Practising Feminist Political Ecologies: Moving Beyond the 'Green Economy'

Practising Feminist Political Ecologies: Moving Beyond the 'Green Economy'

by Wendy Harcourt, Ingrid L. Nelson

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Destined to transform its field, this volume features some of the most exciting feminist scholars and activists working within feminist political ecology, including Giovanna Di Chiro, Dianne Rocheleau, Catherine Walsh and Christa Wichterich. Offering a collective critique of the ‘green economy’, it features the latest analyses of the post-Rio+20 debates alongside a nuanced reading of the impact of the current ecological and economic crises on women as well as their communities and ecologies. This new, politically timely and engaging text puts feminist political ecology back on the map.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783600908
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 05/14/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Wendy Harcourt is associate professor at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University. She was editor-in-chief of the journal Development from 1995 to 2012 and during that period published five books, including Women and Politics of Place with Arturo Escobar (2005). Her monograph Body Politics in Development: Critical Debates in Gender and Development (Zed Books, 2009) received the 2010 Feminist and Women’s Studies Association’s Prize. She is currently completing three books on transnational feminism, embodiment and civic change, and gender and development, and is editor of the book series Gender, Development and Social Change.

Ingrid L. Nelson is assistant professor in the Department of Geography and the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Vermont. She completed her PhD in geography and a graduate certificate in women’s and gender studies from the University of Oregon. Her research in Mozambique examines masculinities, class and gender dynamics in forest conservation; afforestation ‘land grabs’; and illegal timber trade contexts. She is currently preparing a monograph focused on the practices and rumours that make forest landscapes in Mozambique. Beyond academia, she contributed to the Women’s Major Group submission for the ‘zero draft’ document, leading up to Rio+20.

Wendy Harcourt is a feminist researcher and activist working at the Society for International Development in Rome Italy as senior advisor and chief editor of the quarterly journal Development. Since 1988 she has built up the journal to be one of the most honest and critical quarterly publications on development. Born in Australia she now lives in Italy and is actively engaged in global feminist politics through her work with Women in Development Europe, European Feminist Forum and the Feminist Dialogues. Her work and commitment to global gender justice has taken her around the world teaming up with UN policy makers, research institutes, women's groups and social justice movements. She has written extensively on globalization and development from a gender perspective. Body Politics in Development is her first full-length book and won the 2010 FWSA Book Prize.

Read an Excerpt

Practising Feminist Political Ecologies

Moving Beyond the 'Green Economy'

By Wendy Harcourt, Ingrid L. Nelson

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Wendy Harcourt and Ingrid L. Nelson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78360-090-8



Dianne Rocheleau


To provide a self-reflective grounded sense of why and how and where feminist political ecology (FPE) emerged, my chapter reflects on my experiences, in place and in person, as well as in my writing and engagement with the stories of others. In this way I can convey my own situated and partial knowledge as part of a larger movement and a journey, a coalition and a coalescence of people seeking to decolonize themselves, their professions, social and environmental movements and the terms of encounters across distinct cultures, histories and geographies. I write as someone who has roots in an imperial state and dominant culture (the USA) and who is defined by various other identities (subjugated and dominant), based on gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality and race, expressed in cultures, economies and ecologies.

I write as a thinker, and also as a listener – that is, as the Zapatistas have it, as an honest, engaged and situated reporter and witness. I have been at various times and places an observer, advocate, scribe, investigator, participant and analyst, with affiliations ranging from universities and philanthropic foundations to international agriculture and forestry research centres, national and international NGOs, local and larger social movements, and various solidarity networks. In the chapter I situate myself in each instance as I report particular examples of FPE, in relation to intersections and encounters with dominant or different and alternative practices, policies and ways of being.

Early seeds of FPE

In 1979, as a PhD student, I went to the Cordillera Central (Central Mountains) of the Dominican Republic to investigate the relationship of upland land-use practices to river systems and their downstream uses, including hydroelectric energy, urban water supplies, irrigation of commercial rice fields and sedimentation of coastal zones. I was focused on physical processes in watersheds, their relation to urban/rural inequalities and class, and the possible reconciliation of upland and lowland priorities and practices in the Sierra region and the Yaque river basin.

