Shadowed Memoirs: Gender and Production of Landscape in a Rural Kerala Region

Abstract: The transformation of the urban and rural landscapes within the last few decades has increasingly been dominated by the demands of capitalist utilisation. Political Ecology and Production of Space theory argues that Capitalism relies specific kind of ‘produced space and nature’ for the endurance. Current local-scale changes in the landscape interweave with larger forces of globalisation, time-space compression and media proliferation altering the face of landscape, both rural and urban, around the world. These larger forces span all sectors of human activity and inform a new cultural economy of space, creating new landscape spatialities that require a reformulation of landscape definitions, as well as new conceptual models and methodological approaches. This paper examines one such conflict in a rural landscape in Muthalamada, Kerala an earlier subsistence agro-ecosystem locale that has experienced a rapid commercialisation of agricultural system and rural gentrification with the introduction of a high value horticultural crop – mango in last few decades. An analysis of the changing spatial experiences of women form a subsistence agricultural production system to capitalist production system shows how the spaces are reorganised and produced as new landscapes. In Muthalamada, the in-migrant affluent orchard owners brought with them particular ‘consumption’ views of landscape displaces poor peasants and land less populations and their old imaginaries of landscapes. Combined ethnography and quantitative analysis suggests there is a clear class and gender difference in the impact of land us changes in Muthalamada. The widespread introduction of high-value cash crop, mango, in Muthalamada resulted in an imbalanced land tenure system, in which land resources reached the hands of few in-migrant elite landholders. Displacement of local population and large scale out migration of male population in the landless labourer households has been taking place. The loss of food crops like rice, millets, pulses and vegetables resulted in decreased access to and availability of food at the household level. It soared the burden of women, who bore the traditional responsibility of household food supply, in finding out appropriate food for the households. Capitalisation of agricultural production system may also generate new food-security risks with which marginal farmers and landless labourers may find it difficult to cope. The capitalist production system produced a male oriented landscape where the access to resources to women is highly restricted. This “gendered production of spaces” has been much more tangible, and negative, impact on women’s lives in Muthalamada. The agricultural change and the resultant loss of common lands largely restricted and marginalised women’s spatial experiences.

Keywords: shadowed memoirs, feminist perspective on development, political ecology, land use, environmental change, resource conflicts, rural landscapes, local population, marginal farmers, agriculture commercialisation


This paper is an attempt to examine a conflict over resources for livelihood in a rapidly “developing” agricultural landscape in a rural Kerala region. It explores escalating demand for land based resources, for a fast growing export–oriented horticultural crop – mango, and its implications in terms of rural gentrification, changing pattern of access to land based resources between marginal local population, especially women and immigrant capitalist growers and the resultant production of new landscapes. Situated within the broadly defined political ecology tradition, this paper draws on emerging theorisations of human-nature relations to analyse how the nature of the conflict is shaped by social power, discourse and nature’s agency, as well as how the conflict, and attempts to address it through the production of a land use change assessment, configure uneven socio-spatial outcomes at the local scale.

The paper starts by outlining a political ecology approach to environmental change. The first section reviews theories of production of nature, hybrid or social nature, that further attempts to conceptualise nature as simultaneously social and material, and proceeds to consider emerging critical perspectives on ‘scientific’ understandings of nature, that question both its supposed neutrality and its role in producing ‘facts’ to underpin policy. This section finishes by presenting recent applications of these perspectives to gender and land use change, through the concept of the production of landscape, that simultaneously considers the agro-ecosystem changes and the ways in which “environment” is also controlled and shaped by social power relations and institutions, and which forms the analytical framework for the empirical case. The following section presents the case study of the material and discursive conflict over land resources in Muthalamada region, focusing in particular on competing representations of failure of subsistence agricultural practices and visions of solutions through agricultural commercialisation and market integration. The final section evaluates an agro-ecosystem change assessment that was undertaken to respond to this situation, and the socio-spatial implications of the resultant landscape and its analysis from a gender perspective.

Section I

Problematising Nature

Contemporary visions of nature have been deeply affected by the ongoing interaction and interpenetration of science, nature, and society. These new visions appear to be more complex than older visions of nature and at the same time they seem to challenge our notions of authenticity. The emergence of industrial capitalism is responsible for setting contemporary views and visions of nature. The global transformation of nature shaped by industrial and financial capitalism dominates both physical and intellectual consumption of nature. This experience filters out old, incompatible consumptions of nature and precipitates new ones. Yet despite the centrality of this experience, at the level of individual daily life as well as that of society as a whole, our current consumption of nature is not simple nor is it at all a mere conceptual reflection of the relatively recent social experience of nature. In the pass of time the industrial capitalism has cut into the accumulated meanings of nature so that they can be shaped and fashioned into concepts of nature appropriate for the present era. The concept of nature is extremely complex and often contradictory. Nature is material and it

is spiritual, it is given and made, nature is order and it is disorder, it is the gift of god and it is the product of its own evolution etc. On the one hand nature is external, a thing, the realm of extra human objects and processes existing outside society. External nature is pristine, god-given, autonomous; it is the raw material from which society is built, the frontier which industrial capitalism continually pushes back. As trees and rocks, rivers and rains, it is external nature waiting to be internalised in the process of social production. On the other hand, nature is also clearly conceives as universal. For alongside external nature, we have human nature, by which is implied that human beings and their social behaviours are every bit as natural as the so-called external aspects of nature. Thus ecological treatments of human society situate the human species as one among many in the totality of nature. In contradistinction to the external concept of nature, the universal concept includes the human with the non-human in nature.

