Latin America: Gendering Peasant Movements, Gendering Food Sovereignty

A problem peasant women face is invisibility in the feminist and women’s movements. A second problem is the weakness with which the food sovereignty concept has dealt with the challenges of feminism.


Interview with Dr. Pamela Caro taken and edited by Deepa Panchang and Beverly Bell

Pamela Caro is a director of the Program of Labor Citizenship with the Women’s Development Research Center (CEDEM), a Chilean non-governmental organization that supports peasant women in Latin America as they join the international feminist movement, but on their own terms and realities. Caro is also a volunteer with the peasant women’s organization Anamuri and the Latin American Coordination of Rural Organizations (CLOC).

A problem peasant women face is invisibility in the feminist and women’s movements. A second problem is the weakness with which the food sovereignty concept has dealt with the challenges of feminism.

To take the second problem first: Latin America has assumed the struggle for food sovereignty as an alternative to the neoliberal economic model. Food sovereignty is based on the conviction that each people has the right to make decisions about its own food systems: about its own eating habits; about its production, marketing, distribution, exchange, and sharing; and about keeping food and seeds in the public sphere. If we establish that food sovereignty is how people decide what to produce and under what conditions, our question from a feminist point of view is, then: how do people make decisions? Who decides how power is organized? Probably, in reality we’ll see that peasant women are in secondary roles in decision-making areas.

Facing this, peasant organizations such as Anamuri, CEDEM, the women’s sector of CLOC, and La Via Campesina [the worldwide farmer, peasant, and landless people movement] are trying to remove these traditional gender parameters. We are working on a campaign to gender the concept of food sovereignty. The challenge is how to turn food sovereignty into a tool to strengthen and empower peasant women.

Historically, women have been associated with food. Since ancestral times they have cultivated the seeds, reproduced the seeds and hybridized them. They are alchemists; they find new ways to prepare food, whether in the peasant kitchen or by the campfire. However, when food passes from the private sphere to the public one, in the areas of marketing and distribution, men appear in the process, because the male link with food happens in the public area. It’s then that we return to the old dichotomy between the private-female-invisible and the public-male-visible.

We’re dealing with a struggle for visibility and acknowledgment of the equal value of reproduction and the private world. But this alone is not enough. It’s also necessary for men to get more involved with food sovereignty in the early stages of reproduction, preparation, and preservation of food, and not only in the distribution. This is the way that we’ll break the false dichotomy between the female and the male.

This implies very concrete issues, like how to include men in the kitchen and how to include women in marketing products. This is what we call co-responsibility. For the CLOC women, co-responsibility is sharing the different roles and developing symmetrical weight of those roles. It is valuing equally the activities within the kitchen and the activities outside the kitchen. This is a very concrete example of the struggle to include gender in food sovereignty.

The second problem has to do with the Latin American and global feminist movements. The Latin American peasant women’s movement and popular grassroots women’s movements have been in the backyard of the international feminist movement. What peasant and grassroots women want is to build a feminism pertinent to their realities. The women’s sector of CLOC has to wrestle with a space where feminism will fit – not a stereotypical or traditional feminism, but one which acknowledges who indigenous and peasant women are. They take on, carefully, topics like sexuality and reproductive rights which are not yet recognized by peasant women. Radical feminists may see this as more conservative, but for peasant women this feminism is a transgressive and rebellious one, due to the conditions of traditional, ancient sexual division of labor that exists in the peasant world.

This takes a lot of time and work to change. Measuring this change has always been very difficult. They have not been equal across the board. There are peasant women who continue living in conditions of extreme subjugation and subordination. The part of the peasant movement that is active on gender issues is very small, in the continent and globally. We have to accept, very humbly, that what we are generating is still too little, too marginal. We have a great challenge to expand the changes among peasants.

Among the individuals who are an active part of the movement, who have seen beyond the campfire, you do indeed see changes. There is huge sense of value in the activities linked with food preparation, but once the women have gone out into public activities, they see that as a very low ceiling. They have pushed the envelope, they have moved on, and it’s not likely that they’ll go back. A woman who gains rights does not lose them.

Chile is a very isolated country culturally, besides being isolated geographically due to the Andes range that separates it from the rest of the continent. Chilean society is not very aware of or included in international networks. But of the four indigenous and peasant organizations who are members of CLOC/La Via Campesina, one is Anamuri, a national organization of indigenous rural women who used to be members of women’s sections of mixed-gender peasant unions. They rebelled and formed Anamuri in 1997.

These four organizations in the Latin America-wide CLOC/La Via Campesina have a very big challenge trying to make themselves more visible and less marginalized in Chile’s very conservative society. The dominant model is extreme neoliberalism. Food sovereignty is not included in any public policy or legislation or the constitution, unlike other countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Paraguay. But still, in Chile food sovereignty is part of many local activities that aren’t determined by legislation. These practices are acted on daily by right, not by decree.

In closing, we need to acknowledge the heterogeneity and diversity of the peasant sector. There is a peasant identity that they want to preserve, even if they don’t live in the countryside, even if they no longer have land or farm. It’s what shapes what they are, and how they deal with the world.

We who live in the city need to look further; we need to give urban areas a more rural perspective, because we, too, will gain by participating in the worldview of peasants, farmers, and land-based people. It’s not about helping them. It’s about enriching ourselves as urban dwellers with what these movements can contribute, to better the quality of life of everyone.

Many thanks to Paul Baumann for translating this interview.

Beverly Bell has worked for more than three decades as an advocate, organizer, and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the U.S. Her focus areas are just economies, democratic participation, and gender justice. Beverly currently serves as associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and coordinator of Other Worlds. She is author of Walking on Fire: Haitian Women Stories of Survival and Resistance, Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide, and Harvesting Justice: Transforming Food, Land, and Agricultural Systems in the Americas.