What can we learn from Ecofeminism?

Friday, July 28, 2017 - 10:21

by Ana Paula, Bratindi Jena, & Ruchi Tripathi

Is there a more symbiotic way for human beings to interact with nature? And, perhaps just as important, how can we progress towards it together?

There is almost little need to illustrate that we are falling short of such an aim across the world. But in such illustrations we can begin to see how, and how some of the underlying or accompanying systems are functioning. 

Recent battles around oil pipelines in the USAcoal power plants in Bangladesh, and hydroelectric in Brazil demonstrate a clash of values. The prevalence of indigenous people at the forefront of these struggles shows that the violations of colonialism are still ongoing. Pope Francis, in a meeting with indigenous leaders in Rome, highlighted the need to reconcile development with the protection of indigenous peoples and their territories, “especially when planning economic activities that may interfere with their cultures and their ancestral relationship to the earth”.

Ecofeminism is one school of thought that has been guiding environmental and feminist movements since the 1970s in various parts of the world, looking at the intersections and relationships between the domination of nature and the domination of women. The ideological separation of humanity and nature, itself influenced by patriarchal and colonial ideals, has enabled a model of society and development where women and nature both are subjects of objectification and domination.

Ecofeminism in practice

Author and environmental activist Vandana Shiva points out that women in subsistence economies, who produce “wealth in partnership with nature, have been experts in their own right of holistic and ecological knowledge of nature’s processes” (Staying Alive: Women, ecology and development, 1988). However, “these alternative modes of knowing, which are oriented to the social benefits and sustenance needs are not recognized by the capitalist reductionist paradigm, because it fails to perceive the interconnectedness of nature, or the connection of women’s lives, work and knowledge with the creation of wealth” (Ibid.).

Nobel prize winner and leading ecofeminist Wangari Maathai credits the start of the Green Belt Movement to responding to the needs of rural women; needs including firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income; and also as a confrontation with development policies that marginalise women. Prof. Maathai, like Dr. Shiva, recognises the role of women in Africa as primary caretakers who hold significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. Tree planting, a core strategy for the Green Belt Movement, addressed some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Tree planting is also simple, attainable and guarantees successful results within a reasonable amount time. This sustains interest and commitment.

Equally significantly, Prof. Maathai helped show to Africa and the world that patriarchal systems push this responsibility on women, and that this role is devalued and invisible despite it being so fundamental. It is necessary to value this important work of women, and to value that today women hold the answers to many new challenges. An important contribution is to make Africa and the South in general rethink ways of development by taking into account the knowledge and practices of women.

An example of this approach working in practice is the Chipko movement in India, which succeeded due to the commitment and involvement of rural women. These women were being impacted by decisions to fell trees in the forest where they made their livelihoods, and became instrumental in the campaign to save the trees. Another exemplary movement is the Diverse Women for Diversity, an international movement started in the mid–90s with RFSTE/Navdanya that defends diversity, peace and democracy from the growing threats of monoculture, war, totalitarianism and fundamentalism.

ActionAid Brazil has also supported rural women to come together to recognise their knowledge on agroecology, and show to environmentalists and society why without feminism we will not have agroecology. In the book Women and Agroecology (2010), researched and written by ActionAid, the Working Group of the Women’s National Agroecology Coalition, and our local partners in Brazil, we presented several oppressive situations of men over women related to the management of agro-ecosystems. Different groups of peasant women contributed and structured their own experiences in agroecology to this research.

These experiences were varied but shared some disturbingly common narratives, for example: 

  • situations where men prevent women from developing their agro-ecological experiences, either by contaminating their crops or prevent them from accessing credit;
  • cases where women have no right to choose for diversification of crops rather than monocultures;
  • circumstances where their crops are removed and/or burnt to open space for other cultures that men consider most profitable, such as grass;
  • situations where women cannot choose to not use poisons and chemical fertilizers;
  • cases where the woman, even when they are “responsible” for water management, cannot make decisions on water use, or cannot use water to irrigate their medicinal and/or ornamental plants.

The book points out that these cases, although they are different from physical violence, are cases of violence that also leave marks:

There is the view that women in agroecology would be immune to situations of oppression, due to its principles that value a more harmonious coexistence with nature and humans. But it appears that the living spaces do not fully reflect these principles of harmony, bringing to these spaces the same challenges that are present in the society as a whole. Given the inconsistency between violence and agroecological principles, the various forms of violence against women must be considered unacceptable in agroecology. It is impossible to strengthen agroecology and the struggle for sustainability, without thinking of new relations between men and women, based on equality, solidarity, appreciation of the work, the appreciation of the life and the integrity of women.

Women and Agroecology, 2010

The experiences presented indicate that, when they started working on an agroecological perspective, women frequently face the kinds of challenges listed above. However many have been able to change the productive matrix through their empowerment as political subjects and through self-organization. In this way they not only modify common agro-ecological management relationships but also increase the diversity of their disciplines and communities.

This approach has enabled these women to achieve some autonomy, and to open up the possibility to speak and be heard on issues where they never had the opportunity to decide - such as which species to plant. Encouraged by agroecological innovations and by the positive results of their experiments, these women have been recognised for their work and their knowledge by their relatives and neighbours. Their self-confidence had also been strengthened. In some cases their ongoing struggles, such as participation in women’s and/or black movements, helped to facilitate their identification with agroecology and further strengthened themselves, contributing to their processes of empowerment.

Criticism of ecofeminism

Ecofeminism has had its fair share of criticisms: of maintaining the gender binary of male/female, and of often confining women to their traditional caring role. It is perhaps fair to say that there are lines of ecofeminism that are essentialist and constructivist. Ecologists have also criticised some forms of feminism that do not critique the economic model that leads to environmental degradation.


ActionAid is looking at a situation where we can draw upon principles of both ecology and feminism to find some solutions to the myriad of challenges we are facing in today’s world. We do not believe in binaries, as we do not support reducing women’s lives to their care roles or to be in servitude. We believe that the knowledge and practices of nature management exercised by women in Latin America, Africa, Asia, etc. can point to other possible developments and to challenge patriarchal practices.

We believe it’s crucial today more than ever before to look at strategies that help advance women’s rights – including economic and social, without undermining our ecology - and at the same time looking at sustainable ecological solutions that do not reinforce patriarchal systems. We hope this blog will encourage conversations to help identify key principles and practices that can be part of our sustainable future.

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Photo: Felipe Kusnitzki/ActionAid Brazil