The Production of Nature

Work on the production of nature originates with, and is indeed largely synonymous with, the writings of Henry Lefebvre, David Harvey and Neil Smith those who explicitly based their writings on Marx’s critique of Political Economy. Nature separate from society had no meaning for Marx; nature is always related to societal activity. He meant this materially as well as ideally; the entire earth bears on its face the stamp of human activity. In his initial, abstract introduction to the topic in Capital, Marx depicts production as a process by which the form of nature is altered. The producer “can work only as nature does, that is by changing the form of matter”. Unlike other approaches to nature, space and geography, Lefebvre, Harvey and Smith consider space to be neither static nor ahistorical, nor a passive locus of social relations. Rather space and nature are considered constitutive elements of capitalist social practices. In this sense they argue that Marx’s account of the annihilation of space through time does not refer to the destruction of or dissolution of space. Instead, Marx stresses the increasing reliance of capitalism on the production of space rather than the production process in space. Marx observed that “annihilation of space through time” is a historical requirement of capital and regarded time and space configuration as important aspects of capitalism. Further he observes ‘circulation of capital realises value while living labour creates value’ (Marx 1973: 543).

Circulation has two aspects; the actual physical movement of commodities from point of production to point of consumption and the actual and implicit costs that attach to the time taken up and to the social mediations (the chain of wholesalers, retailers, banking operations etc.) which are necessary in order for the produced commodity to find its ultimate user. The transportation and communication industry which ‘sells change in location’ (Marx 1967) is directly productive of value because ‘economically considered the spatial condition, the bringing of product to market, belongs to the production process itself. The product is really finished only when it is on the market’ (Marx 1973). For this capitalism depends on the organisation of space through an ever expanding transportation and communication network in order to accelerate the turnover of capital, that is, the time it takes for labour and nature to transform into commodities, and commodities into money.

For this reason Lefebvre argues that capitalism relies on the produced space of nature or produced nature. The notion of produced nature refers to new spaces as the product of the labour process and labour itself that capitalism relies on for the circulation and reproduction of capital. This notion of produced nature not only points to capitalism’s need for new spaces but also shows how social relations of production are reproduced and fetishised as ‘new landscapes’. In other words, landscape changes are seen as ‘natural’, ‘neutral’ and ‘apolitical’, concealing exploitation of labour, the political struggles and the displaced livelihoods behind their production.

The Politicisation of Nature and Environmental Change – The Political Ecology Approach

Departing from the premise that socio-ecological change has political underpinnings, which occur at different spatial and temporal scales, this section draws on recent theorisations of nature-society relations, as well as perspectives that critique environmental science and place greater attention on the agency of biophysical processes, to explore the relationship between social power and control over resources. Political ecology departs by recognising that conventional technical approaches to natural resources (engineering, economics, law, resource management, science) are inadequate for explaining the complexity of environmental change. Such approaches are limited by their consideration of the environment as an assemblage of physical components that are subject to human manipulation. This forms the basis of ‘human-environment impact’ analyses, which focus on how human actions modify the natural environment. These conventional approaches are problematic in two key ways. First, they give little consideration to the complexity and interrelatedness of the social dimensions of environmental change, and instead tend to identify immediate spatial and temporal causes, with less attention to wider and/or multiple factors. Second, their primary explanations are often based on simple cause- effect relationships between human activity and environmental change, which are frequently regarded as self-evident, rather than the result of careful assessment. Failing to look beyond the ‘observable’ boundaries of environmental problems results in a depoliticised and dehistoricised analysis that fails to fully capture the complex nature of society- environment dynamics, and typically orients remedial measures towards these ‘symptoms’ rather than their ‘causes’ (Bryant and Bailey 1997; Castree and Braun 2001; O’Riordan 1999; Paulson 2003).

Political ecology enquiry has responded by seeking to understand the ‘complex metabolism between nature and society’ (Johnston et al. 2000: 590). In particular, it has more closely examined the roles of different social groups and institutions in society-nature relations, their vested interests and the power relations between them, and how these shape often uneven social and ecological outcomes, across wider spatial and temporal scales (Blaikie 1985; Bryant and Bailey 1997; Castree and Braun 2001; Paulson and Gezon 2005; Robbins 2004; Zimmerer and Bassett 2003). Power relations, which are by definition unequal, play a role in determining how nature is transformed: who exploits resources, under which regimes and with what outcomes for both social fabrics and physical landscapes (Bryant and Bailey 1997; Swyngedouw 1997b). Given the often competing interests among different social actors vis-à-vis environmental management, power relations must be exercised to be effective. This is achieved by ‘socially constructing’ nature, whereby nature is perceived in distinct ways by different actors, within particular moments and contexts, and consequently represented according to these positionalities. The various constructions are then mobilised through associated discourses, through which social actors frame issues (definitions, problems, solutions) and promote them in ways that coincide with their particular interests and visions of how nature should be managed (Blaikie 1995, 2001; Braun and Wainwright 2001; Castree 2001b; Demeritt 2001). Political ecologists have thus sought to question conventional understandings and deconstruct situated constructions of nature, in order to uncover the power structures underlying them (Castree 2001a, 2001b).

