Women, river and development

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When they cut down the trees, it was like my arms were taken away

It was the phrase a Rioloreña native girl spoke at the Muralism Festival held in Rioloro and Nueva Veracruz in 2017 regarding the construction of the El Quimbo hydroelectric plant in Huila, Colombia. Being a city girl, without living direct consequences of deforestation or any other similar situation, I was concerned about the environment and wondered how I could contribute to change. Leaving university after having chosen my academic path based on that concern, the main idea I had was that renewable energy, in all its forms, including hydroelectric, was part of the great solution.

Although renewable energies are essential to transition to a sustainable energy production model, today I understand that my vision was narrow and that caring for the environment is relevant so far it is viewed politically, that is, the social implications and relational relationships of power through it and with it.

In Colombia, 68% of the energy we consume and export is produced in hydroelectric plants. Hydroelectric power plants are facilities in which the energy from the movement of water is transformed into mechanical energy with hydraulic turbines and later into electrical energy by means of electric generators. For this process of energy transformation to happen, it is necessary to establish extensive water dams, which modify ecosystems and migratory routes of wildlife, intensify the forced displacement of neighboring communities, and cause deforestation, to name a few consequences.

The Magdalena River, also called the Madre River, is the main river in the country and the most intervened to transform energy: today its waters and those of its basin are used by 24 of the 28 most productive hydroelectric plants in the country, including El Quimbo. Although it is clear that the production of energy in hydroelectric plants represents less emission of greenhouse gases at the cost of considerable ecological devastation, observing and questioning the social repercussions from a gender perspective has been overlooked.

Soy el terreno invadido, naturaleza robada (I’m the invaded land, stolen nature)

Projects like El Quimbo can be seen as an example of an undignified water policy that does not represent a path to economic and social development for the inhabitants of the territory, especially women. The expression of the Rioloreña girl illustrates the way in which gender conditions the inhabiting of the territory; it is a nod to ecofeminist postulates in which there is a clear relationship between feminized bodies and territory.

The foregoing does not necessarily affirm that women are linked to nature in an essential way. Rather, “there are important historical, cultural, and symbolic parallels between the oppression and exploitation of women and nature.” An example of this is the differentiation that is made culturally of what it means to be a man and a woman: the former are civilized, rational, and dominant, the latter more given to nature, emotionality, and to be secondary.

In reality, what links women with nature is the product of social construction; “of the divisions of labor and concrete social roles established in historical gender and class systems, and in the political and economic power relations associated with them”.

Women and nature are also linked in a very particular way with respect to the capitalist system. Just as it is sustained by the unpaid care work that women do, it is also sustained by the externalized costs of using natural resources. The hidden cost of producing something that is not reflected in its sale price, such as contamination of drinking water or health impacts on workers, is called externalized cost. Thus, care work is part of the externalized costs that are not assumed by the capitalist wheel.

The ways in which extractivist projects such as hydroelectric plants affect women and their communities revolve around the loss of autonomy over the territory they inhabited, which was theirs and their people’s, and, therefore, over their own bodies.

The privatization of the water from the Magdalena River means that women, who carry the role of caretakers on their backs, have to start worrying about the scarcity of the resource and force them to add the management of the resource to their list of care tasks for the family feeding. When access to water is limited, 64% of the responsibility for providing household water is attributed to women, 24% to men, and the rest to children.

Also, the vision of the river not only as a source of water but as a place of community (re)union between women is weakened. This affects the social tissue because water is not only a marketable resource that can be treated under a one-way relationship; it is part of a symbiotic relationship that the inhabitants of these territories maintain with their spaces. In the socio-environmental conflict that arises from the construction of hydroelectric projects, not only a resource is disputed, but also worldviews of life.

On the other hand, in the framework of projects such as El Quimbo, women are part of community resistance processes unequally, since their opinions are not taken into account with the same importance as those of the men around them. However, the vindication of their role as emotional support, leaders of housework, and care is essential to understand that, without them, resistance is deficient.

These extractivist megaprojects framed in the construction of hydroelectric plants not only violate access to water and everything that revolves around it but also access to land. People who are displaced from their homes are not only deprived of a home and social tissue, but also of the possibility of food production on that land. Access to land is fundamental to subsistence economies, where crops are grown to eat and where, globally, the bulk of workers are women.

Now, why do relationships of domination and power over nature and women continue to prevail? Why is it ignored that subsistence work, such as domestic and reproductive work, are in fact jobs and that they are not paid? Ecofeminism responds to this questioning by mentioning a very important term today and on which energy production revolves: development.

Energy development… for whom?

The speeches around renewable energies are full of optimism for a cleaner and more sustainable future and the word development. The women of the global South DAWN (Development Alternatives for Women in a New Era) define development as “the management and use of resources in a socially responsible way, the elimination of the subordination of gender and social inequity, and the organizational restructuring necessary to achieve it”. However, this is not the definition of development that the aforementioned discourses consider pertinent and hence it follows that who is being excluded from said cleaner and more sustainable future is not questioned.

From the ecofeminist perspective, what today is called development is nothing more than a global policy of subordination established by Western multinationals and governments of economically powerful countries to preserve their hegemonic position. One of the bases of this policy is the exploitation of nature and people, especially women.

Said policy is contradictory to what Silvia Federici would call the politics of the commons, which consists of “diverse practices and perspectives (…) that seek to improve social cooperation, weaken the control of the market and the State over our lives, achieve a better distribution of wealth and, ultimately, to put limits on capitalist accumulation”, and it is exclusive, since it depends on the unpaid work of the poor, racialized and women (who have it more difficult if they are also part of these other two groups) to prevail, while at the same time “completely degrading it to the level of unproductive activity.” Who, then, can try the benefits of this development if you do not earn income from your work in a system that wipes you out if you have no money?

If energy development were to distance itself from the logic of economic growth as the only way to measure it and we considered as a fundamental part of the parallel resolution of social problems, we would be getting closer to genuine economic and social development, which must consider the policies of resources such as water from a sustainable and community point of view, not extractivist.

Linking visions of gender and social equity in energy and resource management policies should be considered when promoting adaptation to renewable energies. It cannot be assumed that, as they are in theory opposed to conventional energies derived from oil and gas, renewable energies are a solution to social problems. Just as economic aid (such as microcredits) alone does not result in a better quality of life for women, the energy transition does not always result in social and environmental justice. It could even intensify inequality if an intersectional approach to gender, race, and class is not taken.

While I was writing this text, I was wondering if we can actually write an environmental history different from the one that has been built based on the violent and inequitable appropriation of resources. Micro hydroelectric initiatives, which are systems whose technical basis is the same as hydroelectric but on a small scale, invite me to think so. For example, the CAREL organization (Centro Alternativo Rural El Limón) develops projects of this type in rural areas of the Dominican Republic, involving the inhabitants, promoting equal participation, and allowing them to appropriate the energy production systems as a community.

To make it possible to articulate a dignified life for women and their communities with the use of resources such as the water from the Magdalena River and its basin, it is essential to visualize energy development framed in social and environmental justice and to have a gender focus in renewable energy projects, including hydroelectric projects. Involving children and women in energy transition processes can be one of the ways to move towards a truly fair and equal development.

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