We asked Argentine researcher and writer Maristella Svampa (*) to give a talk on ecofeminism,land-territory and local experiences of environmental defence as part of the Political Training Conferences organised by Fondo de Mujeres del Sur (FMS) in 2021.
We’re sharing her talk, which offers new insight into the intersection of environmental and gender justice from a Latin American perspective. As a group of women activists and researchers, FMS designed the Political Training Conferences as an opportunity for training and dialogue.
In addition to investigation, the aim is to share perspectives on the debates and current-day realities of feminist movements and diversity in our region.
Hello everyone. At a time when the world is on the verge of collapse, it’s a pleasure to be here with so many engaged women, women the world needs so badly. I was asked to give an introduction on ecofeminism and on what I refer to as ecoterritorial feminisms, using the plural. So I’m going to speak about the two separately, noting the points in common and underlining the diverse connections and narratives of ecoterritorial feminisms across Latin America.
First off, it is important to acknowledge that ecofeminism is a school of thought but also a social movement that is particularly relevant today. As a social movement, it stems not from academia or the university but from the street. It is the struggle among women who got together and built an organisation to fight against the culture of death symbolised by the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war. Ecofeminism stemmed from a culture of life that appeared in the United States in the 1970s. There was an idea, or rather a certainty, that the oppression of women was intrinsically related to the exploitation of nature.
The two are closely connected: women are treated as inferiors, as irrational, emotional, sensitive, even impure beings. This makes them akin to nature, which is devalued, stripped of its sanctity and exploited: in short, feminised. This is important because what the ecofeminists brought to the agenda is the idea that domination is behind this double oppression: man’s domination of nature, man’s domination of women. This idea was configured through binary constructions: man versus woman, society versus nature, public versus private, the Western versus the non-Western world, reason versus emotion.
This binary paradigm succumbs to what we could refer to as identity logic. What does this mean? That we only recognise the extreme that is viewed in a positive light—man, society, reason. The other, different extreme—woman, nature, emotion—is stripped of all value. This, to a certain extent, is the foundation of Western patriarchy: this binary paradigm that took shape over centuries disregards women’s work. This is especially the case for household work, caregiving and other forms of social reproduction. Similarly, it disregards the work of nature—the life-cycle—treating it as infinite, boundless and, of course, external to human beings.
So ecofeminism starts by inverting the stigma inherent to the woman-nature association. It does so in two ways. First, it shows that another connection between the body and nature is possible and on the other, it shows that we are all intrinsically nature and that, in the words of Yayo Herrero, humankind needs to “naturalise anew.”
The same occurs with all levels of care. It is important to note how important care is, especially given the extent of our environmental crisis. Yet the most pressing task at hand is to make care a right, ensuring public policies that guarantee universal care so that women—especially poor women—are no longer solely responsible. Men have to be actively involved and this is part of the ecofeminist message in terms of ensuring equality.
Ecofeminism proposed a different type of relationship with nature: its relational narratives are founded on interdependence and complementarity, placing ecodependence squarely at the centre. On the other hand, the new paradigm of care must recognise care as a basic, universal right and because it is universal, it must involve men.
Now, feminisms in Latin America—especially territorial feminisms—have fought to defend decent living conditions, especially in the face of industry, mining and extraction both new and old. This is a fundamental feature of this type of activism because in Latin America—and more broadly, across the global south—women have always played critical roles, and these issues related to caregiving and our relationship to nature are undoubtedly at the core.
That is why I prefer the plural term ecoterritorial feminisms—or ecofeminisms of the south—to talk about branches of feminism that fight against expanding the frontier of extraction, and those that denounce the social and health impact of industrial models and extraction dating far into the past: those same old environmental liabilities and environmental inequalities.
MEMBERS OF THE MAPIK WOMEN’S GROUP
One of the fundamental features of ecoterritorial feminisms of the south is that they are born on the margins. This is not middle-class feminism: it involves poor, Indigenous, Black women from rural, peripheral areas who fight for visibility. Their struggle often aims to challenge the status quo of environmental suffering and to end the expansion of the frontier of extraction.
At the beginning, many of these women did not see themselves as feminists. This is important because it is during the actual struggle, during that oscillation between public and private—or, to put it differently, the struggle within territories in which bodies are put on the line, bringing it back to the private sphere—that the women become aware of patriarchal oppression. That is when the struggles become feminist and the women begin using that term to refer to the patriarchal violence they suffer in their homes. Therefore, they cannot simply be labelled feminists; instead, this is a feminism that has been built gradually. In the case of certain organisations or collectives, women are still reluctant to use the term feminism, as it is often associated with Western, middle-class feminism, which deals with other issues.
This is a feminism that incorporates new topics to both ecology and to the field of feminisms, expanding the narratives and the connections between them. In this regard, I want to emphasise that in the relationships they build with different collectives, non-governmental organisations and professionals, the ecoterritorial feminists of Latin America have grown and expanded their own narratives. Above all, they have approached dialogue with young women and also with other social classes from a perspective free from hierarchy. That has helped make feminism more democratic, or at least begun that process.