Scale has been an important aspect of political ecology research, principally in relation to considering political economic influences on environmental change beyond the local level and the present time (Blaikie 1985). However, conventional notions of scale – ‘local’, ‘national’ and ‘global’ – have been criticised as preconceived divisions of space within which social processes occur, and have given rise to fresher notions of scale as more horizontal, complex, diverse, dynamic and socially produced (Mansfield 2005; Marston et al. 2005; Swyngedouw 1997a). In addition, ecological scales, such as the watershed, have largely been neglected, thus raising the dual challenges of working beyond conventional divisions of space and integrating social and ecological scales (Zimmerer and Bassett 2003). The view of environmental issues as politicised, constructed and discursive is simultaneously challenged and complemented, by two theoretical developments: hybrid or social nature and critical approaches to environmental science.

Social nature

The a priori separation of ‘nature’ and ‘society’ into two distinct domains – the foundation of environmental studies, sciences and management – has been identified as both artificial and problematic (Castree 2001b; Escobar 1999; Haraway 1991; Harvey 1996; Latour 1993). As a result, attempts have been made to reconceptualise nature and society as a ‘hybrid’ (Swyngedouw 2004; Whatmore 2002), ‘social nature’ (Blaikie 2001; Castree 2001a, 2001b) or ‘socio-nature’ (Swyngedouw 1997b).

This resonates with Harvey’s (1996) dialectical approach, which transcends the materiality of nature by instead considering it to be constituted, and reconstituted, by the processes that continually transform it:

Dialectical thinking emphasises the understanding of processes, flows, fluxes and relations over the analysis of elements, things, structures, and organised systems … [these] do not exist outside of or prior to the processes, flows and relations that create, sustain or undermine them (Harvey 1996: 49).

A dialectical understanding of nature emphasises the two- directional dynamics of social and natural processes in socio-ecological change. This allows nature itself to be reconceptualised as inescapably politicised, rather than merely the object of political processes, thus overcoming the dualistic perspective of nature as external to social power. In this way, a hybrid perspective enables the political processes and power relations that underlie fused ‘socio-ecological’ change to be elucidated, as power and socio-ecological change can be understood as mutually and dialectically constitutive (Castree 2001b; Harvey 1996; Paulson et al. 2003). This rejects the view of nature as a purely material domain over which policies are made and social struggles occur, to an integrated ‘social nature’ in which the agency of non-human natures also shapes social power (Braun and Wainwright 2001; Castree 2001b; Whatmore 2002).

The Landscape

Drawing on these related traditions, landscape has been reconceptualised from purely material/physical ‘space’ that is tangible and observable, and which can be quantified, harnessed and manipulated, to a socio-natural one to a “hybrid” thing that captures and embodies processes that are simultaneously material, discursive and symbolic (Swyngedouw 2004: 28). In this study the landscape was a stretch of humanely transformed nature, but nature transformed to serve a particular end: the needs and desires of the culture that made it. Working backwards from the fact of the cultural landscape, then, the geographer could see how nature was transformed and thus learn something about the culture that lived in and created the landscape: what that culture thought, what it wanted, how it lived. The landscape could be ‘read’ for clues about culture and cultural change. A clearer analysis of the practices that make the landscape, and the varying meanings that are attached to it, can be had by understanding that the landscape (as form, meaning and representation) actively incorporates the social relations that go into its making. The landscape (in all its senses) is both an outcome and the medium of social relations, both the result of and an input to specific relations of production and reproduction. The next section examines the production of landscape in Muthalamada, by examining the ways in which land use changes and problems are framed by different social actors and how such discourses are mobilised to position favored agro- forestry solutions.

Section II

Resource conflicts in Muthalamada

The Muthalamada Grama Panchayat lies in the South-East of Palakkad district of Kerala state in between 100 33’ and 100 36’ North

latitudes and 760 44’ and 760 50’ East longitudes. The region covers a total area of 374 km2, out of which 301 km2 are the reserve forests region under the Parambikulam Wild Life Sanctuary. According to the 2001 Census, the total population was 33,935 persons with 668 persons per square kilometre as the average density. The area has highly fertile soil and is rich in natural vegetation. A large variety of food crops was locally cultivated. Rice was the traditional crop in northern half and groundnut and ragi in southern part (Brahmaputran 2004).

