Resistance is often seen as a solitary path but in environmental activist Vandana Shiva’s memoir, Terra Viva: My Life In A Biodiversity Of Movements, it is rooted in people’s power and coalitions.
Inspired by the women of the Chipko movement, and their attempt to protect forest cover in Uttarakhand, Shiva left a career as a physicist in the 1970s to make one in protection of the environment, food security and biodiversity. Over time, her ambit widened from the Himalaya to movements in Africa, Europe, North and South America, and she has emerged as an absolute critic of genetic engineering and a key figure in anti-globalisation movements. She has defended farmers’ rights against corporate interests and intellectual property laws and has advocated for biodiversity in agriculture. She has received more awards than she might be able to keep track of, including the 1993 Right Livelihood Award, or the Alternative Nobel.
Coalitions are, of course, critical to such civil resistance and social movements; they are tactical and strategic tools as well as an instrument of image-building, projecting unity and power. Shiva has built, nurtured and led global coalitions that have been effective and have stood the test of time. In her telling, however, these seem to come into being fully formed and perfectly aligned. There is little to help us understand what the particular challenges, big or small, were and continue to be, in keeping groups of people across geographies united by one cause: the health of the planet. While the cause may seem lofty enough to hold people together, individual or vested interests often break partnerships. That Shiva and her partners have stayed together through thick and thin is indicated, but her role and how those challenges shaped her, helped in her personal growth, do not come through.
One does not expect a bare-all book but these would have served to inspire, even guide upcoming activists. Resilience is key to staying with a cause; Shiva doesn’t tell us the source of hers.
Though Shiva’s commitment to life as an activist comes from a deep love for the Garhwal Himalaya where she grew up, there’s nothing sentimental about this book. Usually, a memoir is written to reflect on, and share, one’s journey, discussing motivations and emotions that have shaped one’s life and legacy. Without this, the book read like an anthology of speeches, articles and papers presented over the years and given a new jacket for a new audience.
Shiva has often been accused of playing fast and loose with facts—presenting big-picture concerns in dramatic ways but reluctant to go into detail, or getting it wrong when it comes to the minutiae. Here too, the arguments are passionate, grand and persuasive, though one is, at times, left feeling that they won’t stand scrutiny.
Scientists, farmer groups, and, naturally, the corporate entities she agitates against, have all criticised her beliefs but while reading Terra Viva, there is no doubt that Shiva’s life’s work of questioning free-market models that often marginalise the most vulnerable is valuable, even inspiring. It’s just that we don’t learn how she got there.