by Angela Cordeiro | 15 Jul 1995

July 1995


Angela Cordeiro

Promoting and appreciating the diversity of agricultural systems is a fundamental step in fighting rural hunger and conserving genetic resources. Farm women are key players in any such strategy, and we believe that their role must be taken into consideration, especially with the Beijing Conference on Women coming up. The following article is a contribution by agronomist Angela Cordeiro, who has worked extensively with farming communities on genetic resources and on-farm management in Brazil with AS-PTA.


Hey, they finally noticed us!

Over the past two decades, women have gained recognition in governmental and non-governmental arenas, at least in the space they take up in documents approved at countless conferences on development issues. While women were still winning their place on development agendas, the environment also became a major issue. At first, relations between women and the environment were rather low-key, but since the UNCED Earth Summit in 1992, the recognition of the relationship has gained momentum, and the two issues have become inseparable. One indicator of this trend is the number of references to the role of women in preparatory documents and in the treaties and commitments signed during UNCED. Agenda 21, for example, signed by governments in Rio as a commitment to globalisation for sustainable development, dedicated an entire chapter to women, setting amongst its main objectives "the participation of women in the management of national ecosystems and in controlling environmental degradation." Also the Chapter on biodiversity in Agenda 21 highlights as an objective for governments: The recognition and promotion of traditional methods and knowledge of local populations, emphasising the particular role of women as relevant to the conservation of biological diversity and to the sustainable use of biological resources."

There are many more such quotes available than there is space for in this article. What matters is that the strong association established between women and the environment does not necessarily mean a solid recognition of their role in sustainable development. Most often, the first question asked is what women can do to "save" natural resources, rather than what might be done to improve their own living conditions.

In practice, the space won by women in discussions and on paper has not been expressed in national policy making. One criticism of farm policy makers is that they usually set women's issues apart in isolated chapters of their reports or direct them to ministries responsible for social matters. Women are left out of both the technical chapters and the concerns of the ministries of agriculture. In this way, the role of women as agents of production is ignored.

Such problems are not the monopoly of governments. Development and/or environmental NGOs and people's movements have been at pains to keep up with pressure from funding agencies which request greater emphasis on work with women. While funders push for NGOs to take up the issue, their quantitative and beaurocratic criteria do not really help promote any greater understanding. Very often, also in the more progressive groups, women continue to be dealt with in "separate chapters."

The fact of the matter is that we all have a lot to learn, to put this new gender language into practice. We have to learn how to incorporate a genuine gender perspective into our overall strategies, before setting out to work with farm women. Getting to know the farm woman's workplace involves the diversity within these production systems, as well as the farm families' own basic food security.

Reproduction and production

Small family farming is a very complex system and the subject of endless discussion amongst the proponents of various lines of thought -- who may never agree on its true nature. Perhaps the only point where different analysts agree is that the role of women in the family production system has been virtually ignored. Official statistics and censuses have been a very weak starting point for most studies, since they count women only as "housewives." In Brazil, the 1989 National Households Sample Survey asserts that, out of 15 million people working in agriculture, only 33% are female. Anybody who has had even minimal contact with the countryside knows that such figures are totally wrong. Official statistics not only suffer from methodological problems in the data gathering, but especially from a misconception about the nature of productive labour.

Farm women have both productive and reproductive roles. The gender division in labour must be understood in planning any actions aimed at promoting women's participation. When we study the different ways in which men and women allocate their time, we see there are tasks that both carry out, other tasks that are done exclusively by women, and other tasks exclusively carried out by men. Also the physical spaces on the farm are often divided along gender lines.

At workshops with farm women in southern Brazil, we did an exercise called "The Farmwork Lottery". We asked the women to make a list of all the tasks to be done on a farm. We then asked them to indicate which tasks were for women, which for men and which for both. We hightlight the results in the accompanying table. One feature which is common to all the exercises carried out is that the only activity in which women never partake is marketing. On the other hand, ploughing was most often identified as a man's activity, although many farm women say they also plough and actually prefer ploughing to weeding and hoeing.