The population of the region is mainly constituted by agricultural labourers and marginal farmers. The Muthalamada Panchayat is now better known as the “mango village” of Kerala. The ‘mango boom’ accordingly took place against the backdrop of a clear downward trend in the markets of traditional crops and the degradation of several key environmental resources. The cropping pattern of the study area was predominantly seasonal food crops prior to ‘mango boom’. Rice, groundnut, grams, millets, pulses and other cereals were grown here. Most of the cropping was for subsistence only. Pulses, grams, millets and vegetables were cultivated following the main cropping season. Most of the households grew pumpkins, bottle grouts, spinach, bitter grouts, chillies, and tomato for household use. The major crops such as rice or ground nut were sowed in the prime cropping season which is from May-June to August-September. The next season will be followed with other food crops like pulses, millets, and vegetables. In that time, a gender division of labour, based on individual agricultural tasks and crops, distributed more evenly the responsibilities for food provisioning and the opportunities for commodity production and exchange among men and women.

During the 1960s, Land Reforms Act was implemented in Kerala. Nearly 450 hectares of land were acquired by the Government in the 1970s and redistributed to around 1,000 households till date in Muthalamada. Many of the backward class and some scheduled caste/ tribe families got land in the Muthalamada region. These marginal farmers used their lands for the production of subsistence food crops like fox tail millet, ragi, bajra, little millet and jowar and grazed at their animals in the common/fallow lands which were abundant that time. Both men and women were engaged as agricultural labourers in the seasons. The men and women were associated with groundnut, rice and sugarcane in upland and lowland fields in the main cropping season and in the following season women had the major role in the production and post production of millets, pulses and vegetables.

However, most of the domestic work was done by female members alone. The control of the homestead land and backyard gardens was in the hands of female heads of the family. Except wheat (which are supplied through PDS in a fair price system) most of the food items including milk and items such as fire wood, fodder etc. were found out from their own land and from the nearby common lands1. Abundant supply of fodder for animals and fuel wood for cooking from the common lands reduced the household burden of women to a great extent. Almost all of the crops were rain-fed so there was no question of ground water in the region prior to ‘mango boom’. Therefore, the water table was not depleted to the present situation. This also reduced the drudgery of water collection which was a sole responsibility of the female members of the household. Women’s access to all rural productive resources and the food availability from subsistence farming ensured food security of the region and reduced women’s burden.

In the mid-1980s and the 1990s the neoliberal agricultural policies framed by multilateral funding agencies like World Bank for Developing Countries proposed ‘diversification and market integration of smallholder farming’ as a development strategy. Such policies adopted by the National Government, in a macro scale, and promoted high-value export oriented cash crops such as fruits and vegetables through national missions funded by multilateral funding agencies. This triggered a process of economic, social and spatial restructuring of rural landscapes exaggerating local and regional differences in development. They act in contradictory ways by unevenly drawing agriculture into wider circuits of capital on a locally differentiated and changing rural social backdrop. On the one hand, capital accumulation in the commercial form of agriculture leads to distinctive industrial/agricultural spaces in the rural landscape integrated into globally networked, urban-centered agro-food complexes. On the other hand, farming businesses marginalised by this process suffer falling incomes and become dependent on local markets and spaces. This leads to farm business diversification and an ever- widening range of income sources for members of the farming household. Running alongside these differential shifts in the organisation of farm production is the growing consumption of rural space by middle-class capitalist growers who alter the cultural politics of rural identity and reinforce commodification of the rural landscapes (Mormont 1990; Lowe et al. 1993; Murdoch and Marsden 1994).

In Muthalamada since 1980s, as the response to the neoliberal agricultural policies with the repeated market failures of traditional agricultural products including rice and coconut has led to a slow and steady change of cropping pattern and tenure relations. Since the early 1990s, Muthalamada has undergone a shift from annual crops for the domestic market (rice, groundnut, millets, beans and vegetables) to permanent mango orchards for export. Due to the optimal climate for mango production, high export demand and excellent returns, and the relatively easy and cheap management of mango trees, large farmers increasingly converted land to avocado plantations. Many large farmers, as well as new large capitalist growers from other parts of the state, bought up extensive areas in Muthalamada for new plantations. Marginal farmers have been slower to follow, but have increasingly converted some or all of their land to permanent orchards, some assisted by state credit and subsidies.

A local market was formed to send ripened mango to Mumbai and Delhi for further shipping to International markets. Mumbai traders engaged local people as their agents to procure mangos in the season. It ensured a steady and high demand for mangos through out the ripening season. The income of farmers increased and more and more agricultural households shifted to orchard farming. Thus a network was established in Muthalamada with national and international markets.

In 1988, the State Forest Department started to acquire the slopes of the hills (The Kerala Private Forest (vesting and assignment) Act 1971) for social forestry – a World Bank funded project – resulted in the unofficial eviction of hundreds of peasant farmers, without any compensation. The forest officials restricted the public even from the collection of fire wood or fodder from the ‘protected forests’.

Some of the local marginal and affluent farmers sold their lands in the late 1980s and the early 1990s at relatively fair prices to people from other parts of the state. Within a decade, almost 70 per cent of the cultivable land in the Muthalamada was bought by immigrant capitalist growers from the local people. Those who sold their small holdings, below 1 hectares, for a comparatively ‘good price’ became landless labourers within one or two years. And the remaining local farmers were forced to shift from traditional crops to cash crops, mainly to mango due to mixed reasons. The entire local economy became more cash and male-oriented (who is the sole controller of the cash earnings in the traditional family system) due to women’s loss of income and access to productive resources. The spatial relations were drastically altered and ‘colonies’ were formed in a State scheme for lower caste landless labourers. And in the case of gender division of labour mango orchards rely heavily on male labourers for production and post production processes. Thus, agricultural production in general became increasingly polarised, both spatially and in terms of gendered labour organisation.

