Political ecology–the case of Gambia agroforestry

(Continuing a 1998 draft paper on Political ecology–a fertile site for development of social theory)

In order to make our terms for thinking about political ecology concrete and ground our subsequent discussion of intersecting processes and heuristics, we present in this section a synopsis of geographer Richard Schroeder‘s research in The Gambia (Schroeder 1993, 1995, 1997a).  Taking gendered conflict as his entry point and focus, Schroeder’s work analyzes the changing social relations and agro-ecology brought on by market garden, tree-planting, and land reclamation schemes initiated by international development organizations.

For a number of decades agricultural production in the village of Kerewan on the North Bank area of The Gambia River had been divided into two parts: In the uplands, men grew rainfed groundnuts (peanuts) and coarse grains; in the lowland swamps women grew rice.  In addition, on in-between land starting in the 1970s some women tended hand-watered vegetable gardens.  Senior men controlled allocation of the upland areas and some swampland, which was inherited patrilineally as “lands of the beard.”  Women obtained their garden plots from the senior men.  The rest of the swampland was controlled by senior women and inherited matrilineally as “lands of the belly.”  Men controlled the cash income from the end-of-the-year, government supervised sale of groundnuts, and were responsible for the purchase of clothes, especially for ceremonial occasions, and of food for the family during the hungry, mid-year rainy season.  The other crops were for subsistence needs, or, in the case of garden production, for local village consumption.  In short, gendered division of labor corresponded to a division by crop, space, season, and value of return.

After 1970 the frequency of dry years increased markedly.  One response was the adoption of shorter duration rice varieties, which had the effect of freeing up some female labor.  At the same time, international development organizations sponsored “Women in Development” (WID) projects promoting women’s production of garden vegetables for market.  Concrete wells were built; material for fencing, tools, and seeds were provided.  Initial efforts resulted in a glut of onions, but, with a diversification of crops and the opening up of markets along the border with Senegal, the area devoted to gardens increased dramatically through the 1980s and into the 1990s.  Whenever a new development project was proposed, local groups of growers lobbied actively for resources.  The resulting plans were an outcome of negotiation among representatives from these groups, from the civil service, and from the development organizations.

While women’s income increased, men’s declined.  A glut on the international vegetable oil market led to much lower groundnut prices after 1980.  A national Economic Recovery Program, following IMF and World Bank mandates to reduce State subsidies, led to significant price rises for rice and fertilizer purchases.  Men were increasingly unable to fulfill their financial obligations; the pressure on women to generate cash pushed the expansion of vegetable production, both in area and in seasonal mix of crops.  Initially men tended to resent the time taken by women’s garden work, especially during the previously relaxed dry season.  By the end of the 1980s, however, the benefit was fully acknowledged–in approximately 50% of households income from gardens exceeded income from groundnuts–and men had adopted a variety of tactics to capture some of the women’s earnings.  They might provide labor for garden projects, be sweet to the women, secure unrepaid “loans,” or steal from their wives.  Women, in turn, invented ways of resisting these moves and exerted their new power, which included some buying themselves out of bad marriages.  These conflicting tactics were conditioned by the seasonal characteristics of labor and income, with male income arriving mostly around the end of the year, while garden income was more spread out.

Senior male landholders were paid a levy by the women to whom they allocated land for garden plots.  Gardens, however, were women’s space.  Leaders of the women’s groups planned and supervised activities in the gardens.  Moreover, garden plots began to be transfered, especially from mother to daughter, without the permission of or a levy payment to the landowner.  The productive use of the land for cash-earning market gardens not only conferred prestige to women, but permanence of cultivation threatened to erode the landholding claims of the senior men.  WID projects continued into the 1990s–at the national level, the Gambian president secured World Bank funds for a five-year $15m WID program in 1991.  Other development initiatives, however, involving the planting of trees in the name of environmental stabilization, have contributed to a partial reversal of the gains made by women during the 1980s.

