we fail to understand biodiversity and its many functions which is the root cause of the impoverishment of nature and culture.

Then she says that the lessons she learned about diversity in the Himalayan forests she transferred to the protection of bio-diversity on her farms. She started saving seeds from farmers’ fields and incidentally realized that they needed a farm for demonstration and training. This led to the establishment of Navdanya Farm.

Vandana’s success in bio-diversity farming

She declares that now they conserve and grow 630 varieties of rice, 150 varieties of wheat, and hundreds of other species. She proudly says that they practice and promote a bio-diversity-intensive form of farming that produces more food and nutrition per acre. Finally, she observes that the conservation of biodiversity is, therefore, the answer to the food and nutrition crisis being faced in our country.

The Navdanya organization helps farmers make a transition from fossil-fuel and chemical-based monocultures to bio-diverse ecological systems nourished by the sun and the soil. She concludes by saying that bio-diversity has been her teacher of abundance and freedom, of co-operation and mutual giving.

The Rights of Nature according to the UN

The second part of the lesson begins with the title ‘Rights of Nature on the Global Stage’. She says that Ecuador has recognized the ‘Rights of Nature’ in its Constitution and calls it a significant step. As a follow-up, the United Nations General Assembly organized a conference on harmony with nature as part of Earth Day celebrations in April 2011. She makes a reference to the report of the UN Secretary-General titled ‘Harmony with Nature’, which was issued in combination with the conference. The report highlighted the importance of reconnecting with nature.

Vandana Shiva puts forward that separatism is at the root of disharmony with nature and violence against nature and people. The author supports her statement by citing the opinion of Cormac Cullinan, a prominent South African environmentalist. According to him, “apartheid means separateness”. The author says that the whole world joined the anti-apartheid movement in order to end the violent separation of people on the basis of color. Now that apartheid in South Africa has been put behind us, we need to overcome the wider and deeper apartheid – an eco-apartheid based on the illusion of separateness of humans from nature in our minds and lives.

The idea of separateness

The author makes an attempt to trace the origin of the idea of separateness. The author recalls our beliefs about the Earth in the pre-industrial era when ‘Man’ believed that living beings were an inseparable part of nature. But, later with the advent of scientific thinking man came under the illusion that the living Earth was the dead matter and there was no connection between the living Earth and the other living creatures.

Vandana Shiva remarks that it was at this moment in history that the war against the Earth began. She observes that the seeds of separateness were sown when the living Earth was considered as a dead matter to facilitate the industrial revolution.

She adds here that monocultures replaced diversity; ‘raw materials’ and ‘dead matter’ replaced vibrant earth. The Earth came to be termed as Terra Nullius, which means ’empty land’, ready for occupation regardless of the fact that the Mother Earth (Terra Madre) was home to tens of thousands of indigenous peoples (people of different races, tribes, ethnicities).

Domination of earth by scientific methods

Vandana Shiva next mentions Carolyn Merchant, a philosopher, and historian, in her support and says that “this shift of perspective from nature as a living, nurturing mother to inert, dead and manipulable matter” was well suited to the activities that led to capitalism. Furthermore, Vandana Shiva says that the images of domination of the Earth by scientific methods, created by Francis Bacon and other leaders of the scientific revolution replaced the idea that the Earth nurtures life/living beings.

They also successfully removed a cultural constraint on the exploitation of nature. Until then, people did not dare to “readily slay a mother, dig into her entrails for gold, or mutilate her body” as observed by Merchant.

It is to be inferred here that once Francis Bacon popularized the idea that the Earth can serve as a source of raw materials for scientific experiments, many new scientific discoveries and inventions were made which later led to the exploitation of iron, gold, copper, wood, and metals from the earth and heralded the industrial revolution, modernization, growth of cities, increase in the number of rich people and urban culture, displacing other cultures.

What Nature teaches mankind

In the next section titled ‘What Nature Teaches’, Vandana Shiva tells the reader what we as humans must do. She says that we are facing multiple crises and hence we need to move away from the paradigm of nature as dead matter and move towards an ecological paradigm. Vandana Shiva tells us that to understand what an ecological paradigm means; we need to go to ‘nature’ herself and nature is the best teacher.

Vandana Shiva presents a model of the Earth University which she says is located at ‘Navdanya’, a biodiversity farm. She says that Earth University teaches Earth democracy. The concept of Earth Democracy symbolizes “freedom for all species to evolve within the web of life”. It also refers to the freedom and responsibilities of humans as members of the Earth family, to recognize, protect and respect the rights of other species.

Vandana Shiva explains that the idea of ‘Earth Democracy’ is a shift from anthropocentrism to eco-centrism. Anthropocentrism is a school of thought which argues that humans are the central element of the universe. Now we need to accept that ‘ecosystems’ are the main elements of the universe and not Man, and the Earth nurtures diverse eco-systems. It also means that it is man’s responsibility to preserve these ecosystems. Since we all depend on the Earth for our survival, Earth democracy gives every human being right to food and water, to freedom from hunger and thirst.

The poetry of the Forest

The writer highlights the work and how Rabindranath Tagore was an inspiration to turn to nature and forest in freedom. Tagore started a learning centre in Shanti Niketan in West Bengal as a forest school which became a university in 1921 in his essay “Tapovan” he mentions the importance of nature and forest and how forest helps the society.

In Tagore’s writings the forest was not just the source of knowledge but the source of beauty and joy, of art and aesthetics, of harmony and perfection.  Tagore also mentions various other ways that nature teaches the human society to learn to live in humanity and it is the forest that can show us the way beyond conflict.

Conclusion

The essay by Vandana Shiva offers insight, awareness about nature and pleads for the integration of humans with nature. Vandana Shiva is an internationally renowned activist for biodiversity and against corporate globalization. In the essay “Everything I need to know I learned in the forest” she reveals to the readers about her early lessons in environmentalism.

She further tells us how she learnt all the major ideals of a good life from the forests such as diversity, freedom and co-existence. Vandana Shiva’s ecological journey started in the forests of the Himalaya. Her involvement in the contemporary ecology movement began with “Chipko”.