Yvone Underhill-Sem on Feminist Political Ecology: Linking the Local to the Global

By Lopez, Janice | Women in Action, August 2007 | Go to article overview
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Yvone Underhill-Sem on Feminist Political Ecology: Linking the Local to the Global


Lopez, Janice, Women in Action


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Yvonne Underhill-Sem, a feminist geographer of Cook Island/New Zealand heritage, is a professor of gender and development at the University of Auckland, and the regional coordinator for Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) in the Pacific. Online, she shared with Isis International-Manila her thoughts on Feminist Political Ecology, the very theme of this WIA issue. Yvonne gladly examined the feminist political ecology framework, tracing its development, and looking at its strengths and challenges.

WIA: Feminist political ecology is a relatively, new and currently evolving framework. Could you trace its beginnings?

Yvonne Underhill-Sem [Yvonne]: Within geography, feminist political ecology became a recognisable area of study with the publication of the geographer Diane Rocheleau's edited book in 1997 entitled, Feminist Political Ecology: Global Perspectives and Local Experience (by D. E. Rocheleau, B. Thomas-Slayter and E. Wangari). Over the last decade, there has been a proliferation of political ecology studies focusing mostly on the developing world but although there has been a growing recognition that the themes of political ecology are applicable to First World situations as well advancing the specificities of a "Feminist" political ecology remains wanting.

A range of related theoretical approaches--including Marxism, dependency theory and world systems theory--have shaped political ecology studies. Perhaps not surprisingly, given this intellectual heritage, the feminist politics of this research agenda has been less evident. The reasons for this are many and varied but possibly pertain to the difficulties facing feminist scholarship in debates over disembodied human-environment studies. In these studies, the focus is more often on the relationships between already constituted subjects, who by default are gendered male. A revised feminist political ecology needs to begin more explicitly by focusing on the body because from here, the gendered effects of ecological process can be most clearly identified.

This disembodied movement was happening at the same time that ecofeminism was unproblematically embraced as a way of bringing women in. However, ecofeminists' arguments served to effectively keep women at some acceptable analytical distance from mainsteam political ecology studies because they disallowed the far more diverse sets of social and ecological arrangements that constitute human-nonhuman relations.

My sense is that this essentialist approach is changing with the ecological component being more closely configured in otherwise more politically nuanced political ecology studies. Further, more theoretically complex analysis has expanded political ecology studies into first world studies that, possibly inadvertently, provides for more nuanced feminist engagements.

WIA: What are the implications of feminist political ecology on other discourses surrounding feminism and political ecology, for example, ecofeminism?

Yvonne: Ecofeminism has many adherents, but mostly more for its uncritical acceptance of some sort of homogenous woman. As mentioned above, this is an untenable argument. Concepts of diversity and essentialism are of cross purposes in feminist political ecology but inclusivity of the concept of diversity provides a more potent political analysis.

WIA: Who are the feminists, actors or organisations that are in the forefront of the feminist political ecology freamework?

Yvonne: In the academic field of geography, Diane Rocheleau's work provides the most obvious starting point for critical analysis. Wendy Harcourt and Arturo Escobar's edited book, Women and the Politics of Place, also provides insights into a revised feminist political ecology by framing debates as "women and the politics of place." While politically nuanced, the "ecological" angle is getting greater attention from other scholar activists such as Marsha Darling.

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