“cherish the soil as a living entity”

Renowned eco-feminist Vandana Shiva reflects on 50 years of activism

Vandana Shiva has been called ‘Gandhi of grain’ and compared to Mother Teresa

In this excerpt from her empowering new memoir, Terra Viva, environmental activist Vandana Shiva recounts her childhood – and argues for soil, not oil

Humus is the Latin word for soil; it is also the root of ‘human’. Caring for the earth is an ethical and ecological duty.

Vandana Shiva

I was born in the Doon Valley in 1952, to a father who had become a forest conservator after leaving the army and a mother who had become a farmer after leaving a senior government job in education.

My parents had met during the war, and when my father proposed to my mother she agreed to marry him if he eventually left the army and if she could continue to work. They also decided to give up their caste name as part of the anti-caste movement, which was a very significant part of our independence struggle, and adopted the caste-neutral Shiva. Mother was posted in what became Pakistan after the tragic partition of India in 1947; she survived miraculously, but she had become a refugee. Refugees of Partition were rehabilitated – shopkeepers got shops, employees got jobs, farmers got land. Instead of taking up a government job equivalent to what she had lost, my mother decided to get rehabilitated as a farmer.

Book giveaway

This is an extract from Vandana Shiva’s new book, Terra Viva: My Life In A Biodiversity Of Movements (Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2022), republished with permission. Follow @worldoftopia to win a copy.

I was born five years after Partition, and my childhood was shaped by the forests in the Himalaya where my father was posted and by my mother’s farm in the foothills. Nature was my first inspiration – and the study of nature my first passion – which is how I ended up becoming a physicist.

My most intimate memories of childhood are the sights and sounds, tastes and smells of the Himalayan forests where I grew up; they became my physical and intellectual cradle. I feel a deep umbilical connection to forests of rhododendron, oak and deodar, and to mountain streams. We lived in Chakratav when I was born and later moved to Nainital, Pithoragarh, Tehri, Uttarkashi and Dehradun, which my parents decided to make their home. Today, these Himalayan regions are an independent state called Uttarakhand (the mountain state). The British had annexed several Himalayan districts in 1815, mainly to exploit their forest wealth. 

My most intimate memories of childhood are the sights and sounds, tastes and smells of the Himalayan forests where I grew up.

There were very few roads in the Himalaya when I was growing up, so most of our journeys took place on foot or on horseback. As a forest conservationist, my father’s job was to inspect and manage forests and regenerate them. During all our vacations we joined him on his tours. Our ‘rations’ would travel in huge boxes laden on mules, and there would always be another box full of books. We lived like nomads, far away from cities, amidst the wealth of the forest.

This experience has clearly influenced my thinking about wealth and poverty; for me, the forests of my childhood were the source of abundance and beauty, diversity and peace. With my sister, I would collect ferns to turn into works of art; wildflowers were our pearls and diamonds. That is why when the forests started to disappear, I joined the Chipko movement to protect them.

The women of the Chipko movement pledged themselves to protect their forests and were the real custodians of biodiversity-related knowledge 

Staying Alive: Climate Chaos/Climate Action

The climate crisis is the result of a two-century error made by the colonising industrial world in making production, trade and consumption dependent on fossil fuels. Nature created coal and oil by fossilising the living carbon of plants and other organisms over 600 million years. She placed it underground for us to leave it there. Instead, we hurtled towards destroying the earth, her forests and farms, soil and water, climate systems and biodiversity, chasing the illusion that we were on the road to progress.

Over the last century, beginning with the global monopoly of Standard Oil, the world was forced into dependence on it, a dependence that was defined as ‘development’. Climate Action represents a de-addiction from fossil fuels. Fossil fuel addiction has created a mechanistic way of thinking that I call a ‘fossilised’ mindset, an industrial mode of production for meeting our daily needs. We eat oil. We drink oil. We breathe oil. The fossil fuel age has created government policies and economic strategies which privilege oil and oil-based systems, punishing soil and soil-based local, living economies.

Sign up for A WORLD OF GOOD

Get TOPIA in your inbox – new features fortnightly

Fossil fuel-based industrialism displaces and destroys biodiversity and contributes to climate change. Climate disruption intensifies droughts, floods and cyclones. Extreme events have a more disastrous impact when the cushion of biodiversity has been destroyed.

Industrial corporate agriculture, based on fossil fuel, chemical-intensive agricultural production, and the globalised corporate industrial food systems based on long distance transport and food miles; energy-intensive ultra processing, which is responsible for the chronic disease epidemic; and packaging with plastic and aluminium is responsible for nearly 50 per cent of all greenhouse gases emitted. Industrial agricultural production contributes 11-15 per cent of greenhouse gases; land use change and deforestation by agribusiness to grow GMO soya in the Amazon, and destroying the tropical rainforests to grow palm oil in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Congo, and Paraguay is responsible for 15-20 per cent; and food waste contributes 2-4 per cent to climate-related problems and to hunger.

A linear extractive agriculture system is rupturing ecological processes and planetary boundaries, and violating human rights. The three boundaries at which we have already crossed safe limits are biodiversity integrity; genetic diversity; and the biochemical nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. All three are rooted in the chemical-intensive, fossil fuel-intensive model of agriculture. The erosion of genetic diversity and the transgression of the nitrogen boundary have crossed catastrophic levels.

Seventy-five per cent of the planetary destruction of soil, water, and biodiversity emanates from industrial agriculture which also contributes 75 per cent of food-related chronic diseases. The annual cost of chronic diseases is now in the trillions. Not only is the climate system being disrupted, biodiversity is disappearing. We could call the fossil fuel age an age of both climate disasters and species extinction: over 200 species are disappearing daily because of the assault by toxins on them.

