Women of the Serranía de las Quinchas: Gender, Mujeres and Environment

Mónica Amador-Jiménez, University of Bristol

There is a current within environmental feminism theory and practice that suggests that women are more willing or even naturally sensitive to environmental problems since they have ethics of care that men do not have. This perspective within gender theory and feminism has been criticized for its essentialism; that there is only one way to be a woman, that all women have a structural-universal identity and that they basically have the same ethics of care. This is again being connected to their reproductive capacity and to the idea of women being mothers. This way of understanding the role of women in environmental conservation tends to biologize the character of the feminine and of being a woman – and to simplify the construction of subjectivities and sociocultural practices that are related to how gender, sexuality, and bodies take shape in specific contexts and historical moments.

If we rather depart from the idea that the definition of women cannot be taken for granted and that this definition is emergent, we would, in order to approach women in a particular place, have to understand the process of situated relationships (history and place) in which “the women” are immersed. This analysis could help us to delineate a sex-gender system (Gayle Rubin, 1975) that includes different manifestations of gender identity, sexuality and the body, such as expressions of LGBT identity. This sex-gender system would also define the limits and possibilities of being “women”, as they are part of an open system that is in transformation and subject to influences, but which also could be differentiated.

In our research we try to understand, from a gender perspective, the place of “women” in the Serranía de las Quinchas in terms of their relationship with the environment, and in particular with regard to how they relate to the protection of the environment. When doing this we need to be familiar with the particular way or ways of being a woman in this specific rurality, living in a context of narco-paramilitary control and oil extraction and in the peripheries of the modern Colombian state. We also have to take into account the history of colonization and the struggle of the landless peasants to preserve their autonomy and to form social roots in the Middle Magdalena region. In view of the above, being a woman in Las Quinchas takes on a specific content that is not replicable to other places, such as being a woman in Bogotá or in London.

Having established this manner to understand “the women” in the area, we identified at least two main manifestations or forms of being a woman in Las Quinchas, manifestations that reflect their generational identity and life trajectory: the women that are older 40 years and those that are between 18 and 40 years of age. The concerns and perspectives about the future seemed to be quite different in the two different age groups, and the differences between the groups became even more salient when we included in the study the time they had been residing in the forest, how high up in the mountains they were living and the distance from their home to the municipal capital of Puerto Boyacá.

On September 23, we had the first meeting with women from the villages of La Cristalina, Puerto Romero, Puerto Pinzón, El Marfíl and Puerto Boyacá, villages that are all located inside the Regional Park Serranía de las Quinchas. The meeting was also attended by human rights defenders, teachers, local political leaders and environmentalists, and the main purpose of the meeting was to learn more about the women’s perceptions, experiences, preferences and relations inside this territory. In this first meeting, the women shared with us painful stories from decades of violence and war, drug trafficking and oil extractivism. Their stories reflected the brutal patriarchal and hetero-centred masculinity model, a model that seemed to be directed against the most vulnerable, including women and children. From a generational perspective, the older women were those that had suffered most during decades of war and dispossession, enduring the brutal regimes of the first self-defence and paramilitary blocks in the region. The younger women had to a lesser extent experienced such abuse as they only had lived during the last stage of paramilitary control and then seen their demobilization.

Both groups of women underlined that they did not want to see a repeat of the history of violence that they had experienced – and they wanted to avoid the exposure of their daughters and future generations of women to war and abuses. This desire to see a better future had perhaps increased in strength after the paramilitary demobilization and the establishment of the regional park of Las Quinchas. The women clearly expressed that they would do everything possible to prevent the return of war, illicit crops and deforestation since these economies and the violent sociocultural context poisoned men, their families and nature.

The relationship that the peasant women of the Quinchas have to nature is also very much shaped by their agricultural practices and by their constant efforts to obtaining formal land titles to the land where they grow their crops. In spite of the ambiguous and elusive behaviour of the Colombian state in terms of how it deals with these isolated rural populations – and the complications that the establishment of the regional park has had for the locals – they have so far managed to continue living in Las Quinchas and they all expressed a desire to do so also in the future. In their conversation with us, they manifested that they felt that they were part of Las Quinchas and that this was the place where they wanted to develop or continue to develop their respective life projects. The women that have survived the turbulent years of paramilitarism have however opted for nurturing a life project in Las Quinchas that they wish to defend while defending Las Quinchas as a territory free of violence against humans and nature.

The notion of Life Projects has been elaborated on by Mario Blaser (2010) in his research on the Yshiro People in the Paraguayan Chaco. Here he refers to this concept as one that helps us to escape the Manichaean idea of lingering between being in favour and being against traditional development. When looking at the life experiences of indigenous and rural people living in difficult contexts marked by extractive economies and war, the notion allows us to understand how a person perceives what is good life based on his or her life trajectory. Such life projects take into account the material and grounded relationships that are established with and within the place, the environment or the territory. Life projects also pay attention to the openness and the emergence that such a project could unfold in a specific territory.

Following the above line of thought, one of the overarching Life Projects of the women in Quinchas is their attempt to defend the mountain, not because it is instinctive for a woman to conserve nature, but because it is the mountain range and its resources that have made their life projects or income-generating activities possible. The women have developed a strong attachment to this nature-materiality and the land through agricultural practices, through the building of homes and through the purchase of a special type of informal property titles (carta-venta). It could be argued that the locals and their life projects protect life by deeply entangling with this mountain and that they enact a desire for belonging, permanence, tranquillity and openness.

The project BioResilience has organized numerous encounters with the group Women-Life Projects in the Quinchas, a group whose aim is to defend the biodiversity of the Serranía de las Quinchas. The project has also supported the women movement in Las Quinchas. The group had its first public event in October 2019 by organizing a round table to discuss the programs and ideas of the female candidates of Puerto Boyacá to the council, to the assembly and to the mayor’s office. This encounter had the purpose of sharing opinions on the environmental conservation of the Quinchas and on the economic-social projects that could be developed with the communities that live in this regional park.

 

References

Rubyn, Gayle (1975) “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”, in Rayna Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women, New York, Monthly Review Press

Blaser, Mario (2010) Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond, Duke University Press.