Women’s Week Special | Feminist political ecology in research and action by Wendy Harcourt

On 8 March 2018, Professor Wendy Harcourt will be inaugurated at the International Institute of Social Studies, becoming one of the few female professors at the Erasmus University. This blog is a reflection of her personal journey to professorship and on the ‘Well-being, Ecology, Gender and Community’ (WEGO-ITN) project that she heads, which will be launched on the same day at the ISS.


 

The road to a personal feminist political ecology research agenda

I was awarded my PhD in 1987 from the Australian National University but I had long decided that I was not going to be an academic. I wanted to be part of the real world of social movements and on the ground politics as a feminist and environmentalist. Most of my PhD days were spent juggling my time between the need to get on with the PhD and the many commitments to different political causes—ranging from making sure the campus was safe for women at night to protests to stop uranium mining and the logging of wild rivers. Once I had completed the PhD, instead of taking up a lectureship in Australia, I went to Rome, Italy (I confess for romantic reasons) and after a year of looking for jobs became a programme coordinator and editor at the international secretariat of the Society for International Development.

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Professor Wendy Harcourt walking through a forest in Nepal during a research trip in 2012.

In the 23 years I worked in Rome, I continued my juggling act as an advocate at the UN level and as a social movement activist. My passion for feminism and environmentalism remained. As well as my on the ground community work, I became part of transnational feminism establishing a wide network of people and most importantly writing—and editing a journal called Development. The networking, publications and advocacy all stood me in good stead when I decided that, after all, I was an academic at heart. And after a visiting fellowship at Clare Hall at Cambridge University where I wrote an academically recognised book Body Politics in DevelopmentI was lucky enough to get a position at the ISS.

A move towards feminist political ecology

At the ISS I have continued to focus on feminism and environment, joining forces with other feminist political ecologists, many of whom I had met as an advocate in my NGO days. Feminist political ecology is a subfield of political ecology (Harcourt and Nelson 2015). It is the study of the conflicts and convergences between development, conservation, cultural survival, body politics, gender equality, and political autonomy. At the core of feminist political ecology is learning about how people in different places are living in, and engaging with their natural and cultural environment (Rocheleau 2008).

By exploring what is happening in specific places where people are negotiating life and livelihoods in human damaged environments, feminist political ecology calls attention to emotions, feelings, the spiritual, non-scientific knowledges and interactions with non-humans, with technologies, life and death (Elmhirst 2011). The research is mostly based on case studies and is embedded in an understanding of broader political, economic and social issues (Nightingale 2011). It aims to explore the nexus of gender, diversity and the environment. Importantly, feminist political ecology invites us to step out of the bounds of modern science and economic thinking to look at political ecology as a relational and fluid social process.

So, to take an example, from a feminist political ecology perspective the Sustainable Development Goals can be studied on a variety of scales (Hawkins and Ojeda 2011, Resurrección 2017). Going beyond the obvious need to study agricultural practices, waste, water and forest management, we can examine forms of networked and rooted interactions in institutional development practices. We can record at the grounded level the lived experiences of the villagers who receive funds for a green road project. And at an embodied level we can register the emotions and concerns of women who are obliged to take contraception when they receive funds for a startup micro enterprise by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Harcourt et al. 2016).

The Well-being, Ecology, Gender and Community (WEGO-ITN) project

The EU Horizon 2020 Marie Curie Innovation Training Network Grant for the project ‘Well-being, Ecology, Gender and Community Innovative Training Network’ (WEGO-ITN) (www.iss.nl/wego-itn) will provide an important space for European-based feminist political ecology to come to the fore with well-positioned and engaging research that asks these sorts of questions.

WEGO-INT in a nutshell
  • Grant value: €4 million (€4.000.000)
  • 10 partner universities in 5 countries across Europe
    • Freie Universität Berlin (FUB);
    • Humboldt University Berlin (HUB);
    • Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex University;
    • Pangea Foundation (PF);
    • Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU);
    • International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam;
    • University of Brighton (UofB);
    • University of Passau (UPAS);
    • IHE Institute for Water Education, Delft (IHE); and
    • Wageningen University & Research (WUR)
  • 8 training laboratories at
    • University of Auckland (UoA);
    • University of Vermont (UVM);
    • University of Western Sydney (UWS);
    • Defensoria del Vecino de Montevideo (DVM);
    • Island Institute (II);
    • Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM);
    • Associazione Culturale ‘Punti di Vista’ (PDV); and
    • Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)
  • Yielding 15 PhD positions
  • 3 interconnecting research themes
    • Climate change, economic development and extractivism;
    • Commoning, community economies and the politics of care; and
    • Nature/culture/embodiment and technologies

In its research, WEGO will build from local engagement and knowledge of peoples’ practices and visions of how to live on this planet under climatic conditions never before experienced. WEGO will co-produce knowledge with people in both the Global North and South on how hybrid and emergent ecologies are creating new forms of livelihoods or life-worlds, in response to growing lack of resilience of the economy and ecosystem.

