In the third of a series of reports contributed by Cambridge researchers, geographer Sarah Radcliffe describes her work with women from impoverished indigenous communities in Ecuador.
Land issues have specific effects on women, as families become reluctant to allow their daughters to go to the city to pursue secondary education as they might be "seduced" by non-indigenous settlers, keen to get their hands on Tsáchila land via marriage."
My visits to rural Ecuador always begin with a motorbike ride, helmetless and rattling across rock-strewn undulating tracks that lead through the cattle pastures and then increasingly through banana and coffee trees. The nearest town is 30 km away but changing land-use has caused the disappearance of a once-rich fauna. Passing wooden houses on stilts, I cling to the driver and am silently grateful that I am his only passenger. Soon enough we reach a little cluster of houses, some wooden and some of concrete blocks, and I greet Rosa and other friends.
Research on socioeconomic development has brought me to the Tsáchila ethnic group, one of Ecuador’s 14 indigenous populations, to talk to women. Around the world, indigenous women are rarely asked their views on development although they are found among the poorest of the poor. My project analyses Tsáchila and Kichwa women, identifying common factors and comparing different types of development. For that I need to be in the community, seeing women go about their everyday lives and listening to women’s words. Catching my breath, I go into a wooden building where women are cooking over an open fire on the ground. The room is smoky but I can see four women. We begin to talk about the contradictory effects of development for the Tsáchila. Although the village has a primary school, it lacks sewerage, public lighting, and a health clinic. Tsáchila women have only recently begun to attend school, and so are often unable to hold extended conversations in Spanish. Some of my s are carried out with the help of bilingual women, translating questions and replies back and forth. This means I don’t stick rigidly to my questions, and the turns into a conversation about issues I haven’t considered before – such as women’s role in cocoa processing, and how women learn crafts.
In the late afternoon, I go out for a walk to see changes in the landscape. Commercial livestock herding and export crop production has brought thousands of migrant settlers from the highlands to this region, causing the inexorable shrinking of the Tsáchilas’ historic territories. Seven Tsáchila villages were formally recognised by the state 40 years ago, but this has done little to protect lands which now look like small islands in a rising tide of commercial encroachment. Earlier in the afternoon, Alejandro had shown me a recent map of his community produced by NGO staff and GPS technology. He asks: "How can we share land among our children if we continuously lose it to settlers?" Land issues have specific effects on women, as families become reluctant to allow their daughters to go to the city to pursue secondary education as they might be "seduced" by non-indigenous settlers, keen to get their hands on Tsáchila land via marriage. Given the scarcity of local work opportunities, the lack of secondary education restricts women’s choices.
By evening, everyone gathers in Rosa and Alejandro’s house to eat a simple meal of rice and tinned tuna, play with the children and kittens, and talk about the day. Spending time with women and their families gives me insights into the daily economies and relations that underpin social and economic transformations. However good the handful of anthropology books on the Tsáchila, nothing beats evenings together for providing insights into people’s concerns, plans and dreams.