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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 4 (1997)
Ecology: Global Issues and Local Experiences. Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara
Thomas-Slayter and Esther Wangari (eds) London and New York: Routledge,
1996. xviii, 327 pp.
Reviewed by Helen Ross, Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University, Canberra.
Given the theoretical contribution
of gender studies to the field of political economy, this collection is
a timely development in political ecology and in feminist theories. It
is an equally useful set of case studies in development- -and especially
sustainable development--studies, human ecology, anthropology, rural sociology,
and social movements, well worth recommending to students in any of these
fields as a course text.
In their opening chapter, the editors
explain succinctly the positions and differences of a number of schools
of feminist scholarship and activism on the environment. They describe
their conceptual framework of feminist political ecology as linking insights
from feminist cultural ecology and political ecology with those of feminist
geography and feminist political economy.
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" (p. 4).
They focus on the gendered knowledge
used in the creation and maintenance of healthy environments, gendered
environmental rights and responsibilities, including property, resources,
space, legal and customary rights, and gendered environmental politics
and grassroots activism. These dimensions provide a general framework
for analysis, around which the case studies are grouped.
Unusual for an edited collection,
the case study chapters are almost seamless in their styles of analysis
and writing. Most of the case studies artfully combine analytical comment
with detail that enables one to visualise the situation.
Another strength of the organisation
of the case studies is that whereas one theme, such as activism, predominates
in each section, the other themes also permeate the analyses. For instance,
Bru-Bistuer s Spanish case studies outlining women s participation in
oppositional campaigns to industrial waste disposal also emphasises women
s understandings of the environmental issues, focused on concerns for
health. Miller, Hallstein and Quass West Harlem case study describes a
community (with substantial female leadership) that opposed the siting
of a sewerage treatment plant in their area. It goes on to describe the
health risks to women and children using the park subsequently built on
the roof of the plant, owing to their gendered use of space. The other
case studies emphasizing grassroots activism and gendered politics are
Campbell s analysis with the women s group of Xapuri, of the extent and
value of women s participation in the rubber tappers union in far western
Brazil, and Wastl-Walter s account of Austrian women s roles in grassroots
opposition to the destruction of riverine forest on the Danube for hydroelectric
power. In the latter case, the political campaign led to national changes
in political participation, including an increase in women s participation.
In each of the sections, the juxtaposition
of cases from industrialised and other countries is telling. The editors
explain their wish to break down the stereotype that environmental issues
in the so-called developing countries are a matter of survival, whereas
in industrialised countries they are concerned with quality of life. The
blend of case studies from different regions and ecosystems underlines
commonalties in conditions and experience.
Gendered differentials in resource
rights are examined through case studies on Kenya (Wangari, Thomas-Slayter
and Rocheleau), the Philippines (Shields, Flora, Thomas-Slayter and Buenavista),
and a central Himalayan valley (Mehta). For instance, the Kenyan case
study explores the ways in which gendered customary rights to land and
resources have interacted with colonial and postcolonial decisions on
land tenure to increase women s alienation from the means of livelihood
in semiarid regions. The case studies in this chapter also canvass gendered
knowledge and famine response, and grassroots activism and self-help.
A further example of rural women s diminishing control over access to
cultivable lands and forests is provided for a Himalayan district in India.
This case study also highlights how mountain farming systems are marginalised
within national agricultural policy and research priorities. Like the
Kenyan case, the Himalayan ownership rights--accruing to males, who are
often absent--promote inequitable access to resources and structure women
s dependence on men. This dependence, coupled with women becoming more
marginalised from agricultural decision-making, and devaluation of their
knowledge systems, leads to low social recognition for their roles in
agriculture and affects food security.
The Philippines case study examines
the effects of transition to a market economy on social exchange networks
and practices, and the complex relationship between social exchange, gendered
livelihoods and sustainable development. Women are central to the exchange
networks. I particularly enjoyed the account of hog raising under the
traditional exchange system and the market system. It reminded me of Lauriston
Sharp s classic account of the social impacts of missionaries giving Australian
Aboriginal women steel axes, where they had previously had to borrow stone
axes from men under an elaborate social exchange system. Sharp s article
could now be reread as gendered, if not feminist, political economy.
A section devoted to gendered forms
of knowledge includes case studies in Zimbabwe (Fortmann), the Dominican
Republic (Rocheleau, Ross, Morrobel), Silesia, Poland (Bellows), and the
U.S.A (Seagar). These cases could have been grouped under activism. The
Zimbabwe case study breaks the pattern of the other chapters by using
the first person style, and describing participatory methods. The Dominican
Republic case continues themes raised in other cases, that women s knowledge
and practice of agriculture and forestry remain invisible, and that gendered
interests are at stake in changing livelihood systems.
In another example that is as much
about activism as about the combination of women s experiental knowledge
with their scientific knowledge, the tested food for Silesia program ,
founded by women, is described as a creative and pragmatic response to
health and livelihood needs in a highly polluted region. The chapter speculates
whether the movement will in time become mainstreamed and taken over by
men. A final case study on the U.S.A discusses environmental activism
against nuclear facilities. The knowledge theme is picked up in discussion
as to whether women s strong roles in environmental activism reflect a
female ecoconnectedness , or can be explained in other ways. The chapter
contrasts science-based with experience-based environmentalism, arguing
that the former removes environmentalism from the realm of lived experience
and undercuts the valuable environmental knowledge of local observers,
The final chapter identifies themes
common to the case studies: (1) linking environment and survival, (2)
the impact of large economic and political systems on localities, (3)
asymmetrical gender-based entitlements to resources, (4) the value of
local knowledge, (5) gendered rights over space and access to social and
political power, (6) questioning of perceived divisions between rural
and urban spaces and production systems, and (7) women s political struggles.
These themes illustrate the editors intentions to reject dualistic constructions
of gender and environment, in favour of multiplicity and diversity, and
an emphasis on the complexity and interconnectedness of ecological, economic,
and cultural dimensions of environmental change. They amply illustrate
the connections between global and local scales, in policies, processes,
As a set of principles specifically
identified to define a feminist political ecology, I found these less
satisfactory than theoretical statements embedded elsewhere in the text.
The defining characteristics are conjoined somewhat awkwardly with more
general principles that are prominent in ecofeminism and common to a number
of environmental philosophies and new paradigms within the traditional
disciplines. This is just a matter of presentation. It illustrates that
feminist political ecology is joining the groundswell of integrative thinking
which has been emerging across many disciplines and interdisciplinary
fields for the past quarter century. The important point is that recognition
of gendered dimensions is still far from sufficient in the analytical
and activist fields that recognise the interconnectedness of all life,
and question the paradigm of technical progress and domination of nature.
The theoretical strength of this book is less in this set of principles,
than in the argument that gender interacts with (not merely adds to) the
other dimensions of power relationships already recognised in political
The editors recognise that in common with the majority of writing in political ecology and feminist scholarship, the book is primarily an analytical work, despite the degree of interest in analysing activism. The chapter on the Dominican Republic raises the important point that we need to move beyond critique to transform practice in land use and resource management. This is clearly the next challenging domain for feminist political ecology.