Women in the households frequently lost control of their lands due to severe technical interventions needed for planting orchards and production. Mango orchards are solely controlled by male land owners (often capitalist growers and local traders). Many of the male members of the small holder families were migrated to industrial towns like Tiruppur and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu in search of jobs. The capitalist growers, who brought with them new ‘consumption’ of landscapes, fenced their land and entry restricted local population. Gradually, the local population were marginalised from all of their livelihood sources like common lands and waters. The indiscriminate digging of tube wells by the rich orchard owners altered the surface water table, fallen low permanently in several places, which was already lowered due to sand mining in the lower courses of the river. The rich can invest more for deeper and deeper wells at the cost of marginal farmers and landless labourers. The unrestricted use of pesticides in the orchards polluted most of the surface water sources. The net result of all these changes were production of a highly homogeneous landscape with striking gender imbalances in Muthalamada.

Data collection for the study

The field work for the study conducted during 2007-2008. Mixed methodologies were employed for the study. A total of 250 households surveyed for the quantitative data. In-depth interviews along with an ethnographic case study were conducted for the collection of qualitative data. Separate questions were used for men and women in each questionnaire for the purpose of gender analysis. More than 75 per cent of the respondents for the interview were women. The detailed ethnographic narration was also by a women respondent.

Sise of holdings and the agrarian class

We have a substantial amount of landless labourers (below 10 cents of land), who constitute 165 of the total 250 respondents. Subsistence farmers or marginal farmers with a land holding below 2 hectares are 51 out of 250. And the large owners we met for the survey were 34. This reflects the current pattern of land holdings. The data collected on questionnaire shows that among the 165 landless respondents, 86 had lost their land after 1980, either through selling or through government appropriation. These details shall be discussed later in the analysis and explanations of quantitative and qualitative survey. There were at least 25 true capitalist growers, with a holding of more than 25 hectares identified in the region but unfortunately only a few of them were available in the farm or were ready to respond to the questionnaire.

Results and discussion

The following are a summary of the inferences of the research on the twenty five years of agricultural commercialisation in Muthalamada.

  1. There is a clear class difference in the perception on land use changes in Muthalamada; that is, from subsistence food crops to high value commercial crops, most large owners favouring the change and the agricultural labourer class and marginal farmers’ class are against. The research results show that the large owners’ class is the net gainer of the espousal of cash cropping and the marginal farmers and landless labourer classes are the net losers.
  2. The widespread introduction of a high-value cash crop, mango, in Muthalamada has resulted an imbalanced land tenure system, in which land resources have reached the hands of a few elite landholders. This process has denied access to village commons on which village community survived for decades. The process of land use change of agricultural commercialisation has escalated inequalities in the access to natural resources like water. Mono- cropping system has changed the agro-bio-diversity of the region, traditional fallow cycles have been abandoned, altering energy flow and nutrient cycles, and replacing the entire agro-ecology of subsistence farming.
  3. An important characteristic of this high-value export oriented crop is its low labour intensity and increased reliability on male labour. More than 80 per cent of agricultural activities are purely skilled male domain. As a result, women of agricultural labourer households have increasingly been marginalised, and thereby denied many of the livelihood securities, especially food security. The shift from the subsistence agricultural system has resulted in a partial loss of sources of food, water, firewood, and fodder. The loss of subsistence food systems has now increased the dependence on market for food. The fluctuations of food prices and loss of steady income from subsistence system has resulted in a food insecure situation to the poorer population, especially women.
  4. The severe fall in the cattle population of the region over the years also has a major impact on women of the poor households and on environment. In the initial years of land use change, women have depended on the animal products like milk production to compensate their loss of income from agricultural labour and subsistence farming. After the widespread adoption of mango orchards and the State’s appropriation of slopes, lack of grazing grounds and fodder has pushed them to reduce the number of animals. On the environment side, animals have been one of the input sources of organic matter in the energy and nutrient cycles of subsistence agro-ecosystem. In cash cropping, this has been replaced with chemical fertilisers.
  5. The loss of food crops like rice, millets, pulses and vegetables has resulted in decreased access and availability of food at the household level. It has soared the burden of women, who bore the traditional responsibility of household food supply, in finding out appropriate food for the household. Many times, they themselves have been deprived of food, especially in the recent times, due to escalating prices of food items. This also has strong negative implications for women’s nutritional security in the poor households.

