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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 8 (2001)

Shady Practices, Agroforestry and Gender Politics in The Gambia, by Richard A. Schroeder. Berkeley: University of California Press (1999), xxxiv, 172 pp.

 

Reviewed by Barbara P. Thomas-Slayter, International Development Program, Clark University, Worcester, MA

Richard Schroeder’s Shady Practices offers a fascinating and timely analysis of ecology and gendered politics in The Gambia, weaving together an amazing story of men and women caught up in struggles over livelihood strategies, land use, resource tenure and domestic relations and obligations. The cast of characters includes not only the villagers of The Gambia’s North Bank community of Kerewan, but also national level agencies and their economic objectives, and international donors with their changing, even contradictory, policies and programs for achieving sustainable development and environments. Schroeder effectively situates this story in the broad context of environment and development theoretical perspectives drawing from the varied frameworks connecting gender, environment and development. He aligns himself most closely with the perspectives of "feminist political ecology" and "feminist environmentalism". These viewpoints focus on the material conditions women face in sustaining viable livelihoods and environments and regard gender, along with class, caste, race, culture and ethnicity, as a critical variable in shaping resource access and control.

Schroeder’s story opens in 1986 with his employment by the Gambian field office of the US-based non-governmental organization, Save the Children Federation. It continues in 1989 and 1991, when he returns to Kerewan with foundation support for dissertation research to carry out a systematic investigation of the emergence of market gardening by women in this Mandinka community and a subsequent introduction of agroforestry practices - with international donor support - which has threatened to undermine the horticultural livelihood strategy. During these periods of field research, his research methods included: a) systematic surveys to obtain basic demographic and economic data from 700 households, b) detailed yield and marketing data from 100 gardeners, c) a structured data collection exercise focusing on production practices in the gardens. In addition, Dr. Schroeder carried out numerous semi-structured and informal interviews, which were facilitated by his strong skills in the Mandinka language, and gathered documentary and oral histories. A follow up visit (1995) allowed him to re-interview the original market data sample to confirm findings.

Two decades of drought, beginning in the 1970s, prompted hundreds of women's groups in The Gambia to intensify fruit and vegetable production in low-lying communal garden projects. Historically, according to the gender division of labor in this region, men have grown groundnuts (peanuts) and the coarse grains (millet, sorghum, and maize) on upland fields during the rainy season. Their domination of groundnut production, the country's main source of foreign exchange, translated into control over most of the cash income generated through agriculture. Women have grown rice and vegetables in swamps and low-lying areas with the bulk of their produce strictly for home consumption.

The rapid commercialization of vegetable production took place during this period of low rainfall and was permitted partly by the adoption of rice seed varieties that can be harvested as much as two months earlier than the cultivars grown previously, thus freeing women to take up other responsibilities. Instead of producing solely to meet household food needs, they now devote a greater proportion of their labor to irrigated cash crops grown during the dry season. The establishment of weekly border markets and construction of a series of feeder roads transformed the economic geography of the North Bank in the early 1980s, thereby linking this new Gambian vegetable growing area to the large Senegalese market to the north. Many women gardeners began to earn more money from their crop sales than their husbands did from groundnuts. With these cash incomes, women have taken on major new household financial responsibilities including food and clothing, responsibilities borne either solely or primarily by men prior to the garden boom.

Originally, economic necessity motivated women to expand their gardens. In the 1980s, government deregulation of staple food prices under structural adjustment requirements increased the budgetary squeeze on rural households. Low groundnut prices caused many male household heads to default on some of their traditional financial obligations to their families. A government retrenchment program and the deregulation of fertilizer prices exacerbated the rural economic situation further. Women felt pressure to generate increased cash incomes. At the same time, external funding began to flow into the region as international donors began to emphasize, first, women’s agricultural projects and, later, environmental stabilization programming.

In the early 1980s, several women growers' organizations lobbied for material support to expand two existing garden sites. Representatives of the growers' groups, extension agents from the civil service, and the volunteer met several times over a period of months to put together plans for the construction of several wells and to expand the area to accommodate nearly 500 women. Funding was provided by an outside donor, and the project was jointly administered by the volunteer and government extension agents. The Ministry of Agriculture was responsible for surveying and allocating individual land parcels.

These arrangements were implemented and later challenged by one of the sites’ landholders, leading to protest, detention, demonstration, government intervention concerning the dispute between the landholder and growers, and eventually to a court case. In the final ruling on the case, nearly all of the substantive claims by the growers were upheld. The sole exception involved allegations made by the landholder that vegetable growers had planted dozens of fruit trees within the perimeter without authorization. His insistence that they be removed won the court's backing, and women were ordered to remove all trees at his request.

