Feminist agroecology is taking on the agribusiness model in Argentina

A shift towards agroecological production is not only beneficial for the environment and for the health of the workers; it also has an impact on relations within the community. Members of the Union of Land Workers (UTT), photographed in February 2019, handing out vegetables for free in Buenos Aires as a sign of protest. (AP/Natacha Pisarenko)

Argentina, where around 60 per cent of the arable land is planted with genetically-modified soya, has become one of the countries where the agribusiness model is expanding the most rapidly. Recent years have also, however, seen the strong emergence of an alternative model promoting food sovereignty and agroecological practices, in production and consumption. Fundamental to this transition are women, who identify the agribusiness model with the patriarchal system and are insisting on the need to include a gender perspective in agroecology.

“Agrarian reform, without feminism, without equality, loses ground,” said rural women in a press release published following the Plurinational Women’s Meeting held in La Plata in October 2019. The UTT, which brings together some 15,000 rural workers throughout Argentina, has played a significant role in this process. They are calling for an agrarian reform that guarantees small farmers’ access to land and have stepped up their commitment to agroecological production. “We are families who come from the ‘enemy’ model of production: building the transition to agroecology from within, with a farmer to farmer approach, is a real feat for the organisation,” says UTT gender secretary, Rosalía Pellegrini.

The fact that the organisation has a gender department is already a good sign of the importance it attaches to the feminist perspective. “We are starting, as women farmers, to reflect about our roles and the tasks we perform on the land and in the home, as well as the gender violence we suffer. We have set up a stable network of women members, not only to discuss physical and domestic violence, but also the exclusion we experience in other areas of life, especially in productive work,” explains Pellegrini, adding that:

“We realised that the dominant production model on the quintas (estates), that of agribusiness and dependence, pesticides, ‘agrotoxins’, is a model that excludes women. We had to work for over 12 hours and would then continue to work at home, but we were not included in the decisions about what to buy, what to grow and which seeds to use; that became the men’s domain.”

Other organisations working towards food sovereignty, such as the Iriarte Verde (Go Green) cooperative, which sells agroecological foods, also insist on the need for task rotation to end the sexual division of labour: “Our approach is to ensure that everyone knows what every task involves, thanks to task rotation; everyone experiences each and every task, from going to a market to visiting a farm or making a delivery,” says María Caroli, who has been an active member of Iriarte Verde for two years.

The sexual division of labour has invisibilised women’s contributions in terms of their productive work on the farms, at the same time as doubling their working hours and excluding them from decision-making. “What would often happen, if there was a workshop, would be that the women would take care of doing the shopping, preparing the food and washing the dishes; they would be so busy organising the workshop that they wouldn’t be able to take part in it. We are prioritising women’s participation in capacity building activities, and we have observed that their voice is starting to be heard more in the meetings,” says Maritza Puma, who is a member of the People’s Technical Council (CoTePo) of the UTT’s production division. In her view, “Agribusiness is a patriarchal model. It is the men who choose it. The man takes care of the economic side and the woman takes care of the kitchen, etc., that’s why he chooses this model; it’s not that he doesn’t realise, but he doesn’t attach as much importance to his children’s health and nutrition.”

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Agribusiness as a patriarchal model

But, why should agroecology have a gender perspective? Puma sees it like this: “It is generally the woman who takes care of the food and the health of all the members of the family; she is also the most exposed to the effects of the agrochemicals, as she works both on the farm and in the home, even during pregnancy, at times.” That is why, as Pellegrini points out, “food sovereignty is halved if women are not included in the decision-making about what food to produce, to sell and to consume, and how”.

The UTT has been one of the most active organisations in developing alternative distribution channels to combat “an irrational trading system in which those who produce and those who consume lose”, as the intermediaries pocket the gains: there is a 400 per cent difference, on average, between what the consumer pays and what the producer receives, as the organisation points out on its website. That was the issue the UTT brought into the spotlight, in 2019, with its ‘verdurazo’ (vegetable), protests, during which small farmers went to public squares and gave people fruit and vegetables for nothing, or next to nothing, which is what they receive for their produce.

“The idea is to make people aware of what is behind the food: making people conscious of the situation gives them the opportunity to decide what type of model they would rather support,” says Puma.

This “irrational system” of sales and distribution is also part of the “patriarchal agribusiness model” denounced by rural workers – a model dominated by large multinationals like Bayer-Monsanto and BASF, which are becoming ever more dominant. This model, says the UTT, “goes hand in hand with the machismo there is on the farms” and in which the state is complicit: “The state is responsible for the fact that more than 100 pesticides that are prohibited in the rest of the world are allowed in Argentina. The state says that the model is harmless if good agricultural practices are used in the application of agrochemicals; as if there were a good way to poison food,” underlines Pellegrini.

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Feminism’s great challenge

A shift towards agroecological production is not only beneficial for the environment and for the health of the workers; it also has an impact on relations within the community: “With the agribusiness model, you try to produce a lot in a small space; you have to use agrochemicals so that the crop can be harvested as quickly as possible; and so life goes by, just as quickly. We have heard stories from small farmers who say that since they switched to agroecology, they have become calmer, happier, and have even seen an improvement in their self-esteem. Changing to the agroecological model changes the relationships we have with others and within our families,” says Puma.

The prospects for this approach seem bright in a country where the impetus of the feminist movement is combined with that of those fighting for food sovereignty.

The biggest challenge in this sense is, in the opinion of sociologist Maristella Svampa, “to build an alliance between the feminism of the ‘Ni Una Menos’ (Not One Woman Less) movement, which has massively taken to the streets in support of legal abortion or against femicide, and the grassroots and community feminisms that have emerged in the heat of the struggles against extractivism – from mega-mining to agribusiness – thus opening the movement at large to a critique of patriarchy in which the ideas of interdependence and eco-dependence, the defence of the commons and the value of care converge”.

In the same vein, Pellegrini points out, that “agroecology must go hand in hand with recovering women’s role as caretakers of the land, the planet, and the family, at the same time as men learn to share the care work. We have to understand that the violence we inflict on the land with the agribusiness model is the same violence that we, as women, experience in the flesh.”

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