Section III

Integrated Understanding Informed by Political Ecology

Commercialisation of agriculture has first gained a foothold in India in the 1960s, with the advent of Green Revolution in Punjab, when the World Bank, along with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), has promoted agricultural productivity through importation of fertilisers, seeds, pesticides, and farm machinery. The Bank has provided the credit necessary to replace the low-cost, low input agriculture in existence with an agricultural system that was both capital- and chemical- intensive. In the southern side of India, ‘grow more food campaign’ has developed a rice-centric approach to agricultural development. Many of the drought resistant varieties of rice and millets have been replaced with High Yielding Varieties, demanding more direct chemical input to the agro-ecological system, and partially paralysed the natural cycle of nutrition and energy. This has been the first addition to the rural landscape of Muthalamada, where local populations cope up with the situation, with the help of annual agricultural cycles, in the unique agro-ecological setting. As these developments have taken place, a second set of initiatives ‘market integration of small holders’ has taken shape in the policies for the Third World in the development capitals of the United Sates and Europe by multilateral donor agencies.

Due to the growing concern of global environmental problems, the policies of the 1970s and 1980s have aimed at ‘greening’ the Third World agriculture through a series of interventions. Agro-forestry interventions, one of such interventions formulated by the multilateral agencies, have been widely touted for their prodigious capacities. In the context of global ecological politics of the 1980s, where commercial interests ranging from green marketers selling rainforest crunch to biotechnology prospectors mining tribal gene pools have exerted enormous influence (Smith 1996), and agro-forestry approaches have accomplished dual purposes. They have simultaneously boosted commodity production and contributed towards efforts at stabilising the underlying resource base. On both these grounds, agro-forestry approaches have been constructed as an unambiguous and unalloyed “good” (Rocheleau and Ross 1995). Institutional actors in forestry and environmental agencies and the major multilateral donor agencies such as the World Bank have accordingly joined forces to promote and preserve agro-forestry in many parts of the world including India.

For the market failure and crop failure of traditional food crops in the 1980s, the policies present agricultural diversification to high-value export oriented crops as an alternate growth strategy. Diversification towards high-value crops such as fruits and vegetables have accounted for about 27 per cent of the crop income growth in the 1980s and 31 per cent in the 1990s at the national level in India. India, the largest producer of mangoes, a high-value commercial crop, is one of the most favored crops in the national policies. Mango orchards were the second initiative of the 1980s to the rural landscapes of Muthalamada. Like rice in the green revolution, orchard growers have benefited from a favourable shift in the development policies and practices, as the government agencies that had once supported the rice, adopted new objective centered on the task of producing a high-value crop landscape and rejecting the conditions necessary for the sustained food security. The mango orchards have represented a substantial diversification of the subsistence agrarian economy and has given the rural landscape a “much needed exposure to national and international markets”. In this regard, Muthalamada have achieved the ultimate goal of donor agencies and policy makers who sought to “integrate” environment, development and market through productive endeavours (Biodiversity Support Program, 1993; USIAD, 1993; World Bank, 1996).

Political ecology understands land use conflicts as a consequence of certain forms of production and stresses that human-nature relationships have to be understood in the light of relations of production within the society. The history of agricultural commercialisation in Muthalamada has provided a background of powerful landed interest of elites, market forces and policy settings in which the orchard economy evolved. The penetration of capital, technology and market has led to the displacement of local population in Muthalamada. The most important observation from a political ecology frame is the ‘eco-system’ people argument, the effect of resource depletion like water and the process of ‘enclosure of commons’ become doubly serious when people are directly dependent upon land based resources for their livelihoods. Political ecologists would argue that farmers are forced into enhancing their production to cater to the needs of being in a competitive market, where they are forced to pursue eco-degrading practices for subsistence due to market integration (Blaikie, 1985; Jansen, 1998).

Multiple Perceptions

A major concern of political ecology is the identification and recognition of plurality of perceptions and meanings. The quantitative data analysis has given a micro analysis of class perceptions on land use changes. The perceptions based on material benefits, world views, and political/personal positions have been seen to generate the fragmented visions in the local and macro contexts. Conflicting views of landless labourers, marginal farmers, and large owners and diverse views of men and women within the classes on agricultural commercialisation. These have brought out the different perceptions on commercialisation, depending on the actor’s position in the social structure with differing endowments, available information and priorities.

A typical official perception to land use change in Muthalamada is that, the State agencies for agricultural development are looking for a major expansion scheme for the mango orchards under the National Horticultural Mission, a national level mission to promote high-value export oriented crops. The State agencies have identified Muthalamada’s unique geographical and climatic settings, which are highly favourable to the growth of mango farming, and its capacity to supply mango in the ‘gap’ season at the national market. The State agencies also promote contract farming of traders, that is, land owners as merely tree owners, which are an ideal condition to those who simply want to invest money in Muthalamada with well assured returns.

The only academic engagement in Muthalamada’s land use changes has been a study on the impacts of pesticide usage in the mango orchards by the Kerala Agricultural University. The report has concluded that “the pesticide use is justifiable in commercial mango farms, though the levels of investment in the present cost- price regime and technology are high” (Devi 2008 (unpublished)).

The official and academic perceptions of environmental change in Muthalamada recognising that conventional technical approaches to natural resources (engineering, economics, law, resource management, science) are inadequate for explaining the complexity of environmental change. Such approaches are limited by their consideration of the environment as an assemblage of physical components that are subject to human manipulation. This forms the basis of ‘human environment impact’ analyses, which focus on how human actions modify the natural environment.

