Global Brahmanism: The Meaning of the WTO Protests

By Rebecca Gordon Aug 25, 2000

Dr. Vandana Shiva believes globalization and free trade are new forms of colonialism. She talks to Rebecca Gordon and Bob Wing on the anti-WTO protests, and the future of globalization.

Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecofeminist, writer, and leader in the international movements against corporate globalization and to preserve and extend indigenous agricultural and environmental knowledge. As a scholar, Dr. Shiva has published hundreds of articles and books on these issues, most recently Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply;. As an organizer, she has founded and worked with many groups. In 1991, for example, she founded Navdanya, a farmers organization that safeguards native Indian seeds.

As a follow-up to our coverage of the protests at the November 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization and as a contribution to expected actions at the meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington D.C. in April 2000, ColorLines sought out Dr. Shiva to hear her views on how the globalized economy affects people of color around the world.

CL: You began your academic career in the very theoretical science of small particle physics and then switched to the kind of science that affects people’s lives on a daily basis. Was it a gradual process or a quantum leap?

VS: It was many quantum leaps. One big shift for me was getting involved in the grassroots ecological movement in my region, which was a movement to defend the Himalayan forest called "Chipkhu." This was a movement of women coming out in the thousands to stop logging way back in the early 1970s, before saving trees became popular. It was a spontaneous uprising, shaped by women, led by women.

CL: As you probably know, the mainstream press in the U.S. treats globalization as the golden door to a future of prosperity for everyone. How do you see it?

VS: There’s enough of a physicist in me to see future systems evolving out of what we experience in the present. But the present of globalization is to disenfranchise the large majority of people, to rob them of their democratic rights to decision-making, by replacing even what little "fig leaf democracy" we have with corporate totalitarianism.

CL: Do you mean, for example, that the WTO makes it impossible for countries to erect tariff barriers to prevent imports from threatening local industries?

VS: The very language "create tariff barriers" sounds as if something nasty were being done. The entire language of free trade has been shaped by changing the meaning of basic concepts that are understandable by ordinary people, couching them in a new language that makes some things that are good from the perspective of people look like nasty things. They are only nasty from the perspective of the market.

Take "protection." Protecting your community, making sure that your children have enough food; ensuring that your small farmers are not robbed of their livelihood; ensuring that your old growth forests are protected, your rivers are protected, your soils are protected, your biodiversity is protected. That is not just legitimate protection; it is obligation. It is absolutely essential that we protect our families, our communities, our environment, our livelihoods.

But that "protection"–which comes from a political and social imperative and I would even go so far as to say moral imperative–has been redefined by the corporate culture as an economic category called "protectionism," which is to be opposed and dismantled. Protection is not protectionism, because protection cannot be reduced to a phenomenon of the market place.

CL: The giant agricultural multinationals have taken a lot of heat for creating genetically modified "food." One example is "Roundup-Ready" soy, which can withstand massive doses of pesticides. Now they’re talking about introducing a wonderful new creation, "golden rice," which they claim will add vitamin A to people’s diets. What’s wrong with this new kind of rice?

VS: I’ve had too much experience with the "miracles" that come out of the Rockefeller Foundation. Let me give you just a few reasons why the golden rice will not be a miracle but a disaster.

The Rockefeller Foundation financed the "Green Revolution" in the 1960s, which shifted agriculture worldwide from sustainable, organic bases to totally non-sustainable chemical farming. It did not produce more food; it displaced more peasants. It bonded Third World countries into permanent debt. India had a three-fold leap in borrowing from the World Bank, just for loans related to chemical agriculture in the 1960s. The later cycles of debt and structural adjustment are all hooked to that recipe of addiction to agri-chemicals through World Bank and Rockefeller financing.

Each year of the Green Revolution, they would introduce one rice variety that would last for one or two years, until it collapsed because of a disease outbreak. And then they would introduce a new monoculture. Collapsing monocultures are not diversity! But they are a wonderful treadmill that the big corporations would like us to get on. First they sold us chemicals. Then they wanted to sell us seeds that would require the chemicals. That is why they introduced genetic engineering. And that is why they created herbicide-resistant varieties like "Roundup-Ready" soy.

The golden rice is part of that same package. My response to the Rockefeller Foundation is: "Why don’t you talk about the organic sources of vitamin A that are in the hands of women in the Third World–the 200 varieties of greens that we grow in our fields, the hundreds of wild herbs we collect for vitamin A sources? Just go to the African bush; just because they don’t have vitamin A tablets doesn’t mean they don’t have vitamin A. Just look at nature’s biodiversity and count the sources of vitamin A. And if you can’t do it, we’ll hold grassroots peasant women’s literacy classes for you!"