Gender was not on my agenda except as a kind of cultural minefield, as I negotiated my own personal and professional position in a sea of male foresters, soil conservation and water engineers, technicians and rural farmers. This was not new, given my field experience as an environmental specialist in Tampa, Florida, and as a graduate student in two less-than-woman-friendly departments. I was a feminist, but in my professional life I had not gone beyond the question of personal and professional equity for myself and other women, in relation to my prior environmental fieldwork in the USA and my planned work in environment and development in the Sierra.

I was working directly with Plan Sierra, an integrated rural conservation and development project, funded, designed and staffed by Dominicans, as a joint venture between private capital and national government. It was one of the first conservation and development projects of its kind, prior to the appearance of 'sustainable development'.

I, unknowingly, had been seduced by imperial privilege. I had been given the impression at the university that it was easier to 'get things done' and 'make an impact' in both environment and economic development in developing countries than at home in the USA. The prevailing private property framework and weak environmental laws in the USA left little room to regulate land-use patterns and practices in the public interest, and to protect ecosystems from destruction, degradation and contamination. In addition, the developing country context in which some of my professors worked was more like my own extended family home places (Quebec/Vermont borderlands and Appalachia) than the professional workplaces and field sites of my professors working in the USA. So I changed advisers and fields and became an apprentice in the nascent field of environment and development, with all the privileges and problems that implies. It would take years of another alternative and simultaneous apprenticeship with people in local and larger landscapes across several countries, and decades of work (ongoing), to surmount those problems and fully confront issues of privilege mixed with elements of subjugated identities (gender, class and ethnicity). And of course I was not alone. If it takes a village to raise a child, perhaps it takes 1,000 villages and their uninvited apprentices to inform, motivate and guide a paradigm shift, and eventually a political reversal, among academics, professionals and activists involved in environment, development and social justice (Rocheleau 2005).

Two expressions of gendered realities in this context put gender front and centre in my thinking about environment and development, even though it would not fit within the covers and the conceptual confines of my very technical dissertation on soil and water conservation (Rocheleau and Hoek 1984).

First, the landscape was replete with women-headed or women-managed households, since a large proportion of men between the ages of twenty and fifty had emigrated from the Sierra region to the USA, mostly to New York City. Yet the women who stayed behind were not allowed to farm the land alone, without an adult male family member. I had asked to meet some women farmers to include them in my preliminary study to design a soil and water sampling network on farmers' fields, forests and pastures and in the streams and rivers that drained the watersheds of three different communities. I was told that there were almost no women farmers, yet I saw them everywhere carrying machetes, cutting firewood and working in the fields. I was told they were 'helping' but not really 'farming', that they could not open up a field with a plough and plant it on their own without seriously damaging their status in their families and communities. Of course that resonated with my own experience at home. My mother was said to be 'helping out' (not co-supporting us) when she held an office job and still did all the housework in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, while my father was seen as the 'breadwinner'. In reality they both worked very hard to make a working-class life for us.

So I asked my engineering and technical colleagues to connect me to the only two 'women farmers' that they knew through their soil conservation and forestry extension work. Sara Sanchez's husband had left years ago and had sent money regularly, then less and intermittently, and finally it stopped. There was no telling whether he was remarried or unemployed or not well, since many men found themselves stranded and unable to travel readily between the two countries owing to increased immigration law enforcement. Sara was the effective head of household with several children (none of them adult sons), and her disabled elder father-in-law who could no longer do manual farm labour. The entire family worked at home weaving palm fibre containers (esterra) for tobacco producers, but the prices were too low to make ends meet. The reality was that they needed to farm to eat.

Sara waited to do it at night. She gathered the children and explained what they would do and why. She rented a team of oxen from a neighbour and on a moonlit night, under partial cover of darkness, they opened up the plot, ploughed it and sowed it before daylight. She would not be able to bear the taunts and scrutiny of her neighbours if they saw her opening up a plot and daring to act as 'the farmer'. She did have to face them later but it was easier. She felt judged and shunned, yet proud of her plot of mixed field crops and the harvest it would yield.

Berta Frias was a single woman who dressed in men's trousers and high rubber boots and a man's cotton jacket. She had abandoned the typical female dress of women in the area and was openly farming on her own. She was respected by my colleagues as a good farmer and a hard worker but was not treated as a respected woman by the community. She was on her own. She spoke of the need to farm and talked proudly of how she liked the work and did it well.

