With a number of courses focused on sustainability pertaining to food issues as well as an entire semester-long learning-living community devoted to fostering a deeper understanding of food and farming, Vassar has recently proven itself as a hub of discourse about how our food choices affect the world community and environment. It is only fitting, then, that a number of sustainability and social justice-related student groups have united to bring internationally recognized environmental and feminist activist Doctor Vandana Shiva to the Vassar campus. The College Committee on Sustainability, Multidisciplinary Living and Learning Community on Food and Agriculture, Feminist Alliance, Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics, South Asian Students Alliance, Slow Food, and a handful of other organizations have united to host Shiva on March 6. The day’s events for her visit include a tour of the Poughkeepsie Farm, a workshop on community action, a roundtable discussion with students from the Culinary Institute of America, an open conversation over refreshments, and finally a lecture at 5 p.m. in the Villard Room, entitled “Making Peace with the Earth: Shifting to Feminist Economics, Politics, and Culture.”
Born in 1952 in Uttarakhand, India, Shiva’s passion for ecological sustainability began in the 1970s, when she joined a group of Himalayan women as part of the non-violent Chipko movement, which sought to protect soon-to-be-felled trees. Linking the earth, women, ecology, and the provisioning of food, water, and energy for the poor, the Chipko movement largely influenced the development of Shiva’s ecofeminist philosophy. Her ideology combines women’s rights, environmental rights, and the rights of developing countries, all of which led Shiva to organize the movement “Diverse Women for Diversity,” which seeks to strengthen women’s grassroots movements and provide women with a common international platform, in part through the India-based National Alliance of Women’s Food Rights.Shiva also founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology (RFSTE) to provide direction and support for environmental activism focusing on the privatization of natural resources, as well as understanding soil and insect biodiversity. From the RFSTE sprang Navdanya—an organization committed to preserving biodiversity through its own seed-saving bank and its creation of awareness on the hazards of genetic engineering. So far, Navdanya has successfully conserved over 5,000 crop varieties and has served as a powerful advocate on behalf of small-scale, non-violent farming practices.
One of her most prominent focuses is seed-saving. In Scott London’s blog he quoted her stating, “Every farmer must go to the seed industry every year to buy their seed and pay an 80 percent royalty to a corporation.” She continued to say, “That kind of dependency basically leads to increased poverty and increased ecological destruction.”
In honor of these efforts, Shiva has received nearly 20 distinguished awards from the international community, including the 1993 Right to Livelihood Award ,also known as the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize. She currently chairs the Commission on the Future of Food in Tuscany, Italy and serves as a member of the Scientific Committee advising Spanish President Zapatero.
Playing a key role in helping Vassar’s student organizations bring Vandana Shiva to campus, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and MLLC Director Candice Lowe-Swift wanted to host Shiva.
Swift said, “Our hope [in bringing Dr. Shiva to Vassar was to] provide students with models for how different fields of knowledge are interdependent, and how linking academic and applied work can be useful for tackling some of the most important issues facing our society and the world today.”
Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies Director Pinar Batur also eagerly awaits Shiva’s visit, and has included Dr. Shiva’s writings in her syllabi since Fall 2001, when Shiva first visited Vassar. Batur said, “I can pick up one of her books—and sometimes the same book that I have read before—and find a fresh insight that will inspire me. Not asking questions, not seeking an alternative paradigm for the future, and not engaging in activism now will allow the violence of exploitative systems to survive. Shiva symbolizes this true activist spirit and conviction.”
International Studies major and Local Foods Intern for the College Committee on Sustainability (CCS) Tamsin Chen ’15 has also worked enthusiastically to ensure the success of Shiva’s visit to Vassar. Chen has helped to research quotes for the banners advertising Shiva’s visit, plan film screenings and cooking demonstrations to generate campus hype about the sustainable food movement, and invite organizations from the broader Poughkeepsie community to join Vassar in welcoming Shiva.
She added, “She speaks for the people and parts of the planet whose voices are too often, and systematically, kept unheard.”
Chen derives inspiration from Shiva’s work in her position as the Local Food Intern of CCS and hopes to incorporate aspects of Shiva’s advocacy into the committee’s actions.
She said, “As the local foods intern, I would like to investigate further the processed foods that we currently consume on our campus. It is important to me to know the backstories of what we eat, and whether we are inadvertently supporting agricultural and manufacturing practices that are oppressive to women, the environment, and developing countries. We are a far cry from oppression-free consumption in our tangled food system, but it is still an ideal I believe is worth striving for.”
In London’s article, Shiva affirmed her devotion to these ideals.
She said, “When I find too many puzzles about the way explanations are given about why there is inequality — why people who work the hardest in the world end up being the poorest — I can’t just sit back and not try to understand why the gaps between people are increasing, or why there are so many homeless and hungry people in the world. To me, all these issues — of justice, of ecology, of a scientific inquiry into nature through physics — come from the same source. In a sense, I haven’t really moved; I’ve travelled the same road.”