Tag Archives: Sustainability


Originally published Monday, January 14, 2013

Elizabeth Louis

Elizabeth Louis, “Cedar,” received her Ph.D in Geography from University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2012. Her dissertation, “The Political Ecology of Food Sovereignty Movements in Neoliberal India” was based on the fieldwork she conducted in the Telegana region.  She is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at Texas A&M University, and is conducting fieldwork in rural India on the political ecology of sanitation and toilet use in rural India.

Vandana Shiva has become an iconic figure in the fight against the corporate takeover of agriculture. Her “Raise Awareness, Inspire Change” tour of Hawaiʻi in January will bring attention to two very important issues – seed sovereignty and food sovereignty (or what she calls food freedom or food democracy). Seed sovereignty is the right of farmers to save, use, exchange, and sell their own seeds. Seed sovereignty is seen as an essential requirement for food sovereignty, which is defined as the right of each person, community, and nation to define its own agriculture and food policies and practices that will enable each entity to not just have food security, but also ensure that the food produced is environmentally sustainable, and socially just.

The entry of multinational corporations into agriculture aided by the neoliberal policies of particular nation-states, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) pose the biggest threats to seed and food sovereignty today.   This commodification is dominated by a few agro-food giants through an integration of all aspects of production from seed breeding and research all the way to the food that ends up on our tables. While a handful of big agro-food giants control the market, Monsanto has become a symbol of all that is undemocratic, unsustainable, and inequitable in farming and food.

The fight against Monsanto and genetically modified crops is a just fight, and food and seed sovereignty seems to represent a universal good. However, in any movement there are contradictions. So while there is no question that the taking down of agro-food giants is important, one should also ask who defines seed and food sovereignty, how and, why.   How do these definitions affect those who struggle to eke a living from the land?

One of my most fundamental findings that emerged from my research on the food sovereignty movement in the Telengana region of India in 2008 and 2009 is that the perspectives of those who depend on agriculture, especially those who have to scrape a living from small pieces of land, are vastly different from urban intellectuals and activists who claim to represent these grassroots voices. For example, in the Telengana, a prominent food sovereignty NGO’s promotion of sustainable traditional food crops as a way to achieve food security and control of the food system (food sovereignty) did not resonate with farmers’ bread-and-butter issues and aspirations to move beyond a subsistence livelihood.  Even if the NGO’s prescriptions allowed the farmers to take care of their food needs, they needed enough income to educate their children, pay for medical expenses, to get their daughters married, and participate in an economy that was becoming an increasingly monetized.  By growing subsistence and traditional food crops, they could hardly meet these needs.
Unless farmers are completely isolated from the market and live subsistence livelihoods they cannot but feel pressured to participate in an increasingly monetized economy, and move to commercial crops. Monsanto has been implicated in farmers’ suicides in India because of the sale of GM cotton seeds. But a little known fact is that the suicides started before the introduction of genetically modified cotton in 1997-1998 in Warangal[i] district of Andhra Pradesh. The state created incentives for farmers to grow cotton even in areas that were not suitable for its cultivation. World cotton prices were high, and the promise of high profits encouraged many to move from low-risk to high risk cotton cultivation. When market prices crashed, pests attacked or droughts occurred, then farmers were caught in a downward spiral of dispossession, extreme desperation and suicide. All this happened during a time of shrinking state supports and reduced safety nets for the rural poor with the adoption of neoliberal economic policies. In the Telengana, it is not just cotton farmers who have committed suicide, but those who have been involved in a high risk commercial agriculture, and have nowhere to turn. This implicates the neoliberal model of agriculture more than the work of one corporation.

As far as I can see there are two battles – the one against the likes of Monsanto, and one on the ground that relates directly to ensuring that the rural poor have food and livelihood security. Unfortunately, these two do not always align.  Those who “own” the discourse of food/seed sovereignty need to consider how programs influenced by their ideas play out in specific localities for impoverished farmers, and the particular challenges they face in the shift toward commercial agriculture and high capital input crops. Vandana Shiva and other ideologues in the food/seed sovereignty movement in India have been accused of essentializing and idealizing rural livelihoods, and gender relations[ii]. We need to hear more about what farmers have to say about the multiple pressures they are facing as a result of the entry multi-national corporations, austerity measures imposed by their own governments, shifts in social aspirations and changing climate patterns among other things.   It is up to the movement spokespeople like Vandana Shiva to keep their finger on the pulse of the needs of the rural poor and make seed sovereignty relevant to their struggles.

As those who are working for food security and sovereignty in Hawaiʻi get ready for Vandana Shiva’s tour, I urge you also to keep in mind that the needs of western farmers, and those of Indian farmers –  who still struggle to get their needs for adequate food, healthcare, education met –  are vastly different.  How will the seed and food sovereignty help the poor farmer who is desperate to grow a commercial crop on her land because she needs money? Monsanto is culpable in all sorts of ways.  But let us remember that the quotidian problems of poor farmers in South Asia and in many other developing countries are much larger than what the struggle for seed sovereignty aims to address.


