Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind

Vandana Shiva gave an improvised talk at Sanskriti Kendra which was not registered. Instead, we selected some extracts from her book "Monocultures of the Mind – Biodiversity, Biotechno-logy and the Third World" – Penang, Malaysia, 1993 - which convey perfectly her thinking and critical discourse.
Vandana Shiva
Monocultures of the Mind


In Argentina, when the dominant political system faces dissent, it responds by making the dissidents disappear. The 'desparacidos' or the disappeared dissidents share the fate of local knowledge systems throughout the world, which have been conquered through the politics of disappearance, not the politics of debate and dialogue.
The disappearance of local knowledge through its interaction with the dominant western knowledge takes place at many levels, through many steps. First, local knowledge is made to disappear by simply not seeing it, by negating its very existence. This is very easy in the distant gaze of the globalising dominant system. The western systems of knowledge have generally been viewed as universal. However, the dominant system is also a local system, with its social basis in a particular culture, class and gender. lt is not universal in an epistemological sense. lt is merely the globalised version of a very local and parochial tradition. Emerging from a dominating and colonising culture, modern knowledge systems are themselves colonising.
The knowledge and power nexus is inherent in the dominant system because, as a conceptual framework, it is associated with a set of values based on power which emerged with the rise of commercial capitalism. lt generates inequalities and domination by the way such knowledge is generated and structured, the way it is legitimised and alternatives are delegitimised, and by the way in which such knowledge transforms nature and society. Power is also built into the perspective which views the dominant system not as a globalised local tradition, but as a universal tradition, inherently superior to local systems. However, the dominant system is also the product of a particular culture.
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The universal/local dichotomy is misplaced when applied to the western and indigenous traditions of knowledge, because the western is a local tradition which has been spread world wide through intellectual colonisation.
The universal would spread in openness. The globalising local spreads by violence and misrepresen-tation. The first level of violence unleashed on local systems of knowledge is to not see them as knowledge. This invisibility is the first reason why local systems collapse without trial and test when confronted with the knowledge of the dominant west. The distance itself removes local systems from perception. When local knowledge does appear in the field of the globalising vision, it is made to disappear by denying it the status of a systematic knowledge, and assigning it the adjectives 'primitive' and 'unscientific'. Correspondingly, the western system is assumed to be uniquely 'scientific' and universal. The prefix 'scientific' for the modern systems, and 'unscientific' for the traditional knowledge systems has, however, less to do with knowledge and more to do with power. The models of modern science which have encouraged these perceptions were derived less from familiarity with actual scientific practise, and more from familiarity with idealised versions of which gave science a special epistemological status. Positivism, verificationism, falsificationism were all based on the assumption that unlike traditional, local beliefs of the world, which are socially constructed, modern scientific knowledge was thought to be determined without social mediation. Scientists, in accordance with an abstract scientific method, were viewed as putting forward statements corresponding to the realities of a directly observable world. The theoretical concepts in their discourse were in principle seen as reducible to directly verifiable observational claims. New trends in the philosophy and sociology of science challenged the positivist assumptions, but did not challenge the assumed superiority of western systems. Thus, Kuhn, who has shown that science is not nearly as open as is popularly thought, and is the result of the commitment of a specialist community of scientists to presupposed metaphors and paradigms which determine the meaning of constituent terms and concepts, still holds that modern 'paradigmatic' knowledge is superior to pre-paradigmatic knowledge which represents a kind of primitive state of knowing.
Horton, who has argued against the dominant view of dominant knowledge, still speaks of the 'superior cognitive powers' of the modes of thought of the modern scientific culture which constitute forms of explanation, prediction and control of a power unrivalled in any time and place. This cognitive superiority in his view arises from the 'openness' of modern scientific thinking and the 'closure' of traditional knowledge. As he interprets it, 'In traditional cultures there is no developed awareness of alternatives to the established body of theoretical levels, whereas in the scientifically oriented cultures, such an awareness is highly developed."
However, the historical experience of non-western culture suggests that it is the western systems of knowledge which are blind to alternatives. The 'scientific' label assigns a kind of sacredness or social immunity to the western system. By elevating itself above society and other knowledge systems and by simultaneously excluding other knowledge systems from the domain of reliable and systematic knowledge, the dominant system creates its exclusive monopoly. Paradoxically, it is the knowledge systems which are considered most open, that are, in reality, closed to scrutiny and evaluation. Modern western science is not to be evaluated, it is merely to be accepted.


