A Visit to Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya Biodiversity Farm: A Photo Essay

by Maggie Tauranac


The Indian academic and environmentalist Vandana Shiva is well known for her work as an anti-GMO activist, accumulating thousands of loyal followers who celebrate her opposition to industrialized and conventional agriculture. Shiva is touted for her work in the empowerment of women, predominantly from the third world, and her cautions regarding the dangers of economic globalization. As part of the alter-globalization movement, Vandana Shiva heralds the benefits to global cooperation, but warns about its threats to environmentalism, economic justice and local sovereignty.

As part of her response to industrial and corporatized agriculture, Shiva started Navdanya in 1991. The word Navdanya literally translates to “nine seeds” and is an initiative to link seed sharers across India’s landscape. The movement has grown immensely since the beginning, establishing 122 community seed banks in India and encouraging a breathtaking 5,000,000 farmers to convert to organic farming.

Navdanya’s headquarters is based out of the Doon Valley in Uttarakhand in the foothills of the Himalayas. The headquarters is both a learning center and biodiversity conservation farm where I had the immeasurable joy of spending a few days. Below is a photo essay journaling the protection of seeds and the celebration of organic agriculture and human and animal wellness in the most northerly part of India.

Navdanya Biodiversity Farm
Navdanya Biodiversity Farm. Look carefully at the horizon and you can just make out the outline of the Himalayas.

At the learning farm set at Navdanya, called Bija Vidyapeeth (or Earth University), students live on the farm and are active participants in the growing, harvesting, preserving, cooking and cleaning that comes with serving and acting as a community. They stay in humble quarters and practice meditation and gratitude for nature and good food. The heatless cabins were bitter cold at night, but cozied up in multiple layers and my wool hat, I still recall getting the greatest nights of sleep I had while in India to awake serenely at 4am to the soothing cry to Muslim prayer.

The crisp mountainous air and sweet-smelling rice paddy fields were relief after the chaos of my previous visit to Delhi. And the mantra taught to us at the time still grounds me several years later in its simplicity: “Breathe in, you are happy; breathe out, you are calm.”

Making chapati
Making chapati.

My visit at Navdanya was for a mere few days, but both students and workers at Navdanya were exceedingly hospitable and gracious, and welcomed me and my cohort to participate in all goings-ons despite our intrusion into their routine. It was with pleasure that we participated in as much service to the community as we could contribute while trying not to get in their way. One of my favorite memories is nosily poking my head into the kitchen, asking if I could help, and being taught to make chapati on direct fire through language-less hand gestures.
Seed sharing at Navdanya Biodiversity Farm.
Seed sharing at Navdanya Biodiversity Farm.

In an effort towards continuity – the literal mark of sustainability – Navdanya’s seed bank has preserved 500 strains of rice and documented 700, preserved 150 strains of wheat and documented 200 as well as protected a multitude of other grains.
Seed bank list at Navdanya Biodiversity Farm.
Seed bank list at Navdanya Biodiversity Farm.

Additionally, their conservation farm has protected a laundry list of cereals, legumes, vegetables, spices, fruits, flowers and medicinal plants, preserving genetic diversity against disease and blight and ensuring a future for our plant populations.
Wall hangings in the Seed Bank at Navdanya Biodiversity Farm.
Wall hangings in the Seed Bank at Navdanya Biodiversity Farm.
Friends of Farmers
“Friends of Farmers”

The recognition of not only farmers, but women as farmers is an integral theme in the heritage of Navdanya. “Women’s” work has a history of being disregarded, and Shiva speaks often to the devaluation of women and of their displacement, especially on the farm. Empowering women to have access to farm work and fair pay is part of  Shiva’s “Women for Diversity” mission where she advocates for women’s sovereignty and condemns her country’s history of female feticide.
Women working in the rice paddiesat Navdanya Biodiversity Farm.
Women working in the rice paddies.

As she writes for an article in the BBC World Trust, “The displacement of women from agriculture disempowers women and reduces food security. Food systems evolved by women based on biodiversity based production rather than chemical based production produce hundreds of times more food, with better nutrition, quality and taste.”
Cattle at Navdanya Biodiversity Farm.
Cattle at the farm.

On animal welfare, Shiva takes the position that the separation of monocultured agriculture from animals and water cycles enables the conditions for factory farming, whereas the presence of animals on farms makes for a symbiotic relationship between animal’s contribution to work, growth and waste. This is the foundation for a community-based living democracy that is present in agroecology and advances the values of respect between land, (wo)man and beast.
Navdanya Biodiversity Farm
Spices grown on the farm.

The vitriol that Shiva expresses for the shift in conventional agriculture towards genetic modification has made her both a hero to many, and a ubiquitous target for those who see solutions to global food insecurity in examples such as golden rice. Yet, despite where one may fall on the GMO versus regenerative agriculture spectrum, a visit to her biodiversity farm makes her impossible not to admire. The food plucked right from the ground, the rarely found clean and safe water and the aspiration for participation engenders one with peace and hope for a more resilient future.
Leaving Navdanya.
Leaving Navdanya.

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