Feminist Political Ecology
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Feminist Political Ecology

Global Issues and Local Experience

Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, Esther Wangari, Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, Esther Wangari

  1. 352 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Feminist Political Ecology

Global Issues and Local Experience

Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, Esther Wangari, Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, Esther Wangari

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About This Book

Feminist Political Ecology explores the gendered relations of ecologies, economies and politics in communities as diverse as the rubbertappers in the rainforests of Brazil to activist groups fighting racism in New York City.
Women are often at the centre of these struggles, struggles which concern local knowledge, everyday practice, rights to resources, sustainable development, environmental quality, and social justice.
The book bridges the gap between the academic and rural orientation of political ecology and the largely activist and urban focus of environmental justice movements.

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Part I




A feminist political ecology perspective

Dianne Rocheleau) Barbara Thomas-Slayter, and Esther Wangari

The convergence of interest in environment, gender, and development has emerged under conditions of rapid restructuring of economies, ecologies, cultures, and polities from global to local levels. Global economic, political, and environmental changes have affected both men and women as stakeholders and actors in resource use and allocation, environmental management, and the creation of environmental norms of health and wellĀ­ being. Some scholars and activists see no gender differences in the ways human beings relate to the environment, except as they are affected by the constraints imposed by inequitable political and economic structures. Others see the gendered experience of environment as a major difference rooted in biology. We suggest that there are real, not imagined, gender differences in experiences of, responsibilities for, and interests in "nature" and enviĀ­ ronments, but that these differences are not rooted in biology per se. Rather, they derive from the social interpretation of biology and social constructs of gender, which vary by culture, class, race, and place and are subject to individual and social change.
In this volume, we explore the significance of these differences and the ways in which various movements, scholars, and institutions have dealt with gendered perspectives on environmental problems, concerns, and solutions. The major schools of feminist scholarship and activism on the environment can be described as:
  • 1 ecofeminist;
  • 2 feminist environmentalist;
  • 3 socialist feminist;
  • 4 feminist poststructuralist; and
  • 5 environmentalist.
Ecofeminists posit a close connection between women and nature based on a shared history of oppression by patriarchal institutions and dominant Western culture, as well as a positive identification by women with nature. Some ecofeminists attribute this connection to intrinsic biological attributes (an essentialist position), while others see the women/nature affinity as a social construct to be embraced and fostered (Plumwood 1993; Merchant 1981, 1989; King 1989; Shiva 1989; Mies and Shiva 1994; Rocheleau 1995). Feminist environmentalism as articulated by Bina Agarwal (1991) emphasizes gendered interests in particular resources and ecological processes on the basis of materially distinct daily work and responsibilities (Seager 1993; Hynes 1989). Socialist feminists have focused on the incorporation of gender into political economy, using concepts of production and reproduction to delineate men's and women's roles in economic systems. They identify both women and environment with reproductive roles in economies of uneven development (Deere and De Leon 1987; Sen and Grown 1987; Sen 1994) and take issue with ecofeminists over biologically based portrayals of women as nurturers Gackson 1993a and b). Feminist poststructuralists explain genĀ­ dered experience of environment as a manifestation of situated knowledges that are shaped by many dimensions of identity and difference, including genĀ­ der, race, class, ethnicity, and age, among others (Haraway 1991; Harding 1986; Mohanty 1991). This perspective is informed by feminist critiques of science (Haraway 1989; Harding 1991) as well as poststructural critiques of development (Escobar 1995; Sachs 1992) and embraces complexity to clarĀ­ ify the relation between gender, environment, and development. Finally, many environmentalists have begun to deal with gender within a liberal feminist perspective to treat women as both participants and partners in environmenĀ­ tal protection and conservation programs (Bramble 1992; Bath 1995).
We draw on these views of gender and environment to elaborate a new conceptual framework, which we call feminist political ecology. It links some of the insights of feminist cultural ecology (Fortmann 1988; Hoskins 1988; Rocheleau 1988a and b; Leach 1994; Croll and Parkin 1993) and political ecology (Schmink and Wood 1987, 1992; Thrupp 1989; Carney 1993; Peet and Watts 1993; Blaikie and Brookfield 1987; Schroeder 1993;Jarosz 1993; Pulido 1991; Bruce, Fortmann and Nhira 1993) with those offeminist geogĀ­ raphy (Fitzsimmons 1986; Pratt and Hanson 1994; Hartmann 1994; Katz and Monk 1993a and b; Momsen 1993a and b; Townsend 1995) and femiĀ­ nist political economy (Stamp 1989; Agarwal 1995; Arizpe 1993a and b; Thomas-Slayter 1992; Joekes 1995; Jackson 1985, 1995; Mackenzie 1995). This approach begins with the concern of the political ecologists who emphaĀ­ size decision-making processes and the social, political, and economic context that shapes environmental policies and practices. Political ecologists have focused largely on the uneven distribution of access to and control over resources on the basis of class and ethnicity (Peet and Watts 1993). Feminist political ecology treats gender as a critical variable in shaping resource access and control, interacting with class, caste, race, culture, and ethnicity to shape processes of ecological change, the struggle of men and women to sustain ecologically viable livelihoods, and the prospects of any community for "sustainable development."
The analytical framework presented here brings a feminist perspective to political ecology. It seeks to understand and interpret local experience in the context of global processes of environmental and economic change. We begin by joining three critical themes. The first is gendered knowledge as it is reflected in an emerging "science of survival" that encompasses the creation, maintenance, and protection of healthy environments at home, at work and in regional ecosystems. Second, we consider gendered environmental rights and responsibilities, including property, resources, space, and all the variations of legal and customary rights that are "gendered." Our third theme is gendered environmental politics and grassroots activism. The recent surge in women's involveĀ­ ment in collective struggles over natural resource and environmental issues is contributing to a redefinition of their identities, the meaning of gender, and the nature of environmental problems.