An acceptance that no presentation of ‘reality’ can be free from the positionality or discourse of the actor articulating it carries profound and far-reaching implications: it not only questions the very production of environmental knowledges and values, but also sheds scrutiny on the institutions that produce such ‘truths’ and ‘facts’. While such ideas have critiqued the supposedly objective role of the state in resource allocation, these had already been addressed by Foucault’s theory of governmentality, which holds that government technical approaches to environmental management tacitly coincide with the interests of powerful groups (politicians, technocrats, capitalists) (Foucault 2002). However, more recently, they have prompted scrutiny of the validity of science to provide knowledge about how nature works and how best to manage it (Castree 2001b; Demeritt 1998, 2001).

The Gender Politics in Muthalamada: Towards a Feminist Political Ecology Understanding

According to Rocheleau et. al. (1996), feminist political ecology:

……..begins with the concern of political ecologists who emphasise decision-making processes and the social, political, and economic context that shape environmental policies and practices. Political ecologists have focused largely on the uneven distribution of access to and control over resources on the basis of class and ethnicity. Feminist political ecology treats gender as a crucial variable in shaping resource access and control, interacting with class, caste, race, culture and ethnicity to shape processes of ecological change, the struggle of men and women to sustain ecologically viable livelihoods and the prospects of any community for “sustainable development”.

Women’s materially dependent status is ideologically reinforced through socially legitimised forms of submission to men. Expressed through seclusion ideologies and operationalised by what Sharma (1980:

198) has called an “etiquette of public invisibility”, these shape the content and value of women’s work and interactions with different members of the village community at different stages of their life cycles. Seclusion ideologies also define the unique relationship women have to the geographical spaces in which their lives and work are embedded. Like women in many subsistence agro-ecological systems, women of Muthalamada in their subsistence agro-ecosystem, needs to be extremely mobile and visible in public areas: most of their daily work is performed outdoors, often in common lands, slopes of the hills or in the fields located at considerable distances from their homesteads.

If “command over space is a fundamental source of power” (Enslin 1990), then it follows the lack of, or limited access to, certain spaces that can play an important part in disempowering certain individuals or groups of people relative to others. This is true throughout rural India, where space as a geographical reality has different meanings for women and as a result of their differential access to and uses of it. In this sense, women’s access to, and exclusion from certain spaces also make an important statement about the differential exercise of social power between the sexes.

Gender and Production of Landscape in Muthalamada

For the past few decades, the rural landscape of Muthalamada has witnessed a large scale reorganisation of spaces and the spatial organisation of gender relations. The spatial construction of social (Lefebvre 1991), as Massey (1992:70) characterises ‘…society is necessarily constructed spatially, and that fact – the spatial organisation of society – makes a difference to how it works’. The changes of Muthalamada have affected women and men in different ways, reflecting their different positions within the society, their work obligations and responsibilities, and their access to newly emerged spaces within the market economy.

From a subsistence agro-ecosystem to a market oriented orchard farming system, changes of cropping patterns from annual food crops to perennial tree crops, enclosure of commons, loss of livelihood systems all affected women and men in different ways. The “gendering” of geographical spaces has had much more tangible, and negative, impact on women’s lives. The loss of subsistence food crops drastically reduced women’s direct access to and availability of food. But still the household food security heavily relies on them. Enclosure of fields, common lands, streams and slopes of the hills narrowed women’s access to fodder leaves, grasses, and firewood, and compelled some to walk considerably longer distances in order to meet their household’s daily needs. The fenced common lands and streams have also eroded the small measure of control and freedom of movement that women once exercised in defining their work agendas independent of men. The growing importance of both local and non-local markets in the household consumption and production strategies, and the absence of subsistence agriculture, has contributed to decline in the perceived importance of spaces – fields, commons, hill slopes

– in which much of the women’s work is conducted.

The perceptions of nature produced by orchards – dark, vast and lost – are entirely different form the nature where in the subsistence system in which women dominated the field in time and space. Today, one of the biggest challenges women in Muthalamada face is having to operate in a social environment in which they have unequal access to the very geographical spaces that are vital to the accomplishment of many of their daily tasks. In short, while comparatively men’s spaces are expanding (if not necessarily literally, but like out-migration and skilled orchard labourers), women’s spaces are shrinking without enabling them to access the new arenas of livelihood.

In Muthalamada, land based resources are unevenly distributed between new capitalist growers and local population as a result of agricultural commercialisation. An attempt to look into the discourses that led to the wider scale environmental changes in Muthalamada such as ‘market failure of traditional crops’ and ‘crisis in the traditional crops’ are generalised to all population in Muthalamada, especially marginal farmers who sold their lands due to crisis, in order to garner support for favoured solutions of agro-forestry interventions. The interventions of afforestation programme funded by the World Bank in Muthalamada as a reflection to the multi-scalar discourses on ‘environmental crisis’ forced landless population to support the state appropriation commons. Considering the physical environment in desocialised terms obfuscated the fact that local population have not been largely responsible for any potential environmental crisis at any scale, both the above mentioned interventions enabled the situation to be framed as ‘scientific’ interventions for ‘development’ rather than social or political.