MEMBERS OF TALLER FLOTANTE [MOVABLE WORKSHOP]
There are at least four fundamental narratives within the ecoterritorial feminisms across Latin America. I’m going to provide a quick summary before turning to the subject of the women waging these struggles.
There is an issue closely related to old industrial and mining models that have caused environmental alterations and created sacrifice zones. Women living in sacrifice zones in Chile—like the Puchuncaví region in Chile, for example—are indicative of this struggle, but so are the women living near the Matanza Riachuelo basin in the Greater Buenos Aires area of Argentina. Activists are working to question the status quo of environmental suffering, the fact that people are obliged to live in a toxic environment. They want to build a language of environmental justice, a justice also bound to class and ethnicity.
This is fundamental because it is a narrative that starts from zero, questioning the status quo of poverty and environmental suffering: because since time immemorial, the map of contamination has mirrored the map of poverty. These important elements have contributed to a critical epidemiology, even in Latin America, because women are the ones who have mapped out the neighbourhoods, gauging the social and health impacts of harmful development models, including the industrial model, soy, or the expansion of the oil industry. This is one of the elements, one of the storylines.
The second, which I view as critically important given the expansion of new extractivism, is the connection between water and territory. Water is for living—not for mining, not for fracking, not for dams, not for monocrops—because water is a resource that is, in fact, growing increasingly scarce, placing it at the centre of the dispute.
What we are seeing now is a series of struggles against different types of extractivism that require great amounts of water. This is where the women focus their struggle, affirming the sustainability of life by protecting the water. Water is a core element of life. It is not for mining and extraction, which destroys ecosystems and biodiversity. There is a political ecology of water, a political and feminist ecology of water at work within the fights against extractivism in Latin America. I could give so many examples, not only in the battles against mining but also against the expansion of the oil frontier and mega-dams.
The third topic, which is becoming increasingly important, has to do with denouncing violence, specifically patriarchal, colonial, extractivist violence, and its relationship to bodies and territories. Indigenous women like Lorena Cabnal forged this narrative of body and land-territory in Central America; later, it spread to a range of collectives across Latin America. Violence is its core topic and it opens up new possibilities with regards women’s fundamental and collective work in healing and resilience.
It’s very important to underline the support that young women have given to so many feminist collectives. They have been involved in these healing workshops to draw attention to the violence against bodies and against territories. This disruptive and, I would say, engaging narrative is spreading across Latin America.
And the last of these narratives—though surely there are others within ecoterritorial feminisms—has to do with food sovereignty and rural and Indigenous feminisms. Here other ways of inhabiting a territory come into play, other ways of making land productive. Denouncing the inequality in land distribution is also a part of this because, as you know, women work 75% of all global land but only 3% of them own the land they work. This falls within a category that has become central to the work of the Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo (Latin American Coordinator of Rural Organisations, CLOC-Vía Campesina): food sovereignty, especially the paradigm of agroecology, which has been growing increasingly stronger and stands opposed to the environmental violence embodied in the agribusiness paradigm.
MEMBERS OF ASOCIACIÓN CIVIL DE LA MUJER RURAL [CIVIL ASSOCIATION OF RURAL WOMEN]
So we have a configuration of diverse types of strong ecoterritorial feminisms that are building new narratives, introducing new topics for both ecology and feminism—while making feminisms more democratic—and contributing significantly in a context of environmental crisis. Let me close by emphasizing that if you take a look at the ecoterritorial struggles of the past 15 or 20 years, we can say there has been a shift in terms of the most active social groups. While Indigenous people were responsible for defining the overarching categories and objectives of our politics during the progressive cycle that started at the turn of the 21st century—the so-called “pink tide”—women, the ecoterritorial feminists, are the ones driven by today’s ecological crisis to define the categories and the agenda.
This is important to bear in mind when engaging in the debate on a fair ecosocial transition and the transenvironmental movement it requires. Without a doubt, women and ecoterritorial feminisms will be critically important here, given that ecofeminism draws heavily on the connection to nature and on an epistemology of affect and emotions. Thank you.
MEMBERS OF MUJERES DE LA BOCA [WOMEN OF LA BOCA]
(*) Maristella Svampa is a researcher, professor and writer. She holds a bachelor’s in philosophy from Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and a doctorate in sociology from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. Her work has brought her many prizes and awards, including the Konex Platinum Prize in Sociology (2016) and the National Essay Award in Sociology for her book Debates latinoamericanos. Indianismo, Desarrollo, Dependencia y Populismo (2018). She coordinates the Group of Critical Interdisciplinary Studies on Energy (www.gecipe.org) and since 2011, has been a member of the Permanent Work Group on Development Alternatives.
She defines herself as an “amphibious intellectual” whose thinking is decisively Latin American. Her research addresses the socio-ecological crisis, social movements and collective action along with topics tied to critical thought and Latin American social theory.