Academic journal article Human Organization

Gendered Practices and Landscapes in the Andes: The Shape of Asymmetrical Exchanges

Academic journal article Human Organization

Gendered Practices and Landscapes in the Andes: The Shape of Asymmetrical Exchanges

Article excerpt

This article describes practices and relations of farming, herding, and cooking that produce and reproduce people and places in culture-specific ways in one region of the central Andes. It also explores how these practices have been changing in relation to regional and global processes surrounding agricultural modernization. The study begins with a look at the degradation of steep slopes and the reduced productivity and social value of women who manage these slopes for small livestock grazing and fuel wood collection. Starting with an ethnographic exploration of local practices and relations of difference, the scope widens to encompass asymmetrical relations of exchange at play in markets, migrations, and development projects, and to consider political decisions and policies that contribute to the uneven terrain on which these exchanges take place. Implications for environmental management and conservation include methodological options for approaching environmental problems as integrally social and ecological and for considering these problems in multiscale frames of reference that allow us to examine links among local phenomena and regional or global processes.

Key words: gender, agricultural modernization, environmental management, Andes, Boliva

This study begins with the startling erosion and degradation of midwatershed slopes registered in the 1980s and 1990s in a region of the Bolivian Andes and the reduced productivity and social value described by many of the women who manage these slopes for small livestock grazing, fuel wood collection, and other purposes. Both of these problems have been documented in many parts of the developing world, and this case study explores new conceptual and methodological approaches to understanding links between them. First, it uses participative and gender-sensitive research methods that facilitate the study of social and ecological dimensions of local productive practices. Second, it establishes a multiscale frame of reference to consider relations among rural farmers, near and distant landscapes, urban produce and labor markets, and national-international interests and processes. Finally, an analytic focus on gender and socioeconomic differences, together with the asymmetrical exchanges that shape and express those differences, helps to identify power dynamics in these diverse processes and sites.

In the tradition of Blaikie's (1985) early assessment of land degradation, this study moves beyond common interpretations of increasing erosion and reduced productivity as local problems to be addressed through technical solutions. Instead, it scales up to consider wider relations of power and difference underlying produce and labor markets that facilitate the flow of energy away from mountain communities, and specifically away from spaces and resources used mainly by women. Drawing on Alf Hornborg's (2001:1) definition of power as "a social relation built on an asymmetrical distribution of resources and risks," the analysis developed here locates power and politics in the material and meaningful relations of difference surrounding the distribution and exchange of resources, as well as in the national and international policies that have influenced the productive processes and markets that set the scene for such exchanges.

The analyses developed here are part of an ongoing effort to better understand relationships between two disturbing phenomena manifest in many parts of Latin America: environmental degradation and social inequity (Painter and Durham 1995; Paulson 1998). Both phenomena have been consistently identified as either causes or results of impoverishment, deforestation, loss of soil fertility, migration, poor health and nutrition, breakdown of families and communities, and other problems. Yet they are often treated separately in research and action that focus either on ecological or on social issues. This article uses political ecology methods and analyses to better understand how environmental degradation and social inequality interact to produce these symptoms (see studies collected by Guha and Martinez-Alier 1997; Peet and Watts 1996; and Rocheleau, Thomas-Slayter, and Wangari 1996). …

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