Over and above rendering local knowledge invisible by declaring it non-existent or illegitimate, the dominant System also makes alternatives disappear by erasing and destroying the reality which they attempt to represent. The fragmented linearity of the dominant knowledge disrupts the integrations between systems. Local knowledge slips through the cracks of fragmentation. lt is eclipsed along with the world to which it relates. Dominant scientific knowledge thus breeds a monoculture of the mind by making space for local alternatives disappear, very much like monocultures of introduced plant varieties leading to the displacement and destruction of local diversity. Dominant knowledge also destroys the very conditions for alternatives to exist, very much like the introduction of monocultures destroying the very conditions for diverse species to exist.
As metaphor, the monoculture of the mind is best illustrated in the knowledge and practise of forestry and agriculture. 'Scientific' forestry and 'scientific' agriculture split the plant world artificially into separate, non-overlapping domains, on the basis of separate commodity markets to which they supply raw materials and resources. In local knowledge systems, the plant world is not artificially separated between a forest supplying commercial wood and agricultural land supplying food commodities. The forest and the field are an ecological continuum, and activities in the forest contribute to the food needs of the local community, while agriculture itself is modelled on the ecology of the tropical forest. Some forest dwellers gather food directly from the forest, while many communities practise agriculture outside the forest, but depend on the fertility of the forest for the fertility of agricultural land.
In the 'scientific' system which splits forestry from agriculture and reduces forestry to timber and wood supply, food is no longer a category related to forestry. The cognitive space that relates forestry to food production, either directly, or through fertility links, is therefore erased with the split. Knowledge systems which have emerged from the food giving capacities of the forest are therefore eclipsed and finally destroyed, both through neglect and aggression.
Most local knowledge systems have been based on the life-support capacities of tropical forests, not on their commercial timber value. These systems fall in the blind spot of a forestry perspective that is based exclusively on the commercial exploitation of forests. lf some of the local uses can be commercialised, they are given the status of 'minor products'; with timber and wood being treated as the 'major products' in forestry. The creation of fragmented categories thus blinkers out the entire spaces in which local knowledge exists, knowledge which is far closer to the life of the forest and more representative of its integrity and diversity. Dominant forestry science has no place for the knowledge of the Hanunoo in the Philippines who divide plants into 1,600 categories, of which trained botanists can distinguish only 1,200.
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In non-tribal areas, too, forests provide food and livelihood through critical inputs to agriculture, through soil and water conservation and through inputs of fodder and organic fertiliser. Indigenous silvicultural practises are based on sustainable and renewable maximisation of all the diverse forms and functions of forests and trees. This common silvicultural knowledge is passed on from generation to generation, through participation in the processes of forest renewal and of drawing sustenance from the forest ecosystems.
In countries like India, the forest has been the source of fertility renewal of agriculture. The forest as a source of fodder and fertiliser has been a significant part of the agricultural ecosystems. In the Himalaya, the oak forests have been central to sustainability of agriculture. In the western Ghats the 'betta' lands have been central to the sustainability of the ancient spice gardens of pepper, cardamon, and areca nuts. Estimates show that over 50% of the total fodder supply for peasant communities in the Himalaya comes from forest sources, with forest trees supplying 20%. In Dehra Dun, 57% of the annual fodder supply comes from the forests. Besides fodder inputs, forests also make an important contribution to hill farming in the use of plant biomass as bedding for animals. Forests are the principal source of fallen dry leaf-litter, and lopped green foliage of trees and herbaceous species which are used for animal bedding and composting. Forest biomass, when mixed with animal dung, forms the principal source of soil nutrients for hill agriculture. On one estimate, 2.4 metric tons of litter and manure are used per ha of cultivated land annually. As this input declines, agricultural yields also go down.