This example cannot be generalised, since it depends on the production system, on the family make-up and age spread, on social, economic and environmental circumstances, and on cultural factors. In Brazil, for example, there is considerable variation in the degree of farm women's involvement in the most important money-making activities: cash crop production. Differences are not only regional, but also occur within a single community.

We can generalise, however, on the high degree of women's involvement in productive activities for on-farm, family consumption. Since their activities are generally not considered as part of production because they do not generate cash, many initiatives aimed at promoting women's work emphasise their participation in market-oriented activities which are normally controlled by men. In this way they continue to ignore the subsistence production sector. Such projects may lead to a substantial increase in the woman's work load, and actually exacerbate previous gender imbalances. The point, therefore, is not just promotion of women per se, but also the recognition of the real importance of production for on-farm consumption.

The importance of "homegardens"

In the highly simplified production systems such as the soybean monocultures in southern Brazil, any diversity that still exists will be found around the house or in the small plots where "odds-and-ends" such as herbs and flowers are planted. This is easily observed when we take a closer look at a rural landscape. Around the house we normally have the orchard, the garden, medicinal plants, trees, flowers, chickens and the stable. This is the space where women spend much of their time doing productive work for on-farm consumption, as well as generating marketable surpluses. Some products from the farm-yard homegarden, as well as cheese prepared from the cows' milk, can bring in enough cash to cover some of the family's day-to-day expenses.

Despite its importance, little study has been done in this area, and its contribution to income generation is generally underestimated. Much economic analysis of small family farms ignores this sector altogether -- the same analysis which fails to explain how this kind of farming still survives at all, despite its many problems. In a two-year survey carried out by Assessoar and AS-PTA in 1985 with five families on small farms in south-eastern Parana in southern Brazil, the value of on-farm production was calculated on the basis of local retail market prices. Among the five families, the value of production for on-farm consumption varied from 33% to 89% of total income. This is money which they actually would have to spend if they chose to buy that food from local merchants (see Table 2). It is significant that these families' diets were reasonably rich, including high-value products such as meat, cheese, milk, fruit, a variety of vegetables, home-made bread, honey and other food.

In addition to supplementing income, diversified subsistence production can guarantee a family's food security. Another survey, carried out the same time as the one just mentioned, reveals the risks for families living in monoculture production systems with much less diversified subsistence production. In a year when things go well, much of the once-a-year harvest income goes to paying off debts to local merchants for groceries. Less subsistence production also means a poorer diet, for those who cannot afford the high cost of more nutritious food. In addition, major weather problems can compromise the main harvest and the family's financial situation as well.

Another major factor, which reveals the relation between women and biodiversity management, is the broad diversity of inter- and intra-species variability in the women's working area. This fact has caught the attention of researchers looking at genetic resources in all parts of the world. Studies done in Cuban homegardens, known locally as 'conucos', describe them in term of complex structures and veritable repositories of genetic diversity. Such studies defend the importance of homegardens in the process of species evolution, as well as their potential roll-on strategies for in situ conservation.

These homegardens are buttresses against genetic erosion, since they often contain local varieties which have been displaced by commercial varieties in the farm's cash crops. This is not just a hypothesis, but a reality routinely observed in the field. In AS-PTAs work collecting varieties of corn and beans with small farming communities, we very often find in homegardens and in the women's work areas varieties that are not used for cash crops but which are still planted because they taste or cook better or even because they are aesthetically attractive.

Another interesting phenomenon observed in homegardens is the inbreeding or migration of genes amongst the varieties of a given species caused by naturally occurring cross-pollination. This process serves to enhance variability. Another important factor is the adaptation of species to extreme or specific ecological conditions in the homegardens. We have often witnessed this process in the case of medicinal plants. Frosts are quite common during the winters in southern Brazil. Many farm women will reserve small plots near their houses that are protected from frost and, before the onset of winter, transplant seedlings of medicinal plants that might die if left in more open areas. In this way, they are not only guaranteeing a supply of herbs for their own use during the winter but also maintaining a reserve to plant in larger areas when spring comes to replace those lost during the winter.

