Full interview with Vandana Shiva on the ills of the world trading system

Vandana Shiva, Director of Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, Dehra Dun, India, has shared her views with EURACTIV on the EU’s emerging proposal to introduce a new principle, that of ‘collective preferences’, in international trade policy.

Do you think introducing “collective preferences” as a new trade principle, as discussed by the EU, would serve development goals or could it become a barrier to trade?

I do not think becoming a barrier to trade should be the measure for something that is supposed to correct the distortions of free trade. Free trade is being seen as problematic which is why the ‘collective preferences’ discourse has been created – you cannot then measure that which is distorted to see whether the distortion is being removed. The point is that the collective preferences discussion is a symptom that those in power in Europe are realising that citizens of Europe are not going to lie. They are not going to say ‘feed us GMOs’, they are not going to say ‘get rid of all our environmental values’.

My worry is that the way it is being framed could satisfy European citizens, while creating yet another tool of domination over the South. The way the discourse on collective preferences has been structured, is extremely colonial, very eurocentric, it talks of the South not having cultural preferences. It talks of the South as not having interest in environmental protection. Just because our people have been made so poor that they are having to live with toxins… that does not mean that we prefer to die… that does not mean we love to be polluted. Poverty has become a block in the articulation of rights… there is a way of defining third world rights and people have a structure that says richness is equal to cultural preferences and poverty means no cultural preferences, which is already creating unequal rights.

It is made more complicated than it is. As I have said very honestly, I read in my document an attempt to substitute ‘right’ by ‘preferences’ and shift from universal duties of states to a system of social choices that have to be negotiated according to how much power you have access to. Now that is a very dangerous trend.

To be fair, the issue of collective preferences is only at a discussion stage…

I know but to me this is an attempt to say how do we survive the critiques of our own citizens while still managing to push free trade in the South. They are trying to achieve both. Silencing the critique domestically while increasing the aggression against the South.

Could this not be seen as a balancing act between the EU and the US?

But the thing is that whatever brings a balance between the US and Europe at the cost of the South will never be good enough as a human solution. The planetary solution means you need to include two-thirds of humanity in the planet. You cannot exclude two-thirds and say you are saving the planet.

In your view, where does globalisation come from?

Free trade and globalisation as we see it today was invented with colonialism. For the East India company to take over our markets in India and destroy our domestic production it had to bribe its way through get a free trade treaty in 1716. At that level, there is nothing new about the way free trade treaties are written in order to create privileged rights for external investors, traders, over and above the rights of local producers and ordinary citizens. That has been rehearsed before – that is how colonialism was entrenched.

The only difference between this round of free trade and earlier rounds of free trade is that this is going much further. At best they could take over the manufacturing of textile at that time, at best they could start re-writing property rights on land which was handled all the time. But now property rights are being written on life forms. New property rights are defining life itself as the property of a handful of corporations, especially in the biotech industry. It is also going further in terms of where profits are being extracted from and by defining everything as trade, including our ordinary lives, the way we educate ourselves, heal ourselves, provide our water, everything has been turned into tradeable, a commodity, a subject matter of trade rules, and free trade rules particularly. It has a much farther reaching impact.

What measures could be taken to make globalisation work for developing countries?

I think the first thing that has to be done is to recognise what are the excesses of the institution, the organisation called the WTO, the rules that have been written and are governed through it with its very coercive system of dispute settlement and also anti-democratic structure of making decisions because there are many areas that just do not belong to a trade agreement. How we handle our seeds should be dependent on the culture of the people. Now the European Union is talking about “cultural preferences” – in India we have a cultural preference to save seeds. All peasants around the world have always saved seeds [ie, putting aside some of the seeds after havesting to be planted the year after]. Now intellectual property rights from the WTO are making it illegal. We do not believe it is right for the WTO to force us. We in fact have a huge movement which basically tells both our government as well as the international systems what is not their jurisdiction. We basically repeated the same. You cannot govern over the way we relate to biodiversity in our life. That is our ethical imperative. We will treat other life forms as our kin, as our family, and you are not going to force us into a relationship of property with them.

