Interview with Ford Foundation’s David Kaimowitz: Discrimination, the common denominator for Latin America’s rural women
(Translated into English by Melissa Reichwage)
The woman who lives in the Amazon rainforest has different problems than the Chilean woman who is employed as a grape harvester and the woman who grows corn and beans in her garden in Honduras. They have different realities but one thing unites them: discrimination, marginalization and the fact that public policies do not take into account their economic contribution. That’s the situation David Kaimowitz, director of sustainable development at the Ford Foundation, has seen Latin American women in agriculture face.
Who is responsible for this neglect?
“Politicians who have decided that the lives of rural people are not important. Politicians believe that they can solve problems by giving away food stamps, zinc sheets for roofs, or via social policies – without really understanding the needs of the rural population. There are viable options for rural economic development.”
If rural Latin America was given the attention it deserves, Kaimowitz believes the results would be astounding: diversified production, improved environmental management, and greater capacity to govern territories without allowing them to be taken by illicit crops and criminal groups.
David Kaimowitz recently participated in the training workshop ‘Gendered Access to Forests and Small Farms in Latin America,’ organized by CIAT under the gender strategy of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees, and Agroforestry. We spoke with him during his visit to Cali, Colombia.
Women are vital to agriculture, yet their participation is not valued. What is the situation of female farmers in rural Latin America?
Women carry a heavy weight in both agriculture and forestry in Latin America. However, that burden is often not made visible or not targeted with interventions because their activities are sporadic, seasonal, in the home, and, on the other hand, because people simply do not want to see it. Recent reports from FAO estimate that between 15% and 20% of Latin American farms are managed primarily by women, but this work is generally invisible; neither the agriculture ministries, nor the forestry institutes, take into account their contribution.
What are the implications of this indifference?
There are many implications. There is an important group of people – half of the population – with unique needs and different interests, who are not being taken into account. There are also economic activities that public policies ignore. Case in point: medicinal plants still have a significant role in Latin America, but they are not seen because those are things that women do.
How do public policies treat the rural women of Latin America?
There has been progress. For example, women are able to hold land titles in the case of divorce or widowhood. In rural areas of Latin America most couples are not formally married, and governments are starting to recognize that women should still have rights to the land that they have helped cultivate.
But there is still a long way to go…
Much is still missing because it remains invisible. Women are discriminated against, have less access to property, and they participate much less in decision-making than men.
Who must unite to make rural women visible?
The first step is advocacy. Politicians, journalists, experts… everybody must talk about the issue for people to notice. The world knows that women work hard but it is hardly recognized.
You say that it surprised you that there are few up-to-date research papers on the issues that rural women face. Why is there a lack of interest among researchers, not to gender, but to rural issues?
The lack of interest in rural issues has different elements; an obvious one is that Latin America is becoming increasingly urban. It has gone from a region where half the population was rural to a place where only about a quarter of people live in the countryside. In some nations, such as Mexico, probably less than 20 percent live in rural areas.
There were also many years that there seemed to be a surplus of food. In the 90s, the problem was that many Western countries were awash with food. Decision makers thought that if rural smallholders produced more food it would generate more problems than solutions.
Rural agriculture was losing visibility but that is beginning to change in part due to environmental problems like climate change, biodiversity loss, and food price volatility. People are realizing that to feed 1,000 million Indians and 1,500 million Chinese at the same level of consumption as Europeans or Americans, the world will have to produce more food. Then, they turn to look increasingly toward rural agriculture production.
It’s a necessity for survival…
Yes, to this day it remains true that the majority of the most vulnerable people in Latin America are rural people, even more so when they are women, and especially when they are indigenous and Afro-Latina.
There are more rural men than women, especially in South America. What is the explanation for this phenomenon?
This surprised me. In Mexico, for example, the migration of men to the United States has been enormous – there are no men present. I began to get the picture that it was this way across all of Latin America, but I looked at the numbers and I was mistaken.