Carmen Ramirez was my neighbour in the countryside. She too was a married woman whose husband had long since left. She worked in a little country bar down the road and was involved with a man who was married and perhaps visited and financially supported other women, in addition to Carmen. The community gossiped a bit about Carmen but did not exclude or shun her.

I asked my friends about the paradox of the degree of acceptance of Carmen's situation versus the judgement and censure that Berta and Sara endured. My understanding of their reply, in my own words, was that it was better to transgress as a woman, than to be unwomanly. This was clearly about more than being male or female and having land or not. It was about gendered divisions of labour, rights to land, norms of behaviour, and complex identities. An abandoned woman being supported by a married man did not challenge male privilege and authority in the same way as being 'the farmer' and opening the land. If Sara and Berta had been wealthy enough to hire men to open the land and 'farm' it, that would also have been acceptable. Deeply ingrained concepts of gender, class and lineage entwined with and permeated relationships to the living world, landscapes and sustenance. This was not a 'discovery'. It was a lesson delivered by the women themselves and my colleagues. Suddenly the land lit up with gendered landscapes and land-use patterns and the material implications for water and resource management and food production.

The second revelation in this gendered landscape came courtesy of a woman who lived on one of the farms where I was monitoring erosion, and an anthropologist colleague who had lived in the same community for over a year. I had been visiting Jose and Maria Vasquez's farm for three or four months, planning, surveying and constructing the erosion and runoff monitoring equipment on their sloping field of cassava, then periodically returning after each rainfall to measure the amount of water and soil in the collection tanks and to collect samples of the soil eroded from the plots. Each time I arrived Maria very cordially invited me to have a cup of coffee in her kitchen, which I always refused, equally cordially, being too 'busy' with 'real' work to spend time with her.

One day I arrived to find the entire slope had slumped and taken with it the block construction of the experimental plot and all the equipment as well. I was devastated. My research was in jeopardy. While I took pictures and measurements in order to estimate the amount of soil lost in that storm and landslip, Maria came out once again. I accepted the coffee and the chance to leave the field behind and enjoy the shade and hospitality of her open-air kitchen. Over the next hour she related to me the cropping and land-use history of her own plot and the entire small watershed in which the community was nestled. The plot had been cropped originally in rotation, to produce mixed food crops, then later continuously in peanuts, and tobacco. Finally, after thirty years, Jose planted cassava as a single crop, when nothing else would grow. Maria had asked him to give the land a rest but he said they had no alternative. She concluded that this landslip (small landslide) on their plot was surely the result of that history. She noted that most farms in the valley had a similar tale to tell.

Maria also recounted the parallel history of her once flourishing small business as a producer of casabe, a flatbread made from fermented cassava (yuca) tubers. The traditional long-lasting crisp flatbread can be rebaked on the stove top and served crisp, after weeks of storage, an important advantage in remote montane regions. The processing of the tubers (fermentation, drying, mixing, cooking and baking) required knowledge, skill, plenty of cassava roots and a regular supply of high-quality firewood to fuel the large clay oven outside her home. Maria reported that she had to close down her business owing to the scarcity and resulting high price of local firewood. She described the rapidly rising price of firewood and the slower rise and eventual ceiling of casabe prices, and her decision to quit producing at the point of what economists would call 'diminishing returns'. She noted that the men in the community had deforested the hills that ringed their bowl-shaped watershed, for quick economic gain. She stated that she and the other women had no voice in that decision.

Maria was not a 'farmer' but a 'farm wife' and an artisan/business owner, with a very distinct perspective and different types of knowledge about the watershed and land use, as well as the household economy and the gender relations inherent in each. So I learned from her about the facts of the community and watershed history, as well as the distinct logics, knowledges and necessities of men and women and of people involved in crop and timber production versus food processing.

All of their livelihoods were embedded in ecologies, economies and landscapes not always of their own making. The men's options were constrained by national and international labour and commodity markets and the women were unable to make their case for forest conservation and management or soil conservation and diverse food crops, against the backdrop of unequal land distribution and unfavourable market conditions.

