We need an African ecofeminist future. And by we, I do not just mean Africa, I mean everywhere. As Orthodox economic models continue to fail, women across Africa are combatting them and coming up with visionary alternatives. What is ecofeminism, and why African ecofeminism specifically?
Ecofeminist activism grew out of feminist, peace, and ecology movements of the nineteen seventies and nineteen eighties. Intersectional ecofeminism also underscores the importance of gender, race, and class, interlinking feminist concerns with human oppressions within patriarchy and the exploitations of a natural environment that women are often more reliant upon but also its guardians in many cultural contexts. Firstly, Africa is currently the final frontier for economic models that have already ecologically compromised the remainder of the earth. Secondly, women and feminist activists are already on the front line of the battle for ecological sustainability on the continent. Their everyday struggles, uncompromised commitment, and disposition to visualize a radical future during which justice, equity, and rights harmonize with environmental sovereignty, have the potential to save us all. As environmental issues have been receiving increasing attention as demonstrated by the rise of the ecological movement in response to the threat of overpopulation, intensive agricultural methods, and chemical pollution, all of which are reinforced by industrialization. Ecofeminist theories assert that industrialization and capitalism have resulted in the oppression of both women and nature. It represents a critique of patriarchal frameworks as well as a grassroots political movement with strategies to bring about an ecological revolution.
Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement arguably embody the essence of African ecofeminism and the collective activism that defines it. As the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004, Maathai highlighted the close relationship between African feminism and African ecological activism, which challenge both the patriarchal and neo-colonial structures undermining the continent. Other activists have also been at the intersection of gender, economic, and ecological justice. Ruth Nyambura of the African Ecofeminist Collective, for example, uses radical and African feminist traditions to critique power, challenge multinational capitalism, and re-imagine a more equitable world.
These activists on the front lines are fighting back, but they are also establishing visions of alternative development models that demand both gender and economic justice. Moreover, African women are often at the heart of communities dealing with huge changes related to economic development and shoulder the burden of environmental mismanagement. These concerns are multi-layered and range from agrarian justice to extractivism. Currently, the Green Revolutions seen in Europe, the US, and more recently parts of Asia which have involved moving from subsistence agriculture to industrialized farming, cash cropping, and mono-cropping remain at the forefront of thinking around economic growth and food security. However, there is increasing evidence that this corporate-driven vision, which has dominated development trajectories over the last century, has failed on several fronts. Not only has it failed to address hunger despite overproduction, but it has also indirectly reinforced biodiversity losses and therefore nature’s more holistic contributions to a sustainable environment. Before the Green Revolution in India, for example, there were roughly 50,000 varieties of rice. Within 20 years, this dropped to just 40. This has resulted in the loss of crops once part of diverse food baskets as well as a degradation of farmers’ ownership and control over seeds. Women, who are often central to domestic food production, are also frequently the custodians of seeds that reproduce balanced, varied, and nutritional diets. In Africa, female farmers often preserve diverse and indigenous crops that remain off the cash-cropping agenda, from myriad varieties of spinach and cassava to the less well-known acha, a paleo grain native to parts of the Sahel. Among other things, women’s indigenous knowledge around seeds and their selection, storage, and planting of diverse and often hardy crops increases climate resilience, placing them right on the frontline of the battle against climate change. The reality that accepted models of development are unsustainable is no longer news to most.
Meanwhile, there is a growing public awareness around threats to biodiversity and climate resilience as well as of the tensions that have arisen as a result of corporate-driven agricultural agendas. And yet, most African governments remain anchored to the idea of a Western-inspired green revolution. Policy spaces still rarely welcome the voices of smallholder farmers and those working at the grassroots, leaving alternative positions and challenges to orthodox models of economic development on the margins of regional and global tables where decisions are made. However, ecofeminists continue to fight. From Ghana to South Africa and beyond, women-organized seed-sharing initiatives continue to resist corporatization. Activists like Mariama Sonko in Senegal continue to lead agroecological farming initiatives for localized and sustainable food production. Ultimately, the crisis of Africa’s current trajectory is a crisis of visioning: the lack of the continent’s leaders to imagine a process of development less destructive, more equitable, less unjust, more uniquely African.
The positions, passions, and holistic approaches offered by African ecofeminism provide key ingredients for an alternative to the capital-centric ideals of economic growth that have defined progress so far. These have not only caused chaos or destruction on global ecological sustainability but have also failed to deliver a genuinely equitable or just society anywhere. By empowering women and granting them equitable access to critical services, countries can improve their economies, improve the efficiency of their economic and material output, and markedly reduce their emissions. Elevating women to actively participate in environmental policymaking at all levels also allows for a more determined and proportionate political voice. A framework such as ecofeminism can help acknowledge how social issues and the environment are intertwined, and how solutions in one area can influence positive outcomes in the other.
Where social inequalities and climate change intersect is often where the most impactful resolutions and policy measures can be found. Recognizing where these intersections lie and how to meet them is critical to ensuring equitable sustainability and understanding humanity’s relationship with the environment. It is time to start dreaming and delivering an African future that can do better than that.
About the author:
Yosser Tarchi, born and raised in Tunisia, is a young woman who aspires to be a human rights advocate. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English Language, Literature, and Civilization and a master’s degree in International relations. A former member of GirlUp Tunisia, her interest in gender studies expanded which is why she’s currently volunteering for Politics4Her. Her motto? GRL PWR!