Tree cover in the Gambian River Basin drastically declined after the middle of the century.  In the late 1970s government conservation and forestry legislation led to the creation of a national Forestry Department, a forestry extension system through school teachers and the Agriculture Department, an annual tree-planting campaign, and a ban on charcoal production.  International development agencies supported reforestation, but also began to emphasize the creation of commercial incentives to achieve environmental objectives.  Starting in 1979, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored the planting of woodlots around villages.  These woodlots failed because the returns were too slow and the rights to benefits from woodlot labor were not clear.  For the species traditionally grown, the trees belonged to the planter, but benefits would be dispersed more widely depending on the species.  Villagers could not, however, be sure of the situation for the exotic species introduced in the woodlots.  One woodlot owner attributed the difficulty in recruiting labor to the villagers “lacking foresight.”  In short, the developers had incorrectly assumed that villages were cohesive units.

In the meantime, women had begun planting and tending fruit trees, such as papaya, banana, orange, and mango, on their garden plots.  The returns came more quickly than from woodlots, and women could spread out their income stream over the seasonal cycle.  As the trees grew to shade the gardens, and as terms of trade shifted in favor of vegetable products over tree fruit, women trimmed the branches or even chopped the trees down.  In addition, village tree tenure custom meant that women were able to use treeplanting as a means of extending their rights over male land.

The reversal of this shift in control of trees and gardens began in the middle of the 1980s after a crisis which began when a certain male landowner attempted to reassert his control over the garden land and the resources provided through development projects.  The ensuing protest by women led to police intervention, a court case, and the involvement of the national judiciary and political parties.  As a result of the court case, the focus of dispute shifted to the trees.  Sites for new garden plots came to be granted under explicit conditions, stipulating that the gardener watered the landholder’s trees and abandoned the garden when the trees matured.  Landholders had found an indirect way to recover their eroded control of garden land and command women’s labor to tend the trees.  Woody trees, such as mango, came to be favored over the less shady papaya and banana.  The advantage of trees in garden plots had shifted back to men, and the traditional rights to benefits from the trees began to give way to a new privatization.

From the start of this reversal the Forestry department assisted the male landowners in planting trees.  Moreover, whereas the crisis of the mid 1980s was fueled by the development agencies refusing to sign over control of resources to the landowners, by the end of the decade those agencies participated fully in instituting the new arrangements that tipped the balance back in favor of men.  This change flowed from a shift in emphasis by development organizations and their donors to environmental stabilization, a shift that has become very pronounced during the 1990s.  The World Bank, for example, has mandated National Environmental Action Plans; The Gambia instituted its NEAP in 1992.  At the same time, given the 1990s emphasis on central administrations as constraints on economic growth and democracy, national plans have been complemented by community-based Natural Resource Management (NRM) plans, to which, for example, USAID funded a $22.5m project.  In this context, trees in garden plots have been showcased as if they demonstrate a widespread commitment to reforestation.

To bring this narrative up to the mid-1990s, reclamation of salt-affected swamp lands has become another focus of NRM projects in the Kerewan area.  Although the benefits of this reclamation in increased rice harvests are clear to all, the longer duration rice varieties used also lead to a demand for women’s labor at the same time that gardens need to be prepared and planted.  A religious leader appealed to the obligation to work for the community’s benefit (in securing food) before women’s individual profit (from gardens).  Women, in turn, disputed whether the rice harvest required the special skills that warranted other rice operations being deemed women’s work.  Given that households still depend on the cash from gardens, the situation remains in flux.  It is clear, however, that environmental stabilization is being pursued on the assumption that women’s labor can be captured.



Schroeder, R. A. (1993). “Shady practice: Gender and the political ecology of resource stabilization in Gambian garden/ orchards.” Economic Geography 69(4): 349-365.

Schroeder, R. A. (1995). “Contradictions along the commodity road to environmental stabilization: Foresting Gambian gardens.” Antipode 27(4): 325-342.

Schroeder, R. A. (1997a). “’Re-claiming’ land in The Gambia: Gendered property rights and environmental intervention.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers.


One thought on “Political ecology–the case of Gambia agroforestry

  1. Pingback: Political ecology–a fertile site for development of social theory « Intersecting Processes

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