Wisdom of the Forest
Spirituality, geopolitics, myth, and climate change converge in the forest. An eminent eco-crusader explains why we must reevaluate our relationship with trees.
Interview By Anna Dubrovsky
As legend has it, the Ganges River owes its existence to the goddess Ganga, who descended from the heavens to cleanse the souls of a pious king’s ancestors. To prevent Ganga from deluging the earth, Lord Shiva broke the force of her descent by capturing her in his matted hair. What emerged was the Ganges River, which Hindus regard as sacred. The forests of the Himalayas, where the Ganges originates, are sacred, too, for they represent Lord Shiva’s dreadlocks, says renowned environmentalist Vandana Shiva.
Shiva grew up in the Himalayan foothills with the forest as her playground. By the time she earned degrees in physics and the philosophy of science, deforestation had dramatically altered her beloved playground. Like Lord Shiva’s hair, forests capture rainfall and release it slowly as streams. As they disappeared, so did the streams that Himalayan villagers relied on for water. Floods and landslides became frequent. In the ’70s, as Shiva pursued a doctorate from the University of Western Ontario in Canada, Indian village women mounted an anti-logging campaign known as Chipko, preventing the felling of trees by embracing or surrounding them. Every chance she got, Shiva flew back from Canada and lent her support to Chipko.
Now nearing 60, Shiva is one of the world’s most prominent and prolific environmental activists. She has written more than a dozen books and received numerous honors, including the so-called Alternative Nobel Prize. She is the founder and president of Navdanya, a Delhi-based organization that promotes seed banking and traditional farming practices. Asia Week has called her one of the five most powerful communicators in Asia.
To mark the United Nations’ designation of 2011 as the International Year of Forests, Yoga International spoke to Shiva about the earth’s forests, which are under assault around the world. Forests are essential to our survival. Not only do they soak up rainfall, feeding streams and rivers and mitigating floods and droughts, but they also absorb and store carbon. That makes them a key ally in our battle against climate change. Cutting them down—at a rate of 13 million hectares a year, an area roughly the size of Greece—sends more carbon into the atmosphere than all the world’s cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, and ships. It’s also devastating to biodiversity. Forests are home to more than 80 percent of the plant and animal species that live on land, many of which teeter on the brink of extinction. “We need to remember the forests even outside the Year of Forests,” Shiva insists.
You grew up in the Himalayan woods with a forester father. What did he teach you about the forest?
My father and my mother, because even though he was a forest official, she was the one who loved the forest. The nursery rhymes my mother used to write herself were all about trees and forests. And that’s how we went to bed. Before we went to school, we spent all our time in the forest. And after we went to school, all our vacations were in the forest.
I’ve just come back from the mountains where my father used to work (and I now work with saving seeds and doing organic farming), and they’re building superhighways through the mountains. But in our time there were no roads except some main arteries; often we had to either go on horseback or walk. I remember doing 45-mile journeys in a day. When you walk, you’re really intimate with the forest. You stop to pick the ferns. As children, the biggest plaything for my sister and I used to be collecting wildflowers and leaves and making art with them. Up in the forest there was nothing else. But we never felt there was anything missing. I remember later, when I became a teenager, everyone used to run off to discos, and I mentioned this to my dad. Our parents were wonderful; they never said no. So he just got into the car, and we drove up to Delhi and went to the disco, and I realized it was so boring compared to the forest—that the forest was so much more fun.
You’re a physicist and philosopher of science by education. I understand that your transition to ecology was inspired in large part by the disappearance of the forest.
That’s it. I was going off for my PhD to Canada and wanted to visit my favorite places before I left and went to trek. And the forest was gone and the streams were dry. That’s when I sought out Chipko and became a volunteer.
What happened, ecologically speaking, in that time between childhood and your PhD?
Development happened. The World Bank brought money to cut down forests to make apple orchards, but when you cut the trees that create the microclimate, you change the climate for the apples, and they don’t grow well. Dams—super, super, super dams—started to get built all over. They’re planning 500 dams in my region. There’ll be no river left. There’ll of course be no forest left.
Also, they started to build roads, and forests that had been protected because they were inaccessible started to get connected for exploitation. The big pressure really came with India wanting to build roads all along the border in response to the [India] China War in ’62. Then India made this huge network of roads, which became extraction systems for timber, and that accelerated the deforestation. That’s exactly when we started to see more landslides, more disasters, and the women started to organize and say no more cutting of trees.