The diverse knowledge systems which have evolved with the diverse uses of the forest for food and agriculture were eclipsed with the introduction of 'scientific' forestry, which treated the forest only as a source of industrial and commercial timber. The linkages between forests and agriculture were broken and the function of the forest as a source of food was no longer perceived.
When the West colonised Asia, it colonised her forests. lt brought with it the ideas of nature and culture as derived from the model of the industrial factory. The forest was no longer viewed as having a value itself, in all its diversity. Its value was reduced to the value of commercially exploitable industrial timber. Having depleted their forests at home, European countries started the destruction of Asia's forests. England searched in the colonies for timber for its navy because the oak forest in England were depleted.
The military needs for Indian teak led to the immediate proclamation that wrested the right in the teak trees from the local government and vested it in the East India Company. lt was only after more than half a century of uncontrolled destruction of forests by British commercial interests that an attempt was made to control exploitation. In 1865, the first Indian Forest Act (VII of 1865) was passed by the supreme Legislative Council, which authorised the Government to appropriate forests from the local people and manage them as reserved forests.
The introduction of this legislation marks the beginning of what the state and industrial interests have called 'scientific' management. However, for the indigenous people, it amounted to the beginning of the destruction of forests and erosion of peoples' rights to use of the forests. The forests, however, is not merely a timber mine, it is also the source of food for local communities; and with the use of the forests for food and for agriculture, are related diverse knowledge systems about the forest. The separation of forestry from agriculture, and the exclusive focus on wood production as the objective of forestry led to a creation of one-dimensional forestry paradigm, and the destruction of the multi-dimensional knowledge systems of forest dwellers and forest users.
'Scientific forestry' was the false universalization of a local tradition of forestry which emerged from the narrow commercial interests which viewed the forest only in terms of commercially valuable wood. lt first reduced the value of diversity of life in the forest to the value of a few commercially valuable species, and further reduced the value of these species to the value of their dead product - wood. The reductionism of the scientific forestry paradigm created by commercial industrial interests violates both the integrity of the forests and the integrity of forest cultures who need the forests in its diversity to satisfy their needs for food, fibre and shelter.
The existing principles of scientific forest management leads to the destruction of the tropical forest ecosystem because it is based on the objective of modelling the diversity of the living forest on the uniformity of the assembly line. Instead of society being modelled on the forest as is the case for forest cultures, the forest is modelled on the factory. The system of 'scientific management', as has been practised over a century is thus a system of tropical deforestation, which transforms the forest from a renewable to a non-renewable resource. Tropical timber exploitation thus becomes like mining, and tropical forests become a timber mine. According to a FAO estimate, at current rates of exploitation, the forests of tropical Asia will be totally exhausted by the turn of the century.
The tropical forests, when modelled on the factory and used as a timber mine, becomes a non-renewable resource. Tropical peoples also become a dispensable and historical waste. In place of cultural and biological pluralism, the factory produces non-sustainable monocultures in nature and society. There is no place for the small, no value for the insignificant. Organic diversity gives way to fragmented atomism and uniformity. The diversity must be weeded out, and the uniform monocultures - of plants and people - must now be externally managed because they are no longer self-regulated and self-governed. Those that do not fit into the uniformity must be declared unfit. Symbiosis must give way to competition, domination and dispensability. There is no survival possible for the forest or its people when they become feedstock for industry. The survival of the tropical forests depends on the survival of human societies modelled on the principles of the forest. These lessons for survival do not come from the text of 'scientific forestry'. They lie hidden in the lives and beliefs of the forest peoples of the world.