Wider temporal-spatial processes relating to land use have influenced the social relations of access to resources, and the physical landscape. Historically, agricultural policies have largely exacerbated existing inequalities and made little improvement to rural poverty (Kay and Silva 1992). In Muthalamada, reformed land (after Land Reforms Act) has been regained by capitalist growers and converted to mango orchards, while large areas of land and other rural livelihood resources are enclosed with little attention to the spatial experiences of local population especially women.


Blaikie, P., The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries. London: Longman, 1985. Print.

–––. ‘Changing Environments or Changing Views? A Political Ecology for Developing Countries’. Geography, 80: 3, (1995): 203–14. Print.

–––. ‘Social Nature and Environmental Policy in the South: Views from Verandah and Veld’. Social Nature: Theory, Practical and Politics. Castree and Braun (eds). USA: Blackwell, 2001. Print.

Braun, B. and Wainwright, J. (2001), ‘Nature, Poststructuralism, and Politics’. Social Nature: Theory, Practical and Politics. Castree and Braun (eds). USA: Blackwell, 2001. Print.

Bryant, R. and Bailey S. Third World Political Ecology. London: Routledge, 1997.


Budds, J. ‘Power, Nature and Neoliberalism: The Political Ecology of Water in Chile’. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 25: 3, (2004): 322–342. Print.

Castree, N. ‘Marxism, Capitalism, and the Production of Nature’. Social Nature: Theory, Practical and Politics. Castree and Braun (eds). USA: Blackwell, 2001a. Print.

–––. ‘Socialising Nature: Theory, Practice, and Politics’. Social Nature: Theory, Practical and Politics. Castree and Braun (eds). USA: Blackwell, 2001b. Print.

Castree, N. and Braun B. (eds), Social Nature: Theory, Practice, and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. Print.

Cronon, W. ‘A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative’. Journal of American History 78: 4 (1992): 1347–1376. Print.

Demeritt, D., ‘Science, Social Constructivism and Nature’, Braun, B. and Castree, N. (eds) Remaking Reality: Nature at the Millennium. London: Routledge. Print.

–––. ‘Being Constructive about Nature’. Social Nature: Theory, Practical and Politics. Castree and Braun (eds). USA: Blackwell, 2001. Print.

Escobar, A. ‘After Nature: Steps to an Antiessentialist Political Ecology’.

Current Anthropology 40: 1, (1999): 1–30. Print.

Forsyth, T. Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Foucault, M. ‘Governmentality’. Power / Michel Foucault. J. Faubion. ed. London: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Hajer, M. The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernisation and the Policy Process. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1995. Print.

Haraway, D. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: the Reinvention of Nature. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Harvey, D. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. Print.

Latour, B. We Have Never Been Modern. London: Longman, 1993. Print.

Mansfi eld, B. ‘Beyond Rescaling: Reintegrating the ‘National’ as a Dimension of Scalar Relations’, Progress in Human Geography 29: 4, (2005): 458–473.

Marston, S., J. P. Jones and K. Woodward. ‘Human Geography without Scale’,

Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30: 4, (2005): 416–432.

O’Riordan, T. ‘Ecocentrism and Technocentrism’. Thinking Through the Environment: A Reader. M. Smith (ed). London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Paulson, S. ‘Gendered Practices and Landscapes in the Andes: The Shape of Asymmetrical Exchanges’. Human Organisation 62: 3, (2003): 242–254.

Paulson, S. and L. Gezon (eds.) Political Ecology Across Spaces, Scales, and Social Groups. Piscataway: Rutgers UP, 2005. Print.

Paulson, S., L. Gezon and M. Watts. ‘Locating the Political in Political Ecology: An Introduction’. Human Organisation 62: 3, (2003): 205–217.

Robbins, P. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.


Roberts, R. and J. Emel. ‘Uneven Development and the Tragedy of the Commons: Competing Images for Nature-society Analysis’. Economic Geography 68: 3, (1992): 249–71.

Sheridan, T. ‘Arizona: The Political Ecology of a Desert State’. Journal of Political Ecology 2, (1995): 41–57.

Swyngedouw, E. ‘Neither Global nor Local: “Globalisation” and the Politics of Scale’. Spaces of Globalisation: Reasserting the Power of the Local. Cox, K. (ed.) New York: Guildford, 1997a. Print.

Swyngedouw, E. ‘Power, Nature and the City: The Conquest of Water and the Political Ecology of Urbanisation in Guayaquil, Ecuador: 1880–1990’. Environment and Planning A 29: 2, (1997b): 311–332.

Walker, P. ‘Political Ecology: Where is the Ecology’. Progress in Human Geography 29: 1, (2005): 73–82.

Whatmore, S. Hybrid Geographies: Natures, Cultures and Spaces. London: Sage, 2002. Print.

Zimmerer, K. and T. Bassett (eds) Political Ecology: An Integrative Approach to Geography and Environment-Development Studies. New York: Guilford, 2003. Print.


1 The common lands (in this study) are either State or private owned lands and with or without title deeds. In a subsistence farming system,‘ the pressure of productivity’ is very low so abundant vacant lands are available for grazing, food and fuel gathering as it is a traditional collective right of villagers.

Default image

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124