All this experience has put homegardens on many researchers' agendas as living gene banks. They emphasise the importance of preserving homegardens as key elements in the conservation and generation of diversity in agricultural species.

Integrating work with women and diversity

Anyone who hopes to do work with women on Brazil's family farms must include biodiversity which means direct involvement with homegardens, livestock and "odds-and-ends." By the same token, work with the components or totality of agricultural biodiversity will never get past the good-intention stage unless it encompasses an active role for women. Planning and management activities aimed at sustainable production systems and at the well-being of rural families can only succeed if they incorporate notions of both diversity and gender. Food security, the conservation of diversity and the participation of women are thus the three legs of a tripod that make such activities viable. Once these concepts are accepted, the next step is to overcome the limitations that have kept this integration from taking place in practice. In this context two concepts are crucial.

One is the understanding the role of women in the agricultural production process. Because many mistakes are rooted in misinformation, a number of NGOs have carried out diagnoses of concrete situations in order to orient their future work. We should not repeat the same mistakes that appear in the official statistics and keep women out of the production process. Our methodologies for diagnoses must include techniques that allow for the expression of gender perspectives in all aspects of production. Just to mention a few such variables: it is important to gather information to explain the gender division of labour, farm administration and natural-resource management; the real allocation of each family member's time in all areas of activity; and where and when women participate in decision-making.

The second concept relates to awareness and promotion of production for on-farm consumption. In our planning and action, we must look beyond those few products that generate most of a family's cash income and open our eyes to the diversity of "odds-and-ends." Planning must be aimed not only at maximising monetary income but also at optimising well-being. In a country like Brazil, where 32 million people go hungry -- half of them in rural areas -- improving food supplies with a diversified and balanced diet is an immediate priority for all those working in the field of rural development.

In the field of agro-ecology, we must learn much more to be able to identify the maximum functional diversity for homegardens, both ecologically and in terms of the family's particular needs. Spatial and structural orientations must be developed to take the greatest possible advantage of potential for promoting species evolution and conservation of the biological diversity in each location.

With a better knowledge of the "invisible field," it will be easier to decide where to start. We should not forget that decreasing farm women's work load and increasing their participation in the economic management of their production are basic steps towards minimising and eventually overcoming gender imbalances. Therefore, the availability and distribution of labour are extremely important variables on which to base planning decisions. There may well be cases where an increase in the diversity of a production system for on-farm consumption will entail an impossible demand on the woman's labour, if she has her time taken up by cultivating cash crops. In this case, a starting point might be the introduction of technologies that relieve the women's work load or remove them from this activity so that they can work on production for on-farm consumption. Even in the area of housework, labour-saving instruments may open the way for women to spend more time working in the homegarden and with livestock. Projects aimed at adding value to surplus production in this latter area, such as small local agro-industrial undertakings, can also increase women's incomes.

Possibilities for "stimulating diversity" are as diverse as family farms. Of course it is not enough just to discover the right starting point. Making changes will often demand financial investment that small farmers simply cannot afford, much less their women partners. In any case, when policy makers are looking at possible funding and credit lines for development projects, it is important to see and hear this invisible world. Projects aimed at conserving genetic resources must be seen in very practical terms not only as ways of encouraging women to be "curators" for in situ conservation, but also -- and above all -- as an activity that can improve their overall conditions.

Translated by David Hathaway, of AS-PTA, Brazil. Angela Cordeiro may be reached at: R. Baräo do Cerro Azul, 246; UNIÄO DA VITÓRIA, PR ; BRAZIL; Phone: (55-42) 522 68 20, Fax: (55-42) 522 68 20, E-mail: [email protected]

Author: Angela Cordeiro
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