Until recently, conventional wisdom in international environmental circles suggested that environmental issues in industrialized countries had to do with "quality of life," whereas in Africa, Asia, and Latin America they had to do with survival. If we compare the conservation agenda of wildlife orgaĀ­ nizations in the United States with the Chipko movement to protect the forests and watersheds of the lower Himalayas, or with women's tree-planting initiatives in Kenya, this view seems accurate. However, there are also wildlife conservation organizations in Mrica and citizens' environmental justice movements in the United States. Toxic wastes, contaminated food, and workĀ­ place environmental hazards have become more than quality of life issues in many urban and industrial communities as well as in the remote rural areas affected by the same processes.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to recast this dichotomy along different lines, based on a careful analysis of the gender division of rights, responsiĀ­ bilities, and environmental risk in everyday life. While there are several axes of power that may define peoples' access to resources, their control over their workplace and home environments and their definitions of a healthy environment, we focus on gender as one axis of identity and difference that warrants attention. Feminist political ecology deals with the complex context in which gender interacts with class, race, culture and national identity to shape our experience of and interests in "the environment."
Our approach to feminist political ecology examines the very definition of "environment" and the gendered discourse of environmental science, environmental rights and resources, and environmental movements, using feminist critiques of science (Hynes 1989, 1991, 1992; Shiva 1989; Mies and Shiva 1994; Merchant 1982, 1989; Keller 1984; Griffin 1987; Birke and Hubbard 1995; Haraway 1989, 1991; Harding 1986, 1987; Tuana 1989; Hubbard 1990; Zita 1989) as well as the analyses and actions of feminist and environmental movements. For example, Sandra Harding (1986) has raised issues of gender inequities in science as a profession, gender biases and abuses in the practice of science, the myth of gender-neutral objectivity, gendered metaphors employed in scientific explanation and process, and the possibilities for a transformed, socially just science. Donna Haraway (1991) discusses the need to recognize and combine situated knowledges and invokes the "power of partial perspective" as a pathway toward greater objectivity. She advocates a pursuit of scientific knowledge that joins many knowers on the basis of affinities (reaching beyond identities) to build a joint, expanded understanding as part of an explicitly social project.
We also build on the work of socialist feminist scholars such as Nancy Fraser (1987), who has focused on the political discourse of needs and services in social welfare programs in the United States, and Patricia Stamp (1989) who addresses the gendered discourse of "donors and recipients" in interĀ­ national development. We extend their analyses to examine the impact of gender on environmental discourse and its differential effects on women and men (Merchant 1992; Hynes 1989, 1992; Plumwood 1993; Haraway 1991; Harding 1991).
The overview and case studies in this volume draw upon the experience of grassroots environmental movements worldwide, including such diverse situĀ­ ations as the struggle to save old growth forests in Europe, women's initiatives to secure safe food supplies in the industrial core of Poland, community efforts in the United States and Spain to fight toxic waste dumping, women's moveĀ­ ments to retain access to land and forest resources in Kenya, and women's participation in the struggles of the rubber tappers' union to protect their forĀ­ est homes and workplaces in the Brazilian Amazon. Less visible, more diffuse gendered struggles occur at household and community levels in the case study examples from Zimbabwe, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, and India. The experience of all of these disparate groups provides distinct examĀ­ ples of gendered science, rights, and political organization.
Reviewing these cases we find common threads of concern over:
  • ā€¢ survival;
  • ā€¢ the rights to live and work in a healthy environment;
  • ā€¢ the responsibility to protect habitats, livelihoods, and systems oflife support from contamination, depletion (extraction), and destruction; and
  • ā€¢ the determination to restore or rehabilitate what has already been harmed.
These common threads surface repeatedly within our varied case studies, which range from urban neighborhoods to arid farmlands to dense rainĀ­ forests. The commonalities and differences in the relation of gender and environment in these cases both contribute to and challenge prevailing theoĀ­ ries and serve to inform policy and practice for environment, development, and women's programs and movements.


