Defending biodiversity, seed freedom and food sovereigntyFarida Akhter || Sunday 27 August 2023 ||
On the occasion of International Environment Day, on June 5, Diverse Women for Diversity launched the Ecofeminist Manifesto, marking a significant event in the history of feminism. With the participation of over 150 women from all different continents, the 58-page ‘Ecofeminist Manifesto’ is titled “Making Peace with the Earth: Through Diversity, Mutuality, Non-Violence, and Care’. The document reflects the intensive sharing and interspacing of multiple horizons of knowledge practice and the concrete ground-level work of feminists and ecological practitioners. Conversations and sharing took place at Navdanya Biodiversity Farm, Dehradun, India, from March 2–8, and the launching of the manifesto was held on June 5 in Rome, Italy. Activists, academicians, environmentalists, food ecologists, consumer club cooperatives, media activists, health activists, and, most importantly, practitioners of biodiversity-based farming were present. A magnificent journey from east to west and from north to south, with women activists rooted in their local environments and concrete ecosystems, took place, addressing critical areas of knowledge, science, and politics in the era of globalization and homogenisation of diversity and culture. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to be part of this initiative and participate in the drafting of the Manifesto.
Women worldwide are facing climate disasters and devastation caused by a fossil-fuel-based industrial civilisation propelled by the pathology of consumerism. Corporate aggression over natural and economic resources and the reconfiguration of the state to serve the profiteering goals of a few multinational companies devastate nature and the lives and livelihoods of people everywhere. The neoliberal economy and globalized industrial food production are major challenges that threaten our relationship with nature as well as our agency as free agents; we are now prisoners of the corporate culture.
Nayakrishi Seed Wealth Centre, Tangail.
The Manifesto, as the press statement issued on the occasion of its launch reads, stands as a call to action to world leaders, grassroots movements, and international organizations to shift from a paradigm of greed, extractivism, and separation of humanity from nature towards an economy of care, nurturing the ecosystems we depend on, and repairing the damage that we have so far produced. Industrial agriculture’s inherent reliance on chemical pesticides, fertilisers, fossil fuels, and monocultures has widely been acknowledged as the most pervasive contributors to ecosystem depletion, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emissions.
This initiative is a continuation of the actions of the members of Diverse Women for Diversity since 1996. Threats to cultural and biological diversity due to aggressive globalization have been a problem. After the Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig (June 1996), the DWD was formed in 1997 and led by Dr Vandana Shiva and Dr Maria Mies, along with several European and Western women working in the field of biodiversity at the policy level. Soon DWD connected the grass-roots movements, showing the way to an alternative future for humankind. A theoretical groundwork was already laid in the book ‘Ecofeminism’ (1993), jointly authored by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva. Similar publications made the case for finding a common ground of resistance against the aggression that we all need to fight together. Another book, ‘Subsistence Perspective (1999)’ co-authored by Maria Mies and Veronika Bennhodlt Thomsen is a step forward in giving a new perspective and a powerful critique of the political economy of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and products with the powerful eco-feminist life-affirming notion of care and regeneration of life. They argued as activists that the life-affirming principle against the life-annihilating worldview of the modern, industrial, and capitalist world should be the position of feminists if we indeed intend to fight against the new capitalist-technological and patriarchal world and the web of control over our bodies. They emphasised the importance of recognising and valuing the unpaid labour and contributions of subsistence activities such as household work, caring for family members, and community-based production. These activities have traditionally been devalued and made invisible within capitalist economies, even though they are essential for sustaining life and maintaining social and community relationships.
Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen contend that the dominant capitalist system, with its focus on profit, growth, and market exchange, devalues subsistence and regenerative human activities. The conditions of gender inequalities are deeply rooted here. The dominant perspective of the political economy therefore mainly focused on class and undermined the women’s question. In capitalist patriarchy, women’s questions are not only a class issue but a more fundamental and deeper issue of subsistence, care, and regeneration. They called for a reevaluation of these activities and their integration into economic thinking and policy-making.
My organisation, UBINIG, and I became a member of Diverse Women for Diversity because of our work on the biodiversity-based ecological farmers’ movement. It started in 1992 with thousands of small-scale farmers abandoning chemical-based farming and laboratory seeds. This movement is called Nayakrishi Andolon (New Agricultural Movement). Women are at the forefront of this movement. They felt the poisoning of earth and nature through their sensual understanding of their body’s interaction with air, water, land, and soil. They directly realized the devastating effect of the loss of diversity because of the loss of local seeds. Women have been preserving the seeds of rice and other food crops for hundreds of years. But with the imposition of modern agriculture through the neoliberal policies of the World Bank and other international and bilateral agencies, including the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the small-scale farmers started to gradually lose immensely important local and indigenous varieties; they were provided with laboratory HYV seeds starting with the IR-8 rice variety and later on hybrid seeds, thereby putting the traditional varieties at risk. IR seeds are those coming from the laboratories of the International Rice Research Institute.
Since the beginning in the early 1990s, Nayakrishi farmers have focused on the preservation of traditional variety seeds, regenerating the lost varieties, and preserving them in their households. Nayarishi women’s favourite and powerful slogan is ‘Sisters, keep seeds in your hands’. Now they have a collection of over 2,700 rice varieties and hundreds of other species of vegetables, fruits, lentils, oil seeds, etc. The farmer women regularly exchange and share seeds among themselves to enrich their collections.