If they push the golden rice the way they pushed the Green Revolution where I live, then every field in the world will be full of golden rice! And all the subsidies from the Rockefeller Foundation, and US AID, and the World Bank will wipe out our millet, will wipe out our greens, and destroy vitamin A sources while pretending to create them.

CL: Can you talk a little bit about how globalization effects people of color and people in the Third World?

VS: Consider how, through patenting, indigenous knowledge is being pirated in the name of protecting knowledge and preventing piracy. The knowledge of our ancestors, of our peasants about seeds is being claimed as an invention of U.S. corporations and U.S. scientists and patented by them. The only reason something like that can work is because underlying it all is a racist framework that says the knowledge of the Third World and the knowledge of people of color is not knowledge. When that knowledge is taken by white men who have capital, suddenly creativity begins. Seeds such as the Basmati seed, the aromatic rice from India, which we have grown for centuries right in my valley, are being claimed as a novel invention by RiceTec. The corporations are stealing the last resources of the poor, their very seeds.

Biopiracy functions under a racist assumption–exactly as when Europeans colonized the rest of the world 500 years ago. They could actually define all land that didn’t contain white Europeans as "empty land." What is happening repeatedly is that, just as in the earlier period of colonization, people’s knowledge creation and their wealth creation is being negated, even while their knowledge and their wealth is taken over.

Now, who creates wealth? In my view, it’s the workers who create wealth. It’s women working away in the factories in the U.S. who create wealth; women peasants in India create wealth. But who is creating wealth in the racist worldview? The corporations who steal from us and those young white fellows on Wall Street who speculate on currencies.

Patents are a replay of colonialism, which is now called globalization and free trade. The intellectual property rights laws of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) set the stage for foreign corporations to gain a total monopoly control of our food production by displacing traditional seed varieties with patented hybrids.

CL: Here in the United States, progressives were deeply encouraged to see the outpouring of well-organized and creative opposition to the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle. What do you think was accomplished there?

VS: I think two things were accomplished there. The most important thing was that even while the big corporations and the powerful institutions engineer globalization, they keep talking about it as a natural phenomenon. They even say as much–as the sun rises in the morning, globalization is bound to happen. It’s an inevitable, natural phenomenon. The exercise of power by ordinary citizens in Seattle to block that round of talks informed the whole world that there’s nothing inevitable or natural about it. The WTO is a political project where powerful people get together. If people get together, if we organize enough, we can stall that project.

The second thing that was achieved in Seattle was really cross-issue, cross-sector organizing, and organizing across borders. The early part of this past century was the age of revolutions. We had grand revolutions. All those revolutions have in a way faded out, and everything they built is now already in ruins. But the last 50 years of citizen activism was really issue-based activism. Women worked on women’s issues, environmentalists worked on environmental issues, workers worked on workers’ rights. You had a total division. There was no synergy building up, even though everyone was acting. It wasn’t adding up to a political challenge.

Each separate issue-based movement was having to negotiate separately, from its narrow ground, with highly coordinated and powerful institutions on the other side, which were coordinating how they handled labor, how they handled the environment, how they handled the South, the poor, and the women. They had a very well worked-out scheme, and we were all fragmented.

In Seattle we got together. And even if there were only a handful of Third World peasants, and even if Third World women were only there in small numbers, the issues were shaped by them.

CL: How did that coalescence come about?

VS: Because of at least a decade of work before. There was a lot of groundwork, fed by three major movements: First, the movement of the Third World against structural adjustment, the World Bank, and IMF. The second group is the movements confronting free trade, GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), and the WTO. The third is issue-based movements that had already started to build alliances to deal with structural adjustment and free trade.

In Seattle, the puzzle all started to come together. We actually saw the emergence of a citizen-based alternative paradigm of how we need to organize the economy, how we need to govern markets, what should be the powers of citizens, what should be the powers of governments, and what limits should be placed on corporate greed.

CL: And a sense of how that coalescence could be transformed into enforceable policies?

VS: Absolutely. And that is precisely what the follow-up work after Seattle has become. For example, in India we are working to put together a solidarity convention, bringing together every movement in this country–every trade union in this country, every farmers group, the women’s groups, the environmental groups, the groups that work with children, the groups that work on peace. That has partly been possible because of Seattle, because people are able to refer back to a watershed and say, "Oh, yes, it’s doable." 

Rebecca Gordon is senior research associate at the Applied Research Center in Oakland. Bob Wing is editor of ColorLines.