Environmental science and "the international environmental movement" have been largely cast as the domain of men. In fact, while the dominant and most visible structures of both science and environmentalism may indeed be dominated by men, mostly from the wealthier nations, the women of the world - and many men and children with them - have been hard at work maintaining and developing a multiplicity of environmental sciences as well as grassroots environmental movements. And while it is the same few who may lay claim to pieces of the living landscape as private and state propĀ­ erty throughout the world, women and many men and children have also been busy maintaining and developing their own places on the planet through the daily management of the living landscape.
The case studies in this volume address the intersection of gender and environment through the lens of three themes: gendered science, gendered rights (over both property and the resource management process) and gendered organizations and political activity. Specific places are treated as culturally and ecologically distinct, but with many shared problems and concerns related to gender and environment in both global and local contexts.


Gendered science can be viewed in terms of the definition of what is science and who does it, in terms of the different possibilities for defining the relaĀ­ tion of people and "nature," and in terms of the apparently separate sciences and technologies of production and reproduction, public and private domains, and home, habitat, and workplace spaces. Through the stories of communities involved in a wide range of political and environmental strugĀ­ gles we examine the gender implications of the separation of work and knowledge, science and practice for the gendered science of survival in rural as well as industrial contexts. The case studies presented here illustrate the intersection of rural "local knowledge" with urban and suburban "houseĀ­ wives' epidemiology" and link the gendered knowledge of everyday life in urban and rural, and "north" and "south" contexts.
Our exploration of the convergence of gender, science, and "environĀ­ ment" is informed by several sources, including feminist scholarship, environmental science and policy literature, alternative environmental and development scholarship, women's movements, environmental movements, and alternative "development" movements (including "appropriate techĀ­ nology"). We rely heavily, but not exclusively, on the literature and experience of the last twenty years.
In North America and Europe, feminist health movements and the "houseĀ­ wives" environmentalist and anti-toxics movements have questioned the prevailing paradigm of professional science. They use women's experience to cha...

Table of contents

  1. Cover Page
  2. Half Title page
  3. Series page
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Dedication
  7. Contents
  8. List of Illustrations
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Introduction
  11. Part I Conceptual Overview
  12. Part II Gendered Organizations
  13. Part III Gendered Resource Rights
  14. Part IV Gendered Knowledge
  15. Part V Conclusion
  16. Contributors
  17. Index