It was 1995 when Vandana Shiva decided to build the Bija Vidyapeeth (School of the Seed), which in time has become the University of the Earth. The laying of the foundation stone took place in an old eucalyptus orchard in the Doon Valley in Utterkahand, a state in northern India known for being crisscrossed by the Himalayas, for Hindu pilgrimages and for the Ashram that hosted the Beatles in 1968.
No one believed that the young Indian activist, who was combating multinational corporations and intensive land exploitation, would succeed in turning that land into a thriving 47-acre organic farm, a community seed bank and a biodiversity research centre.
Vandana Shiva’s voice has Pope Francis’ ear, and who involved her in the preparation of Laudato Si’, the 2015 encyclical “on the care of the common home”, and in many subsequent initiatives.
Her work on seed banks started with the conviction that it is women who will save the world. “Because”, as she told Women Church World, “they are already doing it. We are the seed keepers, guardians of the seeds, no power on Earth can stop us from working on the Earth and for the Earth. We strive to create a new system based on care and sharing, just as the encyclical indicates”. It is women who have the closest relationship with nature and who protect it through regenerative agriculture, agro-ecology, whose principles revolve around the beneficial relationships between plants, animals, micro-organisms and farmers; who interact with each other and with the environment.
The farm, which is located in the shadow of the Himalayas, is the heart of the Navdanya project. Vandana Shiva launched the project in 1987 on the basis of an ancient Indian tradition, which is the creation of seed banks, today GMO Free, and to connect various rural farming communities. “Navdanya (Nine Seeds) is a women-based organisation to defend food sovereignty, seed sovereignty and smallholder farmers”, say the women of the Doon Valley. Today, it is a network of seed holders and organic producers spread across 22 states in India, and has helped set up 122 seed banks across the Country, trained over 900,000 farmers in sustainable agriculture, and helped create the largest fair trade network in the Country. Navdanya promotes a culture of food for health, based on ecological responsibility and economic fairness. On the defence, for example, of Indian farmers “trapped by genetically modified cotton. In the villages where we have worked to save local seeds and help farmers return to organic farming”, Vandana Shiva said, “there has been a 60 per cent drop in GMOs”.
The seed bank on the Navdanya farm has saved 4,000 varieties of native rice, 2,200 varieties of millet, pseudo-cereals, pulses, oilseeds and vegetables, 205 varieties of wheat and 151 species of trees.
With increasing natural disasters in India due to climate change, Navdanya started to conserve climate-resistant seed varieties through a programme called Seeds of Hope. Since 1998, farmers who have experienced floods or droughts have been able to cope by planting seeds resistant to salt and excess or lack of water.
“Another key element”, the activists explain, “are the Gardens of Hope, which ensure a continuous supply of food and local plants for the families. Their growth has enabled the women to feed and sustain their families and local communities even during the Covid pandemic”. In addition, last year, 1,735 new women became involved in the programme and more than 4,000 gardens were created throughout India.
Disasters caused by climate change have affected Navdanya’s programmes and activities too. In May 2021, Cyclone Yaas caused devastating floods in the Bay of Bengal, where the association has been working with farmers in the coastal areas of West Bengal and Orissa for two decades. Navdanya’s 56 community seed banks in these two states have saved over 4,500 varieties of rice, vegetables and other crops. Farmers who grew the climate-resistant seeds from the Navdanya seed banks suffered fewer crop losses than farmers growing the commercial GM-based varieties.
Ninety per cent of the gardens in the Garden of Hope programme were also damaged or destroyed by weather events, and crops were lost. Nevertheless, the women farmers involved in the programme have borrowed and shared seeds of climate-resistant vegetables and medicinal plants and planted a “new season” of resilient gardens with each other.
Speaking at a meeting with the Italian Buddhist Union in Rome last June, Vandana Shiva reiterated her battle against soil exploitation, the wiping out of biodiversity, and the dominance of GM crops. “It has taken a lot of violence to silence the knowledge of living. Food connects us all and that is why we must stop considering farmers as mere producers. Agriculture is care for the earth and farmers are its caretakers”.
by Federica Re David