In the early nineties of the last century, the Diverse Women for Diversity leaders, including Dr Vandana Shiva, Dr Maria Mies, Dr Claudia von derhoff and others have visited and interacted with the Nayakrishi farmers, which is reflected in many of their writings. Maria wrote and spoke extensively about the experiences of Nayakrishi farmers. Nayakrishi women spoke about the effects they were observing through the application of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides commonly named ‘poison’ that destroyed their lives. Although rice is the major food crop grown by farmers and is the staple food of the population, the farmers did not want it to be grown as a monoculture, which modern agriculture promoted. The loss of rice varieties was due to monoculture practices with few laboratory seeds promoted by the government as a development policy and backed by the interests of fertiliser, pesticide, and agro-machinery corporations. These were destructive not only to nature but also to the social and economic lives of the farmers. Farmers became indebted, gradually lost land, and had to migrate to the cities to work in industries and the informal sector. The influx of rural young girls to work in the readymade garment factories as cheap labor was possible through the destruction of the agrarian economy. Young males became overseas laborers to work in the Gulf countries. These brought foreign exchange at the cost of destroying agriculture and the rural landscape.
Members of Diverse Women for Diversity in different countries experienced a similar fate in their traditional agriculture. In the drafting of the Manifesto, the issues of renewed attack through the imposition of genetically modified crops were raised by members. Members from Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil raised the issues of pushing GM wheat, GM mustard in India, Bt brinjal in Bangladesh and the Philipines, and Golden Rice all over Asia. All these were done in the name of solving food scarcity.
The Ecofeminist Manifesto rejected the false narratives of GM crops in the name of feeding the world and reducing pesticide use. The Manifesto made it quite evident that governments that are overly swayed by the agricultural lobby penalise efforts to conserve biodiversity, farmers’ rights, and the sacredness of seeds.. In Mexico, when the government chose to protect biodiversity and health by phasing out GM corn and glyphosate, it faced potential litigation by the United States government on behalf of Bayer-Monsanto, but the Mexican government has resisted. Resistance is alive in India, Bangladesh, Europe, and Latin America too; everywhere there are unjust restrictive seed and food laws, and there has been pushback by citizens and movements. The Manifesto declared that ‘in the struggle for seed freedom and food freedom across the world, we must stand resolute and continue to protect our right to safe and healthy food and seeds”.
The central focus of the Ecofeminist Manifesto is biodiversity. However, biodiversity is not just a technical term to mean diversity of species and varieties that have no use in the community or people’s lives. It is a living, reciprocal relationship between humans and nature. Diversity of species and varieties, diversity of ecosystems and habitats, and diversity of knowledge and knowledge practices, including cultural diversity, maintain the dynamics of relations among all entities as part of the whole.
With biodiversity, the knowledge that women possess in diverse cultures and communities and the way they pass it on from one generation to the next through their practices and oral traditions of songs, stories, and other forms are recognised in the manifesto. Diversity is in the farming practices of the communities, and the cultural traditions related to seasons, meteorology, and ecology are strengths of women in maintaining harmony with nature.
In South Asia and other countries, diversity is both cultivated and uncultivated. Food, fiber, and housing materials are selectively cultivated and collected from the natural environment according to the people’s cultural, social, and economic needs. Therefore, uncultivated plants, fruits, fish, and animals are part of the cultivated space and on common land, water bodies, and hills. But these are found only if the ecosystem prevails in harmony with nature.
The Manifesto reminds us that ‘80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is found on Indigenous people’s land. It is time we start listening to women, indigenous people, and small-scale farmers who are protecting their plants and seeds and cooperating with Mother Nature to live in harmony with the Earth. Our food is our life, and we will continue to defend it. We stand for the promotion, protection, and practice of diversity: biological, cultural, economic, political, and knowledge. We will continue to share and reaffirm the commons, the knowledge for living, and the true science of life, all rooted in ecofeminist and indigenous epistemology”.
Destruction of biodiversity and the ecosystem is considered a crime and is known as ecocide. Worldwide, the pesticide, herbicide, and chemical fertilisers industries, as well as intensive monocultures, are responsible for massive ecocide. Human health is at risk with highly processed industrial foods and long supply chains that have poor nutritive properties. Chronic and non-transmittable diseases with negative impacts on society, human health, and collective well-being are increasing.
The Manifesto clearly denounces all industrial and false solutions to food, although the world is being increasingly controlled by surveillance capitalism and the financialisation of life forms. The DWD does not accept any form of gene editing or genetic engineering in crops or animals. These are fake foods created for corporate profit. DWD calls for an end to contamination, distortion, or colonisation of our foods.
The DWD calls for the imperative transition to local, biodiverse, ecological systems that work in harmony with nature. It declares, ‘We need diversity in food systems, diversity in seeds, and diversity in economies. Our cultural and language diversity and the diversity of our struggles connect us all.
The Manifesto strongly states that ‘today women are again in the vanguard of defending biodiversity, seed freedom, and food sovereignty’. At this important juncture in the history of feminism, where feminists are getting away from the roots and struggling mostly at the frontiers of global affairs, Diverse Women for Diversity has brought women activists, scientists, and scholars to the forefront of shaping new scientific and economic paradigms to reclaim seed sovereignty and food sovereignty across the world.
Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.
Published: New Age: 8 August, 2023. 'Defending biodiversity, seed freedom and food sovereignty'