[i] Gathering agrarian crisis – Farmers‘  suicides in Warangal District (A.P.) IndiaCitizens‘ ReportCentre for Environmental Studies Warangal1998

[ii] Rural poverty and impoverished theory: Cultural populism, ecofeminism, and global justice. Regina Cochrane, The Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 34, Issue. 2, 2007

Mies and Shiva’s ‘Ecofeminism’: A New Testament?”  Maxine Molyneux and Deborah Steinberg, Feminist Review, Issue 49, 1995

Power Games: Why people in Tamil Nadu are protesting nuclear energy

Originally Published Saturday, May 19, 2012
S.P. Udayakumar

S.P. Udayakumar is a member of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy and the National Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movements.  He is one of the leaders of the non-violent protests against the Koodankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu.  He got his doctoral degree from the Political Science Department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in 1996.  He is the author of Presenting the Past: Anxious History and Ancient Future in Hindutva India (Praeger 2005) and Handcuffed to History: Narratives, Pathologies, and Violence in South Asia (Praeger 2001).  See “UH alum S.P. Udayakumar leads anti-nuclear movement in India.”

We have been fighting against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) since the late 1980s. This Russian project was shelved right after the Soviet Union’s collapse and taken up again in 1997. The Indian government and Russians have constructed two huge reactors of 1000 MW each without the consent of or consultation with the local people. We have just obtained the outdated Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report after 23 years of long and hard struggle. The Indian nuclear authorities have not shared any basic information about the project with the public. They do not give complete and truthful answers for our questions on the ‘daily routine emissions’ from these reactors, the amount and management of nuclear waste, fresh water needs, impact of the coolant water on our sea and seafood, decommissioning costs and effects, Russian liability and so forth. We are deeply disturbed by all this.

Our people watched the Fukushima accident of March 11, 2011 on TV at their homes and understood the magnitude and repercussions of a nuclear accident. Right after that on July 1, 2011, the KKNPP announced the ‘hot run’ of the first reactor that produced an alarming amount of noise and smoke. Furthermore, the authorities asked the people, in a mock drill notice, to cover their nose and mouth and run for their life in case of an emergency. As a result of all these, our people in Koodankulam and Idinthakarai villages made up their minds and took to the streets on their own on August 11, 2011. Then we together decided to host a day-long hunger strike on August 16 at Idinthakarai and a three-day fast on August 17-19 at Koodankulam. On the first day of the fast, authorities invited us for talks and asked us to postpone our struggle to the first week of September because of the upcoming Hindu and Muslim festivals. In a few days’ time, the chief of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) announced that the first reactor would go critical in September 2011.  See the Times of India coverage.

So we embarked upon an indefinite hunger strike on September 11, 2011 and our women blocked a state road.

September 13 for a few hours when the state and central governments continued to ignore us. The state Chief Minister invited us for talks on September 21, and passed a cabinet resolution the next day asking the central government to halt all the work until the fears and concerns of the local people were allayed. We ended our hunger strike on the next day but went on another round of hunger strike from October 9 to 16 when the talks with the Indian Prime Minister failed. We laid siege in front of the KKNPP on October 13-16, 2011 when the KKNPP authorities did not halt work despite the Tamil Nadu state cabinet resolution. We ended both the indefinite hunger strike and the siege on October 16 in order for our people to participate in the local body elections. From October 18, 2011, we have been on a relay hunger strike. We have been carrying out massive rallies, village campaigns, public meetings, seminars, conferences, and other demonstrations such as shaving our heads, cooking on the street, and burning the models of the nuclear plants. When the state government of Tamil Nadu arrested some 200 of our comrades on March 19, 2012, fifteen of us embarked on an indefinite hunger strike until March 27. This struggle has been going on for more than 260 days and the morale of the people is still high.  On May 14, a public hearing “Koodankulam and State Suppression of Democratic Rights” was held in Chennai.  The next day relay hunger strikers took over from those who were on an indefinite strike.

There is no foreign country or agency or money involved in this classic people’s struggle to defend our right to life and livelihood. Our fishermen, farmers, workers and women make small voluntary donations in cash and kind to sustain our simple Gandhian struggle. Our needs and expenses are very few. We only provide safe drinking water to the hunger strikers and visitors. People from all over Tamil Nadu (and sometimes from other parts of India) come on their own arranging their own transportation. For our own occasional travel, we hire local taxis.

Instead of understanding the people’s genuine feelings and fulfilling our demands, the government has foisted serious cases of ‘sedition’ and ‘waging war on the Indian state’ on the leaders of our movement. There are more than 200 criminal cases against us. Police harassment, surveillance by intelligence officers, concocted news reports in the pro-government media, abuse of our family members, hate mail, death threats and even physical attack have become a daily part of our lives.

Although India is a democracy, our central government has been keen on safeguarding the interests of the multinational corporations, and pleasing powerful countries such as the United States, Russia, and France. The welfare of the ‘ordinary citizens’ of India does not figure on their list of priorities. The central government and the ruling Congress party stand by the secretive nuclear agreements they have made with the different countries, and consider us as stumbling blocks on their road to development. The main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (Hindu nationalist party) is equally interested in the nuclear weapons program and making India a superpower and hence loves everything nuclear. It is ironic that these two corrupt and communal forces join hands with each other against their own people. They bend backwards to please their American and other bosses but question our integrity and nationalist credentials.

