Women Speak: Ruth Nyambura Insists On A Feminist Political Ecology

Ruth Nyambura is a Kenyan eco-feminist and researcher working on the intersections of ecological justice in Africa. Her work and activism uses a feminist political ecology lens to critically engage with the continent’s and global food systems, challenging neoliberal models of agrarian transformation and amplifying the revolutionary work of small-holder farmers of Africa—the majority of whom are women—as well as rural agrarian movements offering concrete anti-capitalist alternatives to the ecological, economic and democratic crisis facing the continent.
In light of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network’s new Women Speak initiative, Ms. spoke with Nyambura about feminist political ecology, food sovereignty, women’s access to and involvement in environmental commons and more.
Could you talk a bit about the work you do and what what it means to be a feminist political ecologist? 
I work on the intersections of gender, economy and ecological justice. This way of looking at the world first came to me through my collaboration with the radical Global South based activist scholar-feminist collective Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN). I’ve always been interested in questions of power, and not just in a simplistic way that looks at power only within binaries. My work is grounded in an analysis of power in the multiple and intersecting ways that it flows, is experienced and wielded by different groups of people within different contexts.
My current research interests are on Africa’s food systems, as well as the history of African women’s movements—past and present—for ecological/environmental justice. I’m unapologetically anti-capitalist and my work primarily uses Marxist, Anarchist and radical black and African feminist traditions of critiquing power, re-imagining and re-building a world that is livable and shareable by and for all—especially for those who are deemed disposable and marginalized. These are my freedom dreams.
Political ecology at a basic level concerns itself with issues of power over natural or ecological resources. As a feminist political ecologist, I’m deeply concerned with the gendered dimensions and struggles over access and control over these resources, the neoliberalization of nature and the ways in which womxn on the frontlines of these struggles are articulating their concerns, challenging the continued enclosure and dispossession that they and their communities are experiencing and finally, the possibilities of building ecological commons that offer hope for liberation.

Africa is expected to be one of the places most impacted by climate change, and women are disproportionately and adversely impacted by climate change. Can you talk about the importance of land and food sovereignty, and specifically why this is important for African women?

In Africa, particular what is problematically referred to as Sub-Sahara Africa, agricultural production is the mainstay of 60 percent of the population. In addition, womxn carry upwards of 70 percent of agricultural labor, especially in family farms. In short, we would not be able to eat if it wasn’t for the labor of African womxn, specifically those in rural areas and those who work as informal and street food vendors in the cities of Africa. Africa’s agriculture production is heavily rain-fed and so climate change poses serious threats to our ability to feed ourselves, both now and in the near future.
Climate change is obviously threatening African womxn’s ability to both access and own natural resources for themselves—though I caution against simplistic understandings and interpretations of the current ways in which land access, for example, is highly dependent on class-cultural context. What we also know is that the average size of farms in Africa are two hectars, so many small-holder farmers have been squeezed out of their land. And now with government policies that favor large-scale farming by corporations, it is important that we continue to stand in solidarity with the life-saving work of African womxn and fight for their rights to have access and even own, when possible, natural resources such as land. And of course, access and ownership without the constant pressure to have a male figure mediating this access.
The beauty of intersectional activism is that it embraces and challenges inter-locking systems and ideologies—which are often so deeply intertwined that they seem impossible to separate. For instance, as the WECAN and the Women Speak series shows us, you can’t talk about gender equality without discussing ecological justice. But this goes a step further, because you also can’t talk about ecological justice without diving into neoliberal economics. How do you know where and when to draw the borders of a movement? 
My answer here is pretty simple, I want to return to the words of Audre Lorde, the wonderful black-lesbian-feminist-activist, which tell us that, “there is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.” In addition to this, black and womxn of color, indigenous womxn and feminists, to name just a few, have challenged white supremacy, problematic white feminist ideas and patriarchy by continually stating that these specific groups of womxn do not have the luxury of a private/public distinction as state and corporate power, for example, in the so-called public have violently and viciously determined the ways in which they experience injustice and oppression in their private, intimate, home and community lives.
In the ecological sphere, the state colluding with corporations like Monsanto to commodify seeds through systems created by organizations like the World Bank that push for neoliberalism and privatization, have very particular impacts on the lives of womxn farmers across the Global South. If the violence of neoliberal globalization has no borders, then how can our movement building work and analysis constrain itself with borders? What we need are truly radical and revolutionary transnational movements, not small cocoons. Of course, it’s important to pay attention to local realities. In a very narrow scope, an eco-feminist movement to me is concerned with transforming the ways in which economic, intellectual and ecological* resources are accessed by womxn, especially those most vulnerable and often on the frontlines of ecological devastation and climate change. It also means constantly working to re-claim and re-imagine much more just and egalitarian ways of being with one another and fundamentally for me that means destroying patriarchy and reclaiming ideas of the commons.

