Promises, Power, and Poverty: Corporate land deals and rural women in Africa

Publication Author: 
April 2013
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The new wave of corporate investments in land seems intent on expanding and intensifying a short-sighted farming model that, to date, has marginalized women‘s voices and interests. As with sisal, tobacco, and tea in the past, today‘s private investors in soya, jatropha and eucalyptus crops continue to dismiss small-scale food production by women as unimportant and irrelevant. They could not be more wrong.

Small-scale food production and the women involved in it are the backbone of rural livelihoods. Women farmers, like those who were found to have lost land in the research carried out for this paper, produce more than half of all the food grown in the world. Roughly 1.6 billion women depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, but many are now at risk from a huge surge in large-scale corporate agricultural investments that threaten the food supply of people living in poverty.

Few governments appear to be contemplating the sort of investments that can meet the real needs of women small-scale food producers and their communities—the kind of investments that could build a vibrant rural economy and secure the ecological sustainability of farming practices for future generations. If governments really want to transform the rural economies of their countries, the investments they encourage and approve should enable rural people to pursue their own solutions for rural development.

Women are squeezed out of resources
When competition for land escalates, rural women are often subjected to exclusionary pressure from male relatives or community members. As soon as a natural resource gains commercial value on the international commodity market, control and decisions over that resource pass swiftly from rural women into the hands of men. When and if compensatory measures are enforced, rural women are less likely to be direct recipients; in any case, monetary compensation is short-lived and cannot replace the many ways that women value and benefit from land.

Women are not heard
The exclusion of rural women from access to land does not just result in their loss of control over food production. Knowledge, practices, and techniques that for centuries have safeguarded the integrity of the land, seeds, and soil, as well as the nutritional value of food, are also lost. When an outside investor does consult with a local community, rural women are more likely to be told what will happen, instead of being asked what should happen. Even within some indigenous movements and farmer associations, women rarely have any real influence. Emerging systems of climate change financing and pricing on forest-based carbon legitimize and value production at scale – to the detriment of women and their value systems.

Women scramble to survive
When women lose access to the land where they produced food, they are compelled to find money to buy food, just as food prices are rising. Women facing these multiple challenges often eat less themselves, compromising their health, and sacrificing other necessities in order to feed their families. The same is true of water, when intensive mono-cropping depletes the water table or the enclosure of land cuts people off from water sources. Women then have to purchase a natural resource that previously cost them nothing. Women, young and old, are driven into more compromising, humiliating, and risky situations, including illegal activities and younger marriages.

Just as more basic necessities need to be purchased instead of being produced, the activities and opportunities to generate cash are few. Contract labour or seasonal employment is difficult for women to secure, and when they do, it is usually for the lowest-paid and most menial of tasks. Additionally, weak or non-existent rural banking infrastructure means that women cannot generate savings or credit from earnings, and are at the mercy of moneylenders when times are tight.