Ecological Justice For Women

Aug 31, 2012
-A +A

As Indonesia’s rural poor are increasingly threatened by dispossession, is it time to adopt a more radical agenda for women and the environment?

Attempts to achieve environmental protection through individual, formalised land tenure reflect a neoliberal agenda of individualising responsibility for environmentally sustainable development. The success of this approach depends on ensuring that individuals behave in environmentally friendly ways. It is no coincidence that a large section of the World Bank’s 2009 report, entitled Investing in a More Sustainable Indonesia, is devoted to a discussion of public attitudes towards the environment. According to surveys cited in the report, currently few Indonesians are inspired into either political participation or personal action by environmental protection or conservation values. The report exhorts the importance of fostering greater public awareness about the connections between individual actions and environmental degradation. Women are seen as a lynchpin in environmental behaviour change largely through their domestic role: protecting water and biodiversity, minimising household waste, and as carers and educators of children.

Women and dispossession

But such initiatives fail to acknowledge that the most serious environmental problems women contend with stem from Indonesia’s commitment to exploitative economic development. Many of the country’s natural resource challenges reflect a contradiction between environmental protection and the drive for economic growth, which is directly linked to the exploitation of natural resources. Despite the political changes following the departure of Suharto in 1998, natural resources continue to be exploited by elites for political or personal gain. Indonesia’s corrupt environmental governance not only undermines efforts to achieve environmental sustainability but also results in catastrophic impacts for women – and men – in resource-dependent communities.

According to SPI, in 2011 almost 274,000 families were evicted from land they had been cultivating. NGOs point out that these recent dispossessions are associated with the local government’s power to issue concessions to plantation companies, in exchange for lucrative resource exploitation revenue. Many such evictions are legal according to Plantation Law No. 18/2004, which activists argue favours corporate interests and enables the intimidation, forced eviction and criminalisation of farmers.

While whole families are affected by these processes, women’s lack of voice within their communities has made them especially vulnerable to dispossession. Women’s livelihood activities are often the first to be affected by the development of large-scale plantations, which curtails their ability to collect fuel, fodder and foodstuffs from hitherto forested areas. Indeed, the steep rise in numbers of women migrating to become domestic workers overseas is partly attributable to their diminishing prospects in rural areas where large scale commercial agriculture is developing apace.

The marginalisation of women though land conflict is also particularly acute for migrant women in Indonesia’s rural areas. For example, in Lampung province, disputes over land between local communities and plantation companies are further complicated by the large migrant population, many of whom acquired land from local Lampung people, only to later find it had been granted as plantation concessions by the government. In heated conflicts in Lampung’s Mesuji district, migrant women have been particularly vulnerable because they lack access to family support networks and because the communities they have built in the area since the late 1990s have no formal recognition, effectively excluding them from drawing on state resources. They are now caught in the midst of clashes between local communities and plantations over access to land given over to plantation company PT Silva Inhutani. This is just one of many similar cases across Indonesia where people are being displaced from their land, and in which women’s growing vulnerability is of particular concern.

The road ahead

1261 Migrant women in Lampung are caught up in land conflicts between local people and plantations. Photo: Rebecca ElmhirstWhile there is agreement that women are disproportionately affected by disaster and environmental degradation, there is little consensus as to how to address this concern. The process of strengthening women’s voice in environmental initiatives is complex when the pressures of poverty and conservative gender ideologies weigh against women’s active participation. And it is hard to see how extending women’s decision-making in environmental interventions could ever be meaningful when their access to productive resources may be steamrollered by corporate profit-seeking and government-supported environmental exploitation.

Granting land title to women to strengthen their position is an attractive prospect for donors such as the World Bank. It is an approach that fits with the Bank’s commitment to marketisation and its measurability aligns with the audit culture that accompanies some forms of gender mainstreaming. But it is unlikely to provide a route to ecological justice for women. Activists have even suggested that individual tenure contributes to the vulnerability of the poor by exposing them to acquisitive land markets, which are the first step on the slippery slope towards dispossession.

The challenge ahead is to ensure that donor-led efforts to champion gender equity in relation to the environment do not weaken the prospects for achieving ecological justice. At the same time, women’s concerns must be placed centre-stage in mobilising against environmental injustices. The statement issued by women from Indonesia’s leading environmental and agrarian NGOs shows that these issues are now at least starting to be addressed.

Rebecca Elmhirst is Principal Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Brighton. She has been researching gender and environmental issues in Indonesia for 20 years, working closely with colleagues from universities and NGOs in Lampung. She is co-editor of Gender and Natural Resource Management in Asia (Earthscan).

This article was first published in Inside Indonesia.