Another Olympics is upon us—cue the spectacle of precious medals and world-wide acclaim landing on the shoulders of young, skilled, hopefully dope-free athletes. They will be heralded as “heroes” and “inspirations” and all sorts of effusives, and that’s cool. Within reason. Let’s pause to remind ourselves that Olympic challenges like pushing a bobsled for a few dozen feet and then hopping onboard for a teeth-chattering, gold medal-winning ride are impressive athletic feats, but not the equal of saving newborns in an operating room, winning court battles against corrupt politicians, or, in our mind, writing socially-enlightened books that will enrich the lives of millions of readers.
We’re not taking shots at Olympians, as much as we’re hoping to elevate the dignity and prestige of unglamorous jobs like child care, elderly care, nursing, and small-scale farming because the world as we know it wouldn’t exist if women, yes, it’s mainly women, didn’t do this underpaid, underappreciated work.
From domestic violence to drought, political marginalization to difficulty finding affordable land to farm, women farmers face massive obstacles in the world’s most impoverished places, but still manage to feed millions using sustainable farming practices. One of the very special books we reviewed in our January/February issue of Foreword Reviews gave us real understanding of the lives of female farmers across three continents and detailed the ways they are overcoming the challenges, both individually and collectively. In fact, we dug Women Who Dig: Farming, Feminism, and the Fight to Feed the World so much we asked Rebecca Foster, the Foreword reviewer who wrote the review, to catch up with author Trina Moyles for the following interview.
So as you and your friends cheer the triple axels and slalom crashes at this year’s Winter Games, start a side conversation about the hoe- and shovel-wielding women performing the much more heroic act of feeding their communities.
You open with the story of your great-grandmother, who migrated from Ireland to Canada and kept the family farm in Saskatchewan going while her male relatives were off to war. How did her history inspire you?
My great-grandmother Eleanor’s story of being left alone on the farm during WWII—taking over the management of land, livestock, and marketing—wasn’t a story I heard growing up. In fact, I didn’t really know much about her, or her reality as a farmer during WWII, until my late twenties when I began the research for this book. I wanted to trace back, two generations, to my family’s last connections to a farming livelihood. And I found Eleanor. I was deeply moved by her story of immigrating with a young family to what probably first felt like a cold, hostile, and isolated place on the prairies. I imagined myself in her shoes. What would it have felt like to be left behind during WWII when her husband and two sons flew away to fight a war on another continent? It would’ve been such a drastic, traumatic change to her daily reality, and the larger social order in rural Canada. I was inspired by her resilience, her physical, emotional, and psychological strength on the farm. She and thousands of other Canadian women bucked the traditional gender roles and climbed into the tractor’s seats. Not only did Canadian women hold down the farms, but agricultural production actually increased during the war. After the war, Eleanor referred to her work during WWII as “just a small war effort.” Today, we can see that it was part of a monumental shift for women.
In 2010, you founded the Ceiba Association, described as a youth-run organization to promote social justice in local and global communities. And in the book we learn that the Ceiba tree is considered sacred in Central America. How did the Ceiba Association come about, why did you choose that name, and how do you see this initiative fitting in with your interest in the role women play in agriculture?
For nearly a decade, I’ve been involved with a number of different non-profit organizations working to promote human rights and gender equality in rural communities in the Global South. My work in international development and social justice activism, mainly with rural communities in Central America and East Africa, shaped and inspired the ideas behind Women Who Dig. Writing this book was a way to celebrate the efforts of the women I’ve met over the years, and to bring attention to their struggles.
Ceiba Association was one of the NGO initiatives I was involved with: a youth-led initiative created by myself and a group of students at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, to support grassroots development projects in the Global South. We called the organization ‘Ceiba’ based on local meanings of the tree: symbolizing community and resilience. From 2010 to 2015, we fundraised nearly half a million dollars for education, health, food security, and gender equality projects in Central America and East Africa. In 2015, I was able to connect Ceiba to a women’s permaculture garden project in southwestern Uganda, to support some of the women who participated in my book research. In March, I’m teaming up with Change for Children Association, another Edmonton-based NGO, that supports gender equality and farming projects abroad, to launch my book and support farming initiatives in Guatemala. It’s my hope that Women Who Dig will inspire readers to contribute to women-led farming projects around the world.
Many of the agricultural enterprises you highlight are on a small scale. Do you think returning to these kinds of modest, self-sufficient schemes is a feasible solution to the environmental hazards of industrialized food production?
