Book Review: Staying Alive, Vandana Shiva

The macro industries of farming and agriculture are inherently tied to philosophies of masculinity and control. The levelling, dividing and repurposing of land; the mass growth of crops, the hierarchies of industrialisation, and the sheer physicality of farming are all masculine processes, predominantly controlled by men.

Vandana Shiva’s text Staying Alive delves into the deep, rich and global history of women and farming. Shiva writes about the historical relationship between women, biodiversity and polyculture farming, and the violent take-over of monocultural farming around the globe.  According to Shiva’s research, the mass industrialisation of farming has not only disempowered women in vulnerable locations, but it has destroyed the complex legacies and responsive rituals of feminine farming. Shiva explains how global agribusiness and biotechnology corporations have replaced the delicate and diverse cultures of female-nurtured farming with a legacy of ‘terminator technology’ , which positions the land as a hostile space – requiring taming and domesticating, rather than nurturing and care-taking.

Some interesting excerpts below about femininity and polyculture farming and masculinity and monoculture farming…

From Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India (Vandana Shiva)

‘Agriculture has been evolved by women. Most farmers in the world are women, and most girls are future farmers: they learn the skills and knowledge of farming in fields and farms… Women also make the most significant contribution to food security by producing more than half the world’s food, and providing more than 80 per cent of the food needs of food-insecure household and regions’.

‘Women farmers in the Third World are predominantly small farmers. They provide the basis of food security, and they provide food security in partnership with other species. This partnership between women and biodiversity has kept the world fed throughout history, at the present time, and will continue to feed the world in the future. It is this partnership that needs to be preserved and promoted to ensure food security.’

‘Monocultures and monopolies symbolise a masculinisation of agriculture. The war mentality underlying military-industrial agriculture is evident from the names given to herbicides, which destroy the economic basis of the survival of the poorest women in the rural areas of the Third World. Monsanto’s herbicides are called ‘Round Up’, ‘Machete’, ‘Lasso’. American Home Products calls it herbicides ‘Pentagon’, ‘Prowl’, ‘Scepter’, ‘Squadron’, ‘Cadre’, ‘Lightening’, ‘Assert’, ‘Avenge’. This is the language of war, not of sustainability.’

As I have been reading Shiva’s text, components of the narrative have reminded me of Women who run with the Wolves, and Pinkola Estes’ accounts of innate female connections with soil and the land. Pinkola Estes writes of women who feel intensely secure and grounded when their bare hands plunge into soft soil, and when they are involved in nurturing and caring for the land around them. With mass industrialisation and a growing rift between production and consumption, could the disempowerment that many women around the world feel perhaps be tied to a disconnection with the most basic feminine expression – a hands-on understanding of nature and the land? Food for thought…

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