Chemical agriculture does not return organic matter and fertility to the soil; it demands more water and destroys the soil’s water-holding capacity. The first step to take in climate action is to change our way of thinking – from separation from the earth to non-separability, and from a dead earth paradigm to a living planet paradigm. In the process, we will activate the power to act, to co-create and co-produce with the earth, instead of being at war with her. We will move from a paradigm and economic system that creates scarcity to a paradigm and economic system that creates abundance and well-being for all humans and all species. The transition to regenerative organic agriculture is the single biggest climate action we can take in our communities and through our governments. It is capable of removing 100 per cent of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, while also regenerating biodiversity, soil and water, and cultivating healthy and nutritious food. 

Biodiversity-intensive, fossil fuel-free and poisonfree agriculture produces more nutrition per acre while rejuvenating the planet. By intensifying biodiversity and following nature’s law of return we can regenerate the soil-food web which is the source of recycling nutrients, including those nutrient cycles that connect soils and plants to the atmosphere. Since everything is interconnected and we are part of the earth, when we care for the earth, we also care for human well-being. It is the path to ‘Zero Hunger’ in times of climate change.

What governments need to do is to stop promoting the oil-based paradigm in schools and universities, and promote an earth-centred, soil-based way of thinking; they need to stop subsidising fossil fuels and industrial agriculture, and begin supporting communities that make a transition to local, ecological, biodiverse, poison-free and fossil fuel-free food and farming systems. Earth care is climate action.

Earth care is climate action.

Humus is the Latin word for soil; it is also the root of ‘human’. Caring for the earth is an ethical and ecological duty. Through earthcare, we sow the seeds of our future, and of what I have called earth democracy. We also take action to avoid the certainty of climate catastrophe.

The year 2015 was the UN International Year of Soils. It was the year we witnessed multiple crises – desertification of the land, extreme drought due to climate change, and a massive displacement of people from their homes. We wanted to connect the degradation of the soil; the plight of refugees who were dying as their boats sank in the Mediterranean; and increasing conflicts like the one in Syria, which has become a war without end; as well as conflicts around the shrinking Lake Chad in Africa. I suggested to the ICFFA to organise a meeting that would connect the dots. I remember, while travelling in the train from Rome to Florence with my colleagues, Caroline Lockhart and Maria Grazia Mammuccini, I asked them for the Latin word for living earth and living soil. Terra viva, they said. The title of our Manifesto became Terra Viva: Our Soil, Our Commons, Our Future, and it was released at the Milan Food Expo in June 2015.

The same year we also undertook a soil pilgrimage in India that started at Gandhi’s mud hut in Sevagram and ended at Albert Howard’s laboratory in Indore. His book An Agricultural Testament, based on Indian farmers’ indigenous knowledge, is the basis of the contemporary organic movement. Others who joined me in our soil pilgrimage were André Leu, president of IFOAM; Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association; and 80-year-old Will Allen, one of the pioneers of the organic movement in the US.

In September 2015, I marched for the climate in New York with Bernie Sanders, Bobby Kennedy, Jr., and Bill McKibben. Those of us working on organic agriculture, biodiversity conservation and soil regeneration met in Costa Rica on Tom Newmark’s farm, Finca Luna Nueva, with others concerned about finding regenerative solutions to climate change. Regeneration International was launched with Hans Herren, chair of the UN International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. André Leu and Ronnie Cummins were on the founding steering committee, which soon expanded to include Precious Phiri from the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, Ercilia Sahores from Via Organica in Mexico, Renate Künast from the German Green Party, John Liu, the China-based filmmaker, and Tom Newmark and Larry Kopald from Carbon Underground. The same movements were present at the Paris Climate Change Conference to demonstrate that the culture of soil and earth care has the potential to find the answers to problems that the culture of oil has created. We joined hands to write a new pact for the earth.

Our survival demands that we make this new pact with the earth, and between diverse peoples, based on a new vision of planetary citizenship. A pact based on reciprocity, caring and respect, on taking and giving back, on sharing the resources of the world equitably among all living species. It begins by seeing and cherishing the soil as a living entity, a terra viva, whose survival is essential to our own.

The future will be cultivated from the soil and grow out of the land, not from the skewed global market of fictitious finance, corporate personhood, and consumerism. An earlier ecocentrism has given way to anthropocentrism which is now giving way to corporate-centrism. We need to move away from this corporocentric worldview to one centred on our earth family. Wherever we are on this planet, in all our diversity, the soil is our bedrock. We must, as earth citizens, reclaim it from corporate manipulation and greed, and care for it, together, in recognition of our common humanity and common responsibility.

Our survival demands that we make this
new pact with the earth.

Vandana Shiva

What’s so good about this?

We are one earth family on one planet, healthy in our diversity and interconnectedness. As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” And as Jane Goodall writes: “All of us who care about the future of Planet Earth must be grateful to Vandana Shiva.”

Follow TOPIA for good book giveaways

Meet the writer

For over four decades Vandana Shiva has vociferously advocated for diversity, indigenous knowledge, localization and Earth democracy; she has been at the forefront of global movement building, seed saving, food sovereignty and connecting the dots between the destruction of nature, the polarization of societies and indiscriminate corporate greed. 

In Terra Viva (Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2022), she recounts her childhood in post partition India; the influence of parents who saw no difference in the education of boys and girls at a time when this was not the norm; and her personal pursuit of a unique intellectual path, marrying quantum physics with science, technology and environmental policy.

Sign up for

A World of Good

Subscribe to our free fortnightly newsletter for a kaleidoscopic look at culture, nature and positive impact