You’ve written that you learned your “first lessons about the value and worth of nature’s economy” from the women of Chipko. How did the movement come to be, and what did you learn from it?
Chipko was a very spontaneous grassroots women’s movement. The first action took place in a village where loggers were coming in to cut trees, and one of the village women stopped them in their path. Other women joined her, and as the message of this action spread, women started to say, we’re going to hug trees—chipko means “to hug”—and you’ll have to kill us before you kill the trees. This movement spread through village-to-village communication, and wherever the loggers would go, they would face groups of women ready to embrace the trees. And they would have to find another forest and another forest and another forest.
The government then changed the rules and said, OK, we won’t get private contractors, because private contractors were exploiting the forest for profit. So the government said, we will cut the trees. But of course they had to subcontract. I remember a particular village called Advani, where the head man of the village got the contract for cutting the trees, and his wife, Bachni Devi, led the protest to stop the cutting. And they stopped it. By 1981 we had managed to get a logging ban for cutting green trees in the high Himalayas.
Is the Chipko movement still alive?
Putting the life of the forest, the trees, and nature above your own life—because you depend on the earth—that has been ongoing, and I don’t think it’s going to stop. In fact, right now as I talk to you, women and children have been lying down in the hot sun to prevent the destruction of the forests and farms in the coastal area of Orissa [a state on India’s east coast], which is being grabbed for a mega steel plant for a company called POSCO. Being ready to sacrifice your life for the higher objective of protecting nature and the forest is so much in India’s culture that I don’t think Chipko’s going to stop because we got a logging ban. New things will happen. New Chipkos will happen.
The United Nations reports that most of the losses in forest cover are taking place in developing countries, in particular in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Is there an element of exploitation to deforestation?
It’s very well calculated. I call it the outsourcing of pollution and degradation. All the polluting industry that causes destruction of ecosystems has shifted to the south as a result of globalization. Before globalization, Germany would want to make its own steel. Today Germany will relocate its steel plants to India and create joint ventures so that the forests of the tribals go, and they get cheap steel. Because of colonialism, because of other forms of exploitation, the south has been left poorer. Everything is cheaper. Labor is cheaper, and exploitation is cheaper. And that is why we have a global assault on the southern forests.
And then they blame the poor woman because she carries firewood. People who rely on wood for domestic fuel don’t kill living green trees. They only take dead twigs. What kills forests is mining. What kills forests is factories.
The major cause of deforestation is agriculture, and it’s hard to argue against agriculture.
I don’t think forests anywhere are being destroyed for agriculture. They’re being destroyed for agribusiness, and we must make a distinction. The rainforest of the Amazon is not being destroyed because the indigenous people suddenly started to colonize the forest. It’s going because Cargill entered and started to devastate the forests to replace them with soybean. The rainforests of Indonesia are not being destroyed because the peasants started to expand into the forest but because of the global palm oil industry. So when a European drives a so-called green car with biofuel, it’s coming at the cost of the forest. We need to distinguish between agribusiness and agriculture. Agriculture is a culture. Agribusiness is a business. A culture doesn’t destroy the forest. In fact, good agriculture is based on the forest.
Trees and forests play such a huge role in Indian culture and mythology. The heroes of the two major Sanskrit epics are exiled to the forest. The Buddha was famously seated under a tree when he attained enlightenment. And today in India one finds tree shrines—trees as places of worship. Do you find that you have a different perspective on forest preservation than Western ecologists and activists because of your background?
Tagore, our national poet who won the Nobel Prize, wrote a very beautiful essay called “Tapovan” [“Forest of Purity”], and in that he writes that India is distinctive because we have treated the forest as our teacher. All our best learnings have come from people leaving the city to go to the forest and meditate. Every great sage went to the forest. As he says so beautifully, from the forest, where every species is different, every species works in cooperation with every other species, what we learn is the deepest lesson of democracy.
I definitely feel that our perceptions on ecology are different from the theoretical perceptions of an environmentalist, whose only teachings come from modern-day environmentalism. And I would say there are three big differences. The first is that for us ecology is culture. Second, for us ecology is economy. And third, for us ecology is democracy. For a typical environmentalist in a northern country, in a Western country, the environment is an external object. It is different from the economy. It is different from democracy. Democracy is about politics, economy is about economy, and environment is in a third box. For us it’s not a box. It’s the very foundation of life.
