Gendered Frontiers of Land Control: Indigenous Territory, Women and Contests over Land in Ecuador


Radcliffe, Sarah A. 2013. “Gendered Frontiers of Land Control: Indigenous Territory, Women and Contests over Land in Ecuador.” Gender, Place & Culture. doi:10.1080/0966369X.2013.802675.

Author: Sarah A. Radcliffe


Agricultural and rural land has become the site of considerable policy, governmental and scholarly concern worldwide because of violence and dispossession, food insecurity and contests over private property regimes. Such issues are highly gendered in territories with majorities of indigenous populations where overlapping legal regimes (statutory, multicultural, customary) and histories of dispossession have created complex spatialities and access patterns. States' formalization of indigenous rights, neoliberal restructuring and land appropriation are the backdrop to Ecuadorian women's struggles to access, retain and pass on land. Despite a burgeoning literature on Latin American indigenous territories, women are often invisible. Using collaborative research among two indigenous nationalities, the article analyses the political–economic, legal and de facto regimes shaping women's claims to land and indigenous territory. Focusing on Kichwa women in the rural Andes and Tsáchila women in a tropical export-oriented agricultural frontier area, the article examines the criteria and exclusionary practices that operate at multiple scales to shape women's (in)security in tenure. Women's struggles over claims to land and territory are also discussed. The article argues that Latin America's fraught land politics requires a gendered account of indigenous land–territoriality to unpack the cultural bias of western feminist accounts of multiculturalism and to document the racialized gender bias across socio-institutional relations.

Keywords: gender, neoliberalism, collective title, Ecuador, land grabs, multiculturalism



2011). Women’s position regarding landed property rights and market liberalization since the 1990s (Agarwal 2003; Razavi 2007) has been more extensively documented in Sub- Saharan Africa than elsewhere (Carney 1998; Watson, Adams, and Mutiso 1998; Gray and Kevane 1999), as have the interplays between customary procedures, multicultural and gender reforms, and markets (Whitehead and Tsikata 2003; Tripp 2004). Reflecting the scarcity of detailed substantive research (Jacobs 2009, 1677), little has been written about women in racial subaltern populations in Latin America; Mollett’s (2010) account of women’s struggles to register land in a protected area is a rare exception.” (2)

Territory carries weighty symbolic importance for ethnic politics which, as discussed below, is often articulated in highly gendered terms. For these interrelated reasons, land – territory comprises multifaceted problems for indigenous women. Indigenous women as citizens may have one claim on land, but their cultural-symbolic claim may be articulated differently, while an economic relation with land may be shaped by political–economic pressures.” (2)

“This article highlights how gendered relations with land are configured through a combination of ongoing dispossession of racialized populations, through legally established differences in men’s and women’s status, and the grounded realities of women’s political–economic (not merely sociosymbolic) position in ethnic communities. Through a comparative case study, the article tracks the processes that shape the criteria and practices through which women come to claim and secure access – and in some cases, legal title to land-territory (cf. Paulson 2003).” (2)

“Customary laws concerning landed territory are often considered to ensure its beneficial use for the specific group and prohibit alienation of part or whole. Unlike many Latin American countries’ civil codes (namely, land ownership rights derive exclusively from property’s social function, i.e. agricultural use), ‘customary law sees exclusive rights of possession flowing from use, occupancy, practical and spiritual knowledge, and religious and spiritual ties to the land’ (Griffiths 2004, 51).” (3)

“An Ecuadorian government survey found that indigenous and rural women had less access to land than men. Female-headed households were particularly likely to have minimal landed property (less than half on average, 4 hectares vs. 10 hectares) (Secretar ́ıa Te ́cnica 1998, 126). Among indigenous women, the survey found that few female-headed households had any land at all; male-headed indigenous households held on average eight times the amount of land of female-headed households (5.7 hectares vs. 0.8 hectares). Rural women, including indigenous women, were also more likely to rent land for production than their male counterparts (Secretar ́ıa Te ́cnica 1998, 127). At the same time, indigenous movements articulated a specific gendered discourse of cultural-symbolic claims over land – territory.” (4)

“As land prices soar, gender ideologies undercut the security of individual women’s claims as they are considered ‘second class’ claimants. This is indirectly evidenced by the fact that around one-quarter of interviewees had no land–territory, living solely on their husbands’. Moreover, and as in Honduras, ‘a process of racialization that devalues ... customary collective tenure arrangements in favour of individuation ... as a result, intensifies gender struggles’ (Mollett 2010, 359). Women living alone, especially if unmarried or older, are likely to be displaced from land, even in natal communities.” (10)

“Through national organizations, Ecuadorian indigenous women support ethnic group rights to territory, autonomy and development resources, and they organize over- whelmingly via ethnic associations rather than feminist organizations.” (11)

“Racialized gender bias lies at the heart of indigenous struggles over land–territory. Indigenous women express strategic interests regarding land–territory, although more in Kichwa than in Tsa ́chila areas. A new generation of indigenous female leaders has emerged at the national level and provinces such as Chimborazo to challenge the gender politics around land–territory. Yet indigenous women do not articulate their strategic interests in ways that challenge the overall goal of collective territory; as such, their activism challenges western feminist assumptions that women’s individual rights are better addressed outside the framework of group rights.” (13)

“Ecuador continues to have one of Latin America’s worst land distributions (Gini coefficient of over 0.8). President Rafael Correa has vowed to address land inequalities, framing it in populist terms as peasants battling corrupt business interests. Meanwhile, draft laws on water, and food sovereignty, generate indigenous protests against what they perceive as the government’s willingness to permit environmental degradation and mining, activities that undercut the buen vivir commitments of the 2008 Constitution.” (13)

Topics: Agriculture, Gender, Women, Indigenous, Land Grabbing, Land Tenure, Political Economies, Race, Rights, Indigenous Rights, Land Rights, Property Rights, Women's Rights, Violence Regions: Americas, South America Countries: Ecuador

Year: 2013

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