That’s a challenging question to answer. Firstly, I think it’s important to acknowledge that for the majority of the world’s farmers, particularly those living in the Global South, there’s nothing to “return” to. Millions of people continue to grow food on less than acre, or two, of land. Many people rely on organic growing techniques, not based on ideology, but necessity: it’s cheaper to grow food using, say, livestock manure, than purchasing synthetic fertilizer off the farm. I think there’s a misunderstanding that large-scale, industrial agriculture is solely responsible for feeding the world’s population. In many countries, such as Uganda, or India, a high volume of small-scale operations collectively feed massive human populations. In terms of environmental sustainability, there’s no shortage of literature arguing that small-scale production is the way to go. In 2013, the United Nations published a report entitled Wake Up before It’s Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate, which advocates that small-scale, organic agriculture will be better positioned than large-scale, industrial agriculture to adapt to climate change.
Truth be told, however, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to survive, economically, speaking, as a small-scale farmer, particularly for farmers in the Global South. I met many female farmers who admitted that, while they were proud of their work, they didn’t wish the economic burden of farming on the lives of their daughters. Small-scale farmers are often the victims of economic injustices, unable to cope with global markets that favor large-scale, imported goods over small-scale, locally produced goods. In general, I would argue that most women-led farm operations tend to be smaller-scale. Everywhere I traveled, I met women who were trying to grow more food on less land. Many of them farmed with an ethic for stewarding healthy soil, water, and environments.
One particularly timely aspect of your book is its discussion of how women in the fields—especially the undocumented workers you met in California—are vulnerable to sexual assault and have no recourse to the judicial system. What are some effective ways of making people aware of that gendered threat?
I didn’t want to shy away from telling stories of violence that female farmers and farmworkers are facing on a daily basis, worldwide. In fact, it’s one of the major reasons I decided to write it. In 2013, I was living in Uganda and working for a rural health organization. I’ll never forget the story I heard about a Ugandan woman who was killed by her husband after signing her name to his land title. In the world of aid and development, organizations are always asking “how can we help farmers be more productive?” But after hearing that story, I began to realize that I was too narrow in my scope; that productivity had less to do with seeds and farming techniques, and more to do with social environments. For many women, the greatest prohibiting factors to productivity (a term that should include economic, social, emotional, and physical health and well-being) are misogyny and violence.
In recent times in the US, there’s been an explosion of women speaking out and telling stories about assault and abuse. Social media is a powerful tool for raising awareness and provoking forms of social action, some resulting in justice. But I wonder: how will the #MeToo campaigns create change for the US’s most vulnerable women, including female farm workers, many of them undocumented? In my research in Sonoma, California, I came across an inspiring initiative called Lideres Campesinas, an organization working to support female migrant farm workers in their struggles against violence in the fields. I hope this book highlights how women, globally, are fighting back against patriarchy and violence by organizing themselves, lobbying for political change, sharing information and resources, and protecting one another from abuse.
Some of the book’s striking photographs are by K. J. Dakin. What was it like working with a photographer by your side? Was it a natural entry point to conversations, or were your interview subjects—many of whom you have anonymized—wary of being captured on camera?
It was a joy collaborating with K.J. on three of the chapters in Women Who Dig. Together, we traveled to rural communities in Guatemala and Nicaragua, and drove down the Pacific Coast from Vancouver to Sonoma Valley to interview farm workers. Working on those stories together was such a memorable part of writing this book. She brought so much professional expertise, cultural sensitivity, creativity, and fun to the project. K.J. drew from her past experiences covering human stories in Haiti, South Africa, and communities along the Turkey-Syria border, exercising sensitivity, courtesy, and respect with the women we interviewed. We worked directly with grassroots organizations to identify female farmers and ensure our project was clearly understood by those who generously shared their stories with us. Because of our ties to local NGOs, the majority of women were comfortable with having their photo taken. K.J. captured many powerful, moving images of women in their homes, gardens, and communities. I’m so grateful for her visual contributions to the book. It’s brought the stories to life, literally.
Out of all the places you visited and stories you heard, are there one or two that have stuck with you more than the rest? What made these encounters so memorable?
I’ll never forget the first interviews I conducted with a women’s farming group in a remote village in southwestern Uganda. For two hours, I rode on the back of a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi), sandwiched between the driver and Lilian, my colleague and translator, to reach the village. There, I met women who were eager to educate the muzungu (foreigner) about the reality of their lives as farmers. They were brave and bold with their storytelling. One woman told me that she worked in the fields, swinging a hand-hoe, up until the ninth month of pregnancy. My eyes opened wide when she told me her youngest son was born in her pea field. She felt the labor pangs, called a friend working nearby, and delivered right there in the garden. “If there’s any woman out there more burdened than a Bakiga woman, then I’d like to shake her hand,” laughed the woman. The women were so passionate and candid with me. I interviewed ten women over the course of two days. At the end of the second day, they all walked down to the road to see us off. One woman gifted us with a bag of pineapples to strap onto the back of the motorcycle (as if there was any room to spare!). Over the following three years, I’d visit seven other countries and hear dozens of stories. But without fail, I’ll never forget the education the Bakiga women provided me with. That first trip into the hills sparked the ideas behind Women Who Dig.
By Blogger/Reviewer Rebecca Foster