You mentioned back in 2015 that we must be wary of simply filling farming and agricultural roles with women workers and feeling accomplished, since inserting women into a system that is fundamentally patriarchal, hetero- and corporate does little to challenge the status quo. Thus, how can we simultaneously create local, women-led climate solutions without stripping corporations of accountability? Further, how can we ensure that women aren’t being tokenized, and that the focus of the movement is not just on women, but also on corporations? 

In many movements across the world, spanning generations, womnx’s liberation has often been put on the back-burner to be dealt with after we achieve the revolution. Of course we know this is dangerous and even within some of the most amazing revolutionary movements we’ve had in the last century, for example, patriarchy has been a very big issue and has stifled the role of womxn in these movements, while some have opted not to join or deal with them at arms-length. Personally I stay away from spaces of people fighting for liberation who treat womnx’s lived experiences as a “by the way,” or have very reductionist and ahistorical ideas of the multiple and intersecting ways that womxn—who I must insist are not a monolith or homogenous bloc—experience oppression, articulate their agency, resist and in some cases are also agents of oppression and tools of patriarchy. A lot of nuance is required and this is the reason why political education in our movements for liberation is necessary.
Food sovereignty is a deeply political project that those of us in the food justice movement take seriously. We are not just interested in a technologically different way of farming or providing food and jobs for people using alternatives like agro-ecology, but we realize that a technologically different way of farming from industrial agriculture will be useless if questions of power, by the class-gendered-racial, rural-urban, young-old are not constructively addressed. Patriarchal relations of power do not disappear just because people are farming using agro-ecological methods and it is dangerous to assume this. In fact, womxn and feminists have a clear analysis of the ways in which intimate and community spaces, beginning with the home, are the first and most consistent purveyors of violence and oppression against womxn, and without dismantling the structures that allow for these kinds of injustice to happen to womxn. Agr0-ecology and family farming are limited in their revolutionary potential if womxn’s continue to face the violence of patriarchy in their immediate surroundings and especially with relation to access and control over the ecological resources and the exploitation of their reproductive and productive labor. In addition, it’s important to contest the term ‘family’—we need to envision more inclusive ways of being family or having families that are not dependent on only womxn’s labor and patriarchal exploitation for survival.
These strategies are actively being used by womxn’s collectives and organizations that are working on the intersections of ecological justice. Corporate power exists within particular systems—systems that perpetuate and reinforce class-gendered-racial inequalities, for example. Dismantle these inequalities, create genuine spaces for self-reflection over the lives of different womxn and support already existing womxn and feminist collectives challenging hetero-patriachal-capitalist power over the environmental commons.
What made you want to be a part of the Women Speak project and what do you think is the importance of a feminist-led, gender-equalized approach to environmental activism? 
Over the last few years, I’ve had the immense pleasure of attending WECAN’s events, mostly at COP’s, and it has been amazing being in sessions in which women from across the world come together to not only challenge the logic of extractivism but also to talk about and invite transnational solidarity on alternatives to a capitalist-extractivist world. So when the opportunity to be part of the research project presented itself, I did not hesitate. I’m careful about not essentializing womxn’s experiences around climate and environmental justice/in-justice around the world. Also from my own personal organizing experience, I know not to assume that womxn will necessarily organize against injustice and when they do, organize as womxn. Solidarity goes beyond that, it takes work, forged in a lot of ‘start and stop’ experiences and pays a lot of attention to difference, as Audre Lorde continues to teach us.

A truly feminist approach to environmental activism—and it’s importance—means answering and dealing with the following questions: How do we move beyond essentialized notions and descriptions of womxn? Who is welcome in our movement? I for one strongly believe that any ‘feminist activist’ work on ecological justice that rehabilitates or wants to transform capitalism is nonsense. In addition to this, it’s important that we not only acknowledge womxn’s labor—mental, emotional and physical—in protecting the environmental commons. We need to also transform and compensate their work by destroying patriarchal and essentialized notions of labor, and problematizing gendered assigned roles, even as we continue to be alive to the specific contexts in which this labor is performed.



Jessica Merino is a former Ms. editorial intern.