Ecology is culture when you realize you’re just one species among 300 million. So you shape a culture respecting all those other species. You shape a culture where we go to the Ganges and worship her as a mother. You shape a culture where you go to the banyan tree or the pipal tree and make that the Divine to be respected. You shape a culture where you get up in the morning and tell the sun, thank you and may everyone be blessed. So your everyday life and your everyday concepts are shaped by the fact that you are a member of the earth community. That is a very different kind of culture from industrial society, which defines nature as dead, women as a second sex, the third world as non-humans, and creates a license to exploit all three.
The bottom line, it seems, is that everything is linked. Everything is inseparable.
That’s the key issue. Of course, I learned it from Chipko in the forest. But that’s also what I did my PhD thesis on: non-separability in quantum theory. The latest science is telling us the Cartesian-Newtonian era was mistaken to assume everything is separated. Indigenous knowledge that says everything is connected—that’s the real knowledge. Because even modern science is coming to that conclusion.
In a recent article you stated: “We need to turn to the forest for lessons in freedom.” What do you mean by that?
In a forest, every species is free. It’s free but it’s interconnected to other species. So it’s an interconnected freedom. It’s not an atomistic freedom. Liberalism has created an atomistic freedom: “I’m free to do exactly what I want to. I don’t care about anyone else. And I won’t see either the consequences of my actions on the rest or my dependence on others.” The forest teaches us, yes, every species is distinctive. It’s free to be itself. But it’s free to be itself with the support of other species.
You also wrote that the forest teaches us about “enoughness,” which is a hard concept for many Americans to wrap their heads around.
A tree will not keep sucking up all the nutrients from the soil. It knows exactly how much to take up, and that’s it, that’s enoughness. Consumerism has kind of broken the thermostat of enoughness.
Do you feel hopeful or fearful about the future of our forests?
I feel hopeful when I look at forest peoples and their struggles. And when I look at the power, the greed, the corruption of those who would destroy the forests for the minerals underneath, destroy the forests for the water, for energy, for power, who would chop down the trees…One of my saddest experiences in India in the last few years has been the chopping down of sacred trees along our roads, and we have ancient roads and ancient trees. They’re all being cut down to widen highways. As I’ve written in my book Soil Not Oil, the sacred car has overtaken the sacred cow in India. So when I look at that mentality, I don’t feel hopeful. But I throw my weight behind the forest and its protectors.
What can individuals do to help ensure a more forested future?
The first thing is to realize that ultimately we depend on the forest and, whether it’s at an individual level or at a community level, to plant trees, to create forest gardens. And at the level of consumption, start becoming much more aware of where things come from. What do they cost the earth? What do they cost the forest? At the end of it, you get totally tired of doing that calculation, and then it’s best to consume less and locally. Then you know you’re not destroying the land.
If you have an altar or a shrine in your home, you know that sitting down in front of it—or even glancing at it throughout your day—can make a difference in your state of mind. While the weather is nice, consider creating a shrine outside, and specifically under a tree. Trees and forests have a long association with spiritual practice. Perhaps most famously, the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment while seated beneath the heart-shaped leaves of a fig tree. Before going on his way, he spent a week gazing at the tree in gratitude.
Tree shrines are common in India, says David Haberman, an Indiana University professor who recently completed a book about them. They typically feature a large tree contained within a kind of planter or even within a temple. Statues of gods and goddesses are often placed at its base. People bring offerings of fruits, flowers, incense, and, of course, water. “In addition to being great spots for yoga and meditation, trees are places for seeking life blessings, anything from good health to a long life to a happy marriage,” Haberman says. It’s not unusual for people to physically interact with trees, hugging, kissing, or massaging them.
Such displays of affection raise eyebrows in the West, where religious scholars and anthropologists have painted anthropomorphism—attributing human characteristics to a non-human being—as primitive. But “biologists have made it very clear that we share a great deal with other species, and if that’s the case, then anthropomorphism is not wrong,” says Haberman, who is also a forest protection activist. “There are trees that we share 70 percent of our DNA with.”
Honoring trees is “a way of seeing something you cannot see otherwise,” he adds. “When you love a being, it reveals itself to you. It’s that connection that opens up a whole world of perception and knowledge.”
Anna Dubrovsky writes and teaches yoga in Pittsburgh, PA. Her first book, Moon Pennsylvania (Avalon Travel, 2011), is printed on recycled paper.
Photo: ephotocorp / Alamy