Agriculture was always about livelihoods, was always about farmers, it was always about the land, about producing nourishment. Agriculture and food do not belong to a trade treaty. Services is the word for essential vital needs, education, health and water, these do not belong to a trade treaty. These need to be re-claimed as democratic, nationally determined public policy issues in which ordinary people have a role. That is when globalisation will start to work for people of the South because then we will globalise responsiblity, we will globalise compassion. Right now all that has been globalised is greed.

The suicide of the farmers is the biggest tragedy of the current rules of globalisation which I call the rules of genocide. My institute started monitoring and analysing what is going on since the first reported suicide. The people who push trade liberalisation say there will always be winners, there will always be losers, that is the first mantra. The second mantra is that everything that is going wrong has always been around. But I can tell you about farmer suicides – no Indian farmer had committed suicide. This is the first time, a globalised, liberalised agriculture, creating corporate monopolies, is forcing farmers to become dependent on purchased inputs, seeds and chemicals from Monsanto on the one hand, which are raising the cost of production and pushing farmers into debt, and on the other hand, those rules are also pushing down the prices. We have done studies over the years – we are talking about rates of suicide that have become unimaginable. Every place where the suicides are the worst are the states which globalised their agriculture fastest, where companies got in at a more rapid rate. Indebtedness is very clearly the reason why farmers are committing suicide. Farmer suicides based on our calculations are at 25,000 in the last four or five years.

Farmers’ suicides in India are related very much to the ‘new slavery’ showing up in terms of farmers’ dependency on purchased seeds and purchased chemicals. I can just tell you the example of the company that controls the maximum of seed supply in the world now under the freedom globalisation gave it. This is the company that sprayed agent orange on Vietnam. Agent orange is a herbicide it is the company which controls the seed supply of the world.

We ar e now preparing cases. We already have companies in courts for public interest but now we will be working with individual farmers who have been victims of this fraud to create a kind of precedent. We know it will not be easy because these are not corporate citizens, these are corporate mafias.

Could you please give your assessment of the reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – is it going in the right direction?

No it is not. CAP was a wasteful system, I agree with that, it promoted industrial agriculture and it did end up supporting the larger proprietors and marginalised the family farmers. The two big changes in CAP are de-coupled income support and an attempt to make it look like the green box subsidies are going to start protecting the environment. As far as de-coupled income support is concerned it is not a collective preference of European farmers or European citizens. It is a ‘Cargill’ invention. Cargill is the world’s biggest ‘green trader’. Cargill first put it into US policy, Cargill then it put it into WTO policy and CAP is merely re-writing Europe’s policy in accordance with global agribusiness. So while it is true that the small farmer was hurt and the big farmer gained, now the new reform of CAP is going to make Cargill gain.

De-coupling is basically saying the cost of production will not be reflected in the price of the commodity, the two things will be de-coupled. This is a ready-made recipe for dumping on the one hand, but it is also a ready-made recipe for these companies to buy cheap because as long as your cost of production reflects in the product you have some way of keeping track of how much they are getting farmers into debt. Because then public policy is measuring the costs and is ensuring that farmers stay afloat. Normally, subsidies in agriculture works cost of production this year, farmers will get this much. De-coupled income support means that you will get two thousand dollars, no matter how much you produce, which looks wonderful, but in the meantime you could get into two million dollars of debt. So I would say CAP reform is a reform to rip off the peasants and farmers and the small family farmers even more. It’s a pro agri-business reform it is not a pro-environment reform, it is not a pro small family farmer reform.

Could organic farming be the solution?