In the Latin American countryside, in general, there are 11 men for every 10 women, while in rural Mexico there are 12 or 13 women for every 10 men.
In domestic migration from the countryside to the city, or the countryside to small towns, it is typically the woman who leaves. Many of these women migrate to work as domestic help, to live with relatives, and to work in free economic zones.
And what is the situation for indigenous and afro-Latina women?
The situation in Latin America is that less than 10 percent of Latin Americans are indigenous today. There are 50 million indigenous people versus 500 million Latin Americans. But in rural areas it is not this way – there are 40 million indigenous people and 120 million rural Latin Americans.
There is discrimination against the rural population but is it worse toward the Afro-Latino and indigenous populations?
It is almost impossible to imagine that in Latin America those who speak two languages but whose Spanish is not perfect are at a disadvantage compared to those who only speak Spanish. There is significant linguistic and racial discrimination, and widespread ignorance in urban areas about issues indigenous and Afro-Latina women encounter.
They are invisible in part because they are physically isolated. The Latin American countryside is becoming increasingly peri-urban, with more and more people living in areas with both rural and urban attributes. In general, indigenous and Afro-Latina women live in more remote and forested areas, with less access to markets, roads, services, and are literally more invisible. And the perception is that they come to the city to beg for money.
Where is the situation the most critical for indigenous and Afro-Latina women in Latin America?
Guatemala is experiencing a critical situation, it is a country with an indigenous majority, but the indigenous population has never had acceptance by the nation’s Ladino population. The situation is drastic there.
In Chocó, Colombia, the Afro-Latino population faces a difficult violence problem, eviction, and violence by African palm companies and ranchers stripping them of their land. This is also a difficult situation.
What is happening with the laws for ethnic minorities?
I think that there has been progress but in many cases the laws are only on paper.
Part of the effort of the Ford Foundation is to support the work of indigenous communities. How do you feel as a leader of a program when you do not have much data or research about this population?
The Foundation is quite concerned about the lack of statistics and about the problem of not counting part of the population as citizens. In Latin America, many indigenous people do not have birth certificates or any official ID – they are practically non-existent. There is progress, but there are still problems; for example, the census has a big influence on public policy decisions but if we do not count indigenous people, nobody knows they are there.
What are the major challenges facing rural women today?
The big challenge is how to survive and thrive as smallholders, as communities, and as groups of indigenous and Afro-Latinas in a world that is made for Walmart, Nestle, Unilever, and not for them. Another obstacle is how to obtain land, credit, labor, and education in a world where that is not the priority for those making decisions. Also, technology is a new challenge for this population.
Why is there an urgent need to give women rights over land and forests?
Because they have so much to contribute – a lot of energy, capacity, thoughts, and efforts are being wasted by not including this population. They are vulnerable by not having rights to these resources and it leads to violence and extreme poverty that should not exist in our society.
About David Kaimowitz (biography from http://www.fordfoundation.org/)
David Kaimowitz is Ford’s director of Sustainable Development. He leads the foundation’s natural resource and climate change work globally and is based in the Mexico City office. His grant making focuses on giving poor rural families greater access to and control over forests and other natural resources, with a particular emphasis on indigenous peoples. He does grant making both in support of global projects and in the Mexico and Central America region.
Before joining the foundation in 2006, David was director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia. CIFOR is one of the world’s most prominent research centers concerned with tropical forests and is affiliated with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Prior to becoming director general, David worked at CIFOR as a researcher, specializing in issues relating to forestry policies and how non-forestry policies and trends affect forests and forest-dependent people.
David has also held professional positions at the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA) in Costa Rica, the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) in the Netherlands, and the Nicaraguan Ministry of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Reform (MIDINRA).
He has a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has written or co-written seven books and published more than 100 scientific publications.
Interview available in Spanish: http://www.ciatnews.cgiar.org/es/2013/09/23/entrevista-david-kaimowitz/#sthash.lv8wF1MK.dpuf