Within a day or two of the decision, the landowner visited the garden and ordered several dozen trees removed. Then, in an action that foreshadowed the coming conflict in Kerewan's gardens, he immediately replanted several dozen of his own trees within the perimeter. By locating seedlings directly on top of garden beds already allocated to vegetable growers, his expectation was that water delivered by growers to the vegetable crop would support his trees until the ensuing rainy season.
This case led other landholders to reappraise their management of low-lying land resources. Whereas they may have initially resisted tree planting by women on the grounds that it reduced future land use options, the prospect of "capturing" a female labor force to water trees, manure plots and guard against livestock incursions within the fenced perimeters encouraged them to undertake orchard production on the garden sites themselves. Seeing the orchards as a potential breakthrough in the attempt to reforest the river basin, international development agencies quickly offered financial and technical support. These agencies included governments and NGOs from North America and Europe, as well as the United Nations.

Schroeder observes that the effort to introduce monocrop mango orchards owned by male landholders replaces the gardeners' own more complex agroforestry systems. The landholders’ actions threaten to 1) reduce the diversity of crops grown on low-lying land; 2) reduce the income generated per land unit in absolute terms; 3) restrict women's cash incomes in relative terms; and 4) confine the seasonal distribution of income drawn from the plots to the period of the mango harvest. Each of these factors has serious negative implications for family food security and the livelihoods of women gardeners in this region.

Schroeder demonstrates that in The Gambia's North Bank Division, drought-related ecological changes since the 1970s have led to competition between male and female crop production systems over low-lying land and groundwater resources. Dozens of lucrative communal market gardens controlled by women have been threatened by largely male-dominated fruit orchards established in the same locations as a means to "stabilize" land resources. In an attempt to promote environmental stabilization through tree planting, international donors had encouraged male landholders to take advantage of the female labor power invested in the irrigation of garden plots by planting orchards on the same locations. Shade canopy eventually undermines gardeners' objectives as plants no longer get sufficient sun, and destroys the gardeners’ usufruct rights by restoring the plots to male control assured by the presence of male-owned trees. In many villages, funding for orchard projects now effectively replaces the food security and equity-oriented women in development (WID) emphasis of the previous decade.

By planting orchards (and woodlots) directly on top of gardens that function as women's income-generating projects, male landholders reap a double benefit: first, from the subsidy paid by development agencies to install infrastructure, such as wells and fences, and, second, from unpaid female labor, which the men "capture" to water their trees. It is clear that the political ecology of this flourishing horticultural district has become gendered! Schroeder’s return to this region in 1995 revealed a continuing and complex struggle involving resistance, negotiation, compromise, victories and losses in a dynamic and unresolved land use conflict between women’s garden groups and male land owners.

This comparison of the garden/orchards confirmed that trees can be used as a means for claiming both material and symbolic control over garden lands. Tree planting on garden beds, moreover, is a mechanism for landholders to alienate surplus female labor as well as subsidies embodied in concrete-lined wells and permanent wire fences. At the same time, shade effects from tree planting threaten to undermine the productivity of gardeners, who now play key roles in providing for the subsistence needs if their families. This situation has brought about considerable resistance on the part of vegetable growers, who have demonstrated both individually and collectively their willingness to contest anything that they perceive as a threat to their newfound livelihoods. Donor agencies and the state have used landholders' leverage over vegetable growers to meet their own objectives of environmental stabilization via tree planting. This implies, Schroeder reminds the reader, that in some cases developers at all levels have staked their very legitimacy on the continued mobilization of unpaid female labor. They have also failed to recognize the critical factor motivating women to undertake land improvements in the first place, namely the preservation of livelihoods.

In sum, the dramatic emergence of a female cash crop system in rural Gambia resulted from the convergence of several ecological, social and economic forces simultaneously requiring women to assume unprecedented financial responsibilities within their families and communities. Gender is thus a key factor in understanding The Gambia's recent ecological politics. Schroeder has a keen grasp of the ways in which local dynamics intersect with wider national and international processes. He offers the reader a carefully documented micro-history and ethnographic research of the region, drawing on his extensive field experience and in-depth knowledge of the area. He embeds his analysis in a conceptual framework drawn from the disciplines of geography, environment, gender and development studies. This intriguing work is relevant to those focusing on African development, environmental change, agroforestry, gender politics the intersection of local power relations and international processes, and aid donor policies. For both scholar and practitioner in these arenas, this case study is "a must."