Organic farming is the only way is the only way we can produce enough to feed the world given the fact that we are not short of people but we are very short of resources. We are very short of water and we are very short of fertile land. The only things that need to be maximised for productivity are not labour; what we have to do is reduce the waste of resources in agriculture. Only organic farming and sustainable agriculture uses resources efficiently in order to use less to produce more. Let me give you just two examples. There are now studies that show that intensive industrial agriculture uses 300 units to produce 100 units of food. Whereas ecological agriculture and sustainable farming uses 5 units to produce 100 units. So you are wasting 295 units of very scarce resources. The reason we have a water crisis is because industrial agriculture led to us using ten times more water to produce the same amount of food. If you look at the water efficiency of all agricultural innovations and industrialism they have been water wasteful. We have done calculations that if you shift to diversity, you could increase food production five times and nutritional availability 20 times.

What are your views on ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’? Has corporate behaviour changed in recent years?

Yes, there has been a change in terms of the language they use and the brochures they put out. So if you look at Coca-Cola’s brochure, it is wonderful. But if you look at how Coca-Cola operates on the ground, they are more criminal than ever before. Because trade liberalis ation has basically meant that what little fragile systems there were to hold corporations to account have been dismantled. Trade liberalisation is nothing more than removing the regulatory apparatus for capital and putting in its place regulation over citizens. Coca-Cola is behaving like a criminal in a small village where I have had to go repeatedly because the tribal women have lost their drinking water. 1.5 million litres a day is being mined. It has tried its ‘very best’ to terrorise our women, to corrupt our courts, to bribe officials, it is just that we have continued and persisted and have won some battles against coke. So Corporate Social Responsibility is only showing up at the level of shareholders and the brochures they receive but in terms of those who are impacted by these companies, I think for the first time we really have corporate crime as an epidemic on the planet. Corporate crime against the planet and against people. And we need a much higher level of response.

But how about European corporations? Are they doing any better?

Shell in Nigeria, you just have to talk to the Nigerians and I have lost friends, a fellow-environmentalist, who was killed. The partnership between the Nigerian army, the Nigerian system and Shell to oppress those whose lands were destroyed and polluted. So Shell is very European and yet it has not really been different in terms of its criminal activity.

Would you have a comment on the access to medicines arrangements in the WTO and their impact on India? 

India happens to be the country that both has the highest amount of indigenous medicine used by people as a living tradition (ajurveda) – 70 per cent of our health system is indigenous medicine. 30 percent is allopathic. That 30 percent has become available because in the 1970s we wrote a law through huge debate which under the colonial laws that allowed people to innovate with new processes to make medicine. So you could have a different way of making the same medicine and a patent holder could not prevent you from making it. These were called process patents. The company could at best could control the method of making a medicine but not the medicine itself. That is what the WTO has undone. As a result of which AIDS medicines which our companies could make for 200 dollars but the patented version is sold for 20 thousand dollars, on average, Indian medicine is a thousand times cheaper.

Last December, the final changes were made in our patent laws which will make it impossible for Indian companies to make low-cost drugs. Just like Indian farmers have committed suicide because of high debts, we are already seeing the trends that medicine, which used to be affordable in India, is going to be changed to a system where people will get into debt for health. So we are going to see affordable medicine disappear and if it disappears in India, it disappears from the world because India supplies Africa, India has just got an order from Malaysia. If it was not for Indian medicines, AIDS victims in the South would not have had healthcare.

As far as the jugglery in the WTO on public health and right to medicine is concerned it was a non-delivery. It tied up the whole thing into such knots that it is as good as not having the possibility.

Will it be beneficial to India to be able to export more to the least developed countries?

India exports right now but it will be prevented from exporting. Because those agreements that have been made are so complicated because you have to have a separate line. You cannot make it for domestic production. The patent holder will come and guarantee that you are only sending the amount ordered. You will make it in a different packaging. The costs will therefore increase. A small unit making the medicines will not be able to bear the costs. You can export low-cost medicine but for the domestic market we will not be able to produce. And the export will be tied to the UN system of subsidies. But this is a system that denies the domestic access and therefore means that Indians, the majority of whom are so poor, will be condemned to not having health rights.  

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