What does a feminist understanding of irrigated farming mean? Reflections on my fieldwork
Natalia Reyes Tejada reflects on how the first fieldwork on urban irrigated farming in Maputo, Mozambique, led to tune the research questions and methods of her PhD project with a feminist approach.
When I first designed my PhD research project, I proposed a clear call for a feminist and collaborative understanding of Maputo’s irrigated farming. However, there was a disconnect – which I did not recognize until I came back from my first fieldwork period – between, on one side my literature review and my motivation to carry out this research; and, on the other side, the initial research questions I posted in my research proposal, which called to explore the co-creation of the materiality of water and the social organization of farming. The result was that the questions I asked and the data I collected on the field were not responding to what the context was offering me, to my research community’s concerns, nor to my own curiosity. Most importantly, my goal of conducting feminist science had slipped to the back of my mind.
This posts tries to sum up the reflexivity process that this disconnection triggered and what were my findings, which I trust will now be at the front of my mind. This reflexivity process had an important impact in the development of my research, as it is natural in any qualitative research. It led me to critically interrogate my research questions, methodology and goals in general. Spoiler alert: that will be the topic for a second entry. For now, I will first introduce my case and then I will focus on what a feminist understanding of irrigated farming means.
I use the case of Infulene Valley as an example of urban irrigated farming. Infulene Valley has historically played a key role as a fresh food provider for Maputo. In Maputo’s urban planning it appears as part of the city’s perimeter and is categorized as a space for agricultural activities or as a farming area within the municipal limits in the city’s land use plans. It is a 500m wide strip of land cut across by Infulene River, which stretches for 15 km and borders with the adjacent city of Matola. In Maputo’s greenbelt, irrigated farming is crucial for the livelihood of several hundreds of families. Furthermore, Infulene is currently going through a series of socio-environmental changes. Concerns about the effects of these changes on the lives and livelihoods of Infulene’s farmers, particularly on female farmers, form the direct motivation for my research.
The situation that triggers my curiosity is that while dominant political and development discourses affirm the importance of family farming for the country’s food security and national economy, these same studies also describe small-scale agriculture as in perpetual decline. This conclusion is based on reported declines in plot size, soil quality and limited usage of production inputs and access to markets, which leads to a decline in productivity per area unit. I wonder whether their concern informs planned water interventions in Maputo – such as the master plan – and assume they would have differentiated impacts for different groups of farmers and their livelihoods. My motivation for this research is, thus, understanding who are the most vulnerable within Infulene’s farmers – at a smaller scale – and what makes Infulene marginal at a city level. My goal is to unpack why farmers remain working in Infulene, challenging the described narrative of decline.
Using a feminist approach for studying irrigated farming calls for thinking relationally and contextually, but most importantly, it inscribes within activist science. It is political and it is collaborative in the sense that it questions what can the research community in Infulene gain from being inquired. Conducting feminist research – in particular in irrigation studies – has three main consequences: first it shapes the research’s conceptual framework; second it informs the research’s methodological design; and finally, it allows the researcher to engage with broader policy debates in an informed and sensitive way.
Conceptually, a feminist approach in irrigation studies means using gender as a category of analysis to identify and examine power relations and how people navigate these relations. In my case, this approach leads me to analyse what makes irrigation a gendered domain. For that, I need first to unravel what makes a farmer, who is a farmer. The answer most likely lays at the intersection of certain social features such as gender, age