With that knowledge WEGO will then engage in the debates now being opened up by the Sustainable Development Goals in order to bring the stories of peoples’ changing historical and current experiences of care for the environment into the policy arena. Such grounded and engaged research will not only be about collecting data and evidence, but also about understanding political processes including the contradictions, the emotions and embodied reactions of people to economic, social and environmental change.

As the first international feminist political ecology research network of its kind, WEGO aspires to tackle socio-ecological challenges linked to policy agendas. This innovative and path-breaking project I hope will help to build resilient, equitable and sustainable futures. Ultimately, WEGO aims to provide important guides to strategies of resilience and sustainability that are required for meeting the SDGs.

WEGO thematic diagram
The three interconnected research themes of the WEGO-ITN project. Source: https://www.iss.nl/en/research/research-projects/well-being-ecology-gender-and-community

My vision is that WEGO, by providing a gendered knowledge of every day experiences of environmental practices, will make a difference, not only to the academe but also to the lives of the people with whom we co-produce knowledge. At the political level, I hope that WEGO can open up questions around scientific truth and the mistaken story of systemic coherence of unsustainable economic growth.

I am confident that Feminist Political Ecology can help to guide us along new tracks as we engage in encounters of different life-worlds, form connections among communities, and link exciting academic research to effective policy crucial for today’s sustainable development agenda.

Introducing WEGO-INT through visual media
A group of ISS students were asked to create a video for the WEGO project. Victoria Simpson, an intern from Erasmus University who participated in the making of the video, explains that

 

the trick was to produce something that addressed activists, students and academics all at once. Since many written explanations seem to be designed for experts in the field of social sciences, we wanted to create audience-flexible knowledge through the help of animations, visuals and narrations. With this idea in mind, we shot a film that shows the relevance of the WEGO project in the face of the ecological and social crises we are dealing with today. Specifically, we wanted to show how difficult it is to solve these overwhelmingly large issues on a basis of a €4 million research grant. We had the idea to asked people of different groups how they would use this grant to make a positive impact. The notion behind this was to show that even when the problem of gaining financial resources is solved, it is challenging to come up with a way to use them effectively.

 

The video can be viewed at xxx

Main picture: Picture by Emma Claire Sardoni representing the life worlds of Lago Di Bolsena in Lazio, Italy.

References
Elmhirst, R. (2011) ‘Introducing new feminist political ecologies’, Geoforum 42: 129–132.
Hawkins, R. and D. Ojeda (2011) ‘Gender and Environment: Critical Tradition and New Challenges’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29(2): 237–253.
Harcourt, W. and I.L. Nelson (eds) (2015) Practicing Feminist Political Ecology: Beyond the Green Economy, London: Zed Books.
Harcourt, W., R. Icaza and V. Vargas (2016) ‘Exploring embodiment and intersectionality in transnational feminist activist research,’ in Biekart, K. , W. Harcourt and P. Knorringa (eds) Exploring Civic Innovation for Social and Economic Transformation, 148–167. London: Routledge.
Nightingale, A.J. (2011) ’Bounding difference: Intersectionality and the material production of gender, caste, class and environment in Nepal’, Geoforum 42: 153–162.
Resurrección, B. P. (2017) Gender and environment from women, environment and developmentto feminist political ecology,in MacGregor, S. (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Gender and Environment, 471–485. London: Routledge.
Rocheleau, D.E. (2008) ‘Political ecology in the key of policy: From chains of explanation to webs of relation’, Geoforum 39: 716–727.

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Wendy Harcourt is Professor of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development at the ISS. She is currently Chair of the ISS Institute Council, member of the ISS Research Committee, CI Research Group Coordinator, and Coordinator of the Marie Curie ITN ‘WEGO’ project.

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