Three years later, after writing my PhD thesis, I spoke with Eugenia (Nia) Georges (1990, 1992), who had lived in the same area doing an ethnographic study of resources, land use, land tenure and migration. She added to Maria's story an account of the mysteriously sleepy young men in the neighbouring town, who were cutting the forest and loading logs on trucks by night, then sleeping in the park and outside their homes during the day. The entire enterprise was orchestrated by a well-to-do and politically connected person from outside the community.

She also told me the gendered story about the entwined fate of the hogs, the people who raised them, the palm trees in the pastures, and the palm fibre weavers. Prior to the swine flu epidemic both women and men had raised and sold hogs, with palm fruit as a major source of feed. Male owners of property with palm trees also sometimes cut them for timber, a prized building material for local houses. While the male head of household owned the land and the trees, both women and men each fed their own hogs the fruit, and the women of the house could harvest, or allow other women (family, friends, neighbours) to harvest, some of the palm fronds for fibre. They wove this into containers used to transport tobacco leaves and sold the containers to middlemen.

When the swine flu epidemic swept through the area, the USDA advisers mandated destruction of all the pigs in the country. So many men and women lost an important source of cash, which was the major or only income source for many women. The fact that the palm fruit was no longer needed increasingly led male property owners to cut the trees for timber, leaving the women of their own households and the larger community without the fibre to weave the tobacco containers. While the containers required long hours of labour and sold at a low price, this was the only direct and independent source of cash for some women, especially those in the poorest households, as I had learned earlier from Sara (see above). So there were gender divisions of labour, land use and tenure that led to gendered economic consequences of the swine flu epidemic, and subsequently produced specific landscapes and ecologies. At the same time Carmen Diana Deere and Magdalena Leon de Leal published their groundbreaking book on sexual division of labour in Andean peasant production systems, which I would encounter a few years later. After some time in the more explicitly gendered landscapes of Kenya, I distilled the lessons from Maria and Nia in a diagram (see Figure 1.1, here) that informed foresters, farming systems researchers and practitioners, gender-focused researchers and development specialists and eventually feminist political ecologists (Rocheleau 1987).

This encounter with gendered and intersectional identities embedded in landscapes and livelihoods was for me the first seed of FPE which bloomed later in another phase of my research in a very different place. I suspect that I was not alone in this and that many of my colleagues have had similar experiences. We went into 'the field' (someone else's home, habitat, workplace, world) to look at differences in class and in rural versus urban interests, and differences in environment and development priorities. We were surprised and suddenly immersed in previously (to us) illegible gendered livelihoods and landscapes shaped by gendered power relations, across rural and urban spaces and North/South lines. It took many of us academics and development specialists a bit longer to situate ourselves within the larger systems that we all inhabited.


Excerpted from Practising Feminist Political Ecologies by Wendy Harcourt, Ingrid L. Nelson. Copyright © 2015 Wendy Harcourt and Ingrid L. Nelson. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

  • Introduction: are we 'green' yet? And the violence of asking such a question - Wendy Harcourt and Ingrid L. Nelson
  • Section I: Positioning feminist political ecology
    • 1. A situated view of feminist political ecology from my networks, roots and territories - Dianne Rocheleau
    • 2. Contesting green growth, connecting care, commons and enough - Christa Wichterich
    • 3. Life, nature and gender otherwise: feminist reflections and provocations from the Andes - Catherine Walsh
  • Section II: Rethinking feminist political ecology
    • 4. Feminist political ecology and the (un)making of 'heroes': encounters in Mozambique - Ingrid L. Nelson
    • 5. Hegemonic waters and rethinking natures otherwise - Leila M. Harris
    • 6. Challenging the romance with resilience: communities, scale and climate change - Andrea J. Nightingale
  • Section III: Living feminist political ecology
    • 7. A new spelling of sustainability: engaging feminist-environmental justice theory and practice - Giovanna Di Chiro
    • 8. The slips and slides of trying to live feminist political ecology - Wendy Harcourt
    • 9. Knowledge about, knowledge with: dilemmas of researching lives, nature and genders otherwise - Larissa Barbosa da Costa, Rosalba Icaza and Angélica María Ocampo Talero
    • 10. World-wise otherwise stories for our endtimes: conversations on queer ecologies - Wendy Harcourt, Sacha Knox and Tara Tabassi

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