Our leaders and the group of fifteen women were physically attacked on January 31, 2012 at Tirunelveli by the Congress thugs and Hindutva fascists when we had gone for talks with the central government expert team. Now the government cuts electricity supply often and indiscriminately in order to drive home the message that nuclear power plant is needed for additional power. They try to create resentment and opposition among the public against our anti-nuclear struggle.

To put it in a nutshell, this is a classic David-Goliath fight between the ordinary citizens of India and the powerful Indian government supported by the rich Indian capitalists, multinational corporations, imperial powers, and the global nuclear mafia. They promise foreign direct investment, nuclear power, development, atom bombs, security, and superpower status. We demand risk-free electricity, disease-free life, unpolluted natural resources, sustainable development and harmless future. They say the Russian nuclear power plants are safe and can withstand earthquakes and tsunamis. But we worry about their side-effects and after-effects. They speak for their scientist friends and business partners, and have their eyes on commissions and kickbacks. But we fight for our children and grandchildren, our animals and birds, our land, water, sea, air and the skies.

7 Billion People and our Future

Originally published November 23, 2011

Waquar Ahmed, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Dr. Ahmed studies the socio-economic and environmental contradictions of capitalism.  His current research focuses on global governance institutions, corporate power, foreign direct investments, exploitation of nature in general and conventional energy resources in particular, energy infrastructure, and state-society relations.  He also examines the genealogy of global and national economic change, and social and environmental movements in opposition to such change.

October 31, 2011 was an important date in human history – it marked the birth of the 7 billionth person. With the focus on population, it is time again to raise the specter of Robert Malthus who wrote his first ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’ in 1789. In his essay, Malthus argued that the power of population is indefinitely greater that the power of the earth to produce subsistence, and that population will inevitably press against the means of subsistence. He then went on to suggest positive checks (which raised death rate, and included hunger, disease and war) and preventive checks (which lowered birth rates, and included birth control, prostitution, postponement of marriage and celibacy) through which population could be kept in balance with the means of subsistence. It is to be noted that Malthus wrote his doomsday scenario essay as an antidote to the hopes for social progress aroused by the French Revolution. He argued that the positive checks would impact the poor, as this was “natural law.” He, thus, cautioned against providing welfare to the poor, as this would increase human misery. Freeing the lowest classes in the society from positive checks, he argued, would only result in the expansion of their numbers, a gradual reduction in the standards of living of all members of the society, and a decline in the incentive to work. He also argued that increasing subsistence levels to “a part of society that cannot in general be considered as the most valuable part diminishes the shares that would otherwise belong to more industrious and worthy members, and thus forces more to become dependent.” Malthus was an apologist of the business class and his solution to population growth was anti-poor. Yet, he and his ideas remain popular amongst scientists, as well as in the popular media.

Fast-forward to October 31, 2011 when NPR carried a story by Corey Flintoff titled “When humans hit 7 billion, will it happen in India?” While this story was not as crude as the essay by Malthus, the ideological underpinnings were similar. It had a picture of 6 babies huddled together in a hospital in India and pointed out that fifty-one babies were born in India every minute. It also had a picture of an overcrowded street and a crowded maternity ward in India. The NPR story quoted a doctor who pointed out that “there will be a lot of intolerance and more physical violence, probably. And water and food are going to be a major crisis situation.” In other words, this story insinuated that poor countries such as India were the reason for the global population explosion, which in turn, endangered our planet. This story had no mention of the fact that the population density of a Western country like the Netherlands is higher than that of India. There is also no mention of the fact that India’s decadal population growth rate has declined from 24.8 percent between 1961 and 1971 to 17.6 percent between 2001 to 2011.

A similar view is found amongst certain scientists as well. I recently came across a survey conducted by a scientist that focused on climate change and population growth. The surveyor made a direct connection between population and climate change and enquired if additional taxes on families with more than two children, elimination of tax subsidies for agriculture, or removal of tax credit for children, amongst others, could help reduce population growth. It also asked if these were political feasible. While it is necessary to answer the kinds of questions that this particular scientist was raising, I wonder why there were no questions on higher taxes for those owning more than one car or more than one generator or more than one air conditioner.

If Malthus’s argument were to be turned on its head, then one would ask: is the constraint on resource or food based solely on population size or is it about allocation, where certain groups have it in abundance and control its distribution to control prices and profits? Similarly, in view of the dangers of climate change, we need to remind ourselves that those living in North America and Europe consume much of the global energy, despite the large size of the Chinese and Indian population. We also need to ask if our current energy dependent and economic growth-based (read – increased energy requirement in the future) system is sustainable? And more importantly, can we fathom a zero-growth economy, and better still, a more egalitarian economy where we equalize wealth/resource distribution across space so that we can have the moral authority to request countries like India and China not to embark on a path that would produce climate change and destroy the earth? In other words, I am arguing that in view of our current lifestyle in the ‘West,’ we have no moral authority to ask China or India to ‘save our planet.’