The wealth of Europe in the colonial era was to a large extent, based on the transfer of biological resources from the colonies to the centres of imperial power, and the displacement of local biodiversity in the colonies by monocultures of raw material for European industry.
A. W. Crosby has called the biological transfer of wealth from the Americas to Europe the 'Columbian exchange', because with Columbus' arrival in America started the mass transfer of maize, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, peanuts, common beans, sunflowers and other crops across the Atlantic.
Various spices, sugar, bananas, coffee, tea, rubber, indigo, cotton and other industrial crops began to make their move to new production sites under the control of newly emerging colonial powers and their state backed trading companies.

Violence and control were an intrinsic part of this process by which the North accumulated capital and wealth by gaining control over the biological resources of the South. Destroying the biodiversity it could use or control was the other less visible side of this process of colonisation.
In 1876 the British smuggled rubber out of Brazil and introduced it in its colonies in Sri Lanka and Malaya. The Brazilian rubber industry collapsed and famine replaced the rubber business.

The Dutch cut down 75% of the clove and nutmeg stand s in the Moluccas and concentrated production on three heavily guarded islands.
Physical violence might no longer be the main Instrument of control, but control of the Third World's biodiversity for profits is still the primary logic of North-South relationships onbiodiversity. The large scale introduction of monocultures in the Third World through the Green Revolution was spearheaded by the International Centre for Wheat and Maize Improvement (CIMMYT) in Mexico and International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, controlled by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which was launched by the World Bank in 1970.

In the Philippines, IRRI seeds acquired the name 'seeds of imperialism'. Robert Onate, President of the Philippines Agricultural Economics and Development Association observed that IRRI practices had created a new dependence on agrochemicals, seeds and debt. 'This is the Green Revolution Connection', he remarked, 'New seeds from the CGIAR global crop seed systems which will depend on the fertilizers, agrichemicals and machineries produced by conglomerates of the Transnational Corporations.'

The International Bureau for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) which is run by the CGIAR system was specifically created for the collection and conservation of genetic resources. However, it has emerged as an Instrument for the transfer of resources from the South to the North. While most genetic diversity lies in the South, of the 127 base collections of IBPGR, 81 are in the industrialised countries, and 29 are in the CGIAR system which is controlled by the governments and corporations of the industrialised countries in the North. Only 17 are in the national collections of Third World countries. Of the 81 base collections in the North, 10 are in the hands of the countries that fund IBPGR.

The US has accused countries of the Third World as engaging in 'unfair trading practice' if they fail to adopt US patent laws which allow monopoly rights in life forms. Yet it is the US which has engaged in unfair practices related to the use of Third World genetic resources. lt has freely taken the biological diversity of the Third World to spin millions of dollars of profits, none of which have been shared with Third World countries, the original owners of the germ plasm.

According to Prescott-Allen, wild varieties contributed US$ 340 million per year between 1976 and 1980 to the US farm economy. The total contribution of wild germ plasm to the American economy has been US$ 66 billion, which is more than the total international debt of Mexico and the Philippines combined. This wild material is 'owned' by sovereign states and by local people.
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The pharmaceutical industry of the North has similarly benefited from free collection of tropical biodiversity. The value of the South's germplasm for pharmaceutical industry ranges from an estimated US$ 4.7 billion now to US$ 47 billion by the year 2000.

As drug companies realise that nature holds rich sources of profit they begin to covet the potential wealth of tropical moist forests as a source for medicines. For instance, the periwinkle plant from Madagascar is the source of at least 60 alkaloids which can treat childhood leukaemia and Hodgkin's Disease. Drugs derived frorn this plant bring in about US$ 160 million worth of sales each year. Yet another plant, Ratizvolfa serpentina, from India is the base for drugs which sell up to US$ 260 million a year in the US alone.

Unfortunately, it has been estimated that with the present rate of destruction of tropical forests, 20-25% of the world's plant species will be lost by the year 2000. Consequently, major pharmaceutical companies are now screening and collecting natural plants through contracted third parties. For instance, a British company, Biotics, is a commercial broker known for supplying exotic plants for pharmaceutical screening by inadequately compensating the Third World countries of origin. The company's officials have actually admitted that many drug companies prefer 'sneaking plants' out of the Third World than going through legitimate negotiating channels.
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In spite of the immeasurable contribution that Third World biodiversity has made to the wealth of industrialised countries, corporations, governments and aid agencies of the North continue to create legal and political frameworks to make the Third World pay for what it originally gave. The emerging trends in global trade and technology work inherently against justice and ecological sustainability. They threaten to create a new era of bio-imperialism, built on the biological impoverishment of the Third World and the biosphere.

The intensity of this assault against Third World genetic resources can be seen from the pressure exerted by major drug and agricultural input companies and their home governments on international institutions such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the FAO to recognise such resources as a 'universal heritage' in order to guarantee them free access to the raw materials. International patent and licensing agreements will increasingly be used to secure a monopoly over valuable genetic materials which can be developed into drugs, food, and energy sources.

Personal Data:

Dr. Vandana Shiva did her PhD. in Physics. She shifted to inter-disciplinary research in science, technology and environmental policy and founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in 1982 in Dehradun. This Foundation addresses significant ecological and social issues of our time, in close partnership with local communities and social movements. She has also initiated other movements like 'Navdanya' and 'Diverse Woman for Diversity'. A visiting professor at various universities and author of many books, she has served as an advisor to governments in India and abroad. For her contributions to deepening the ecological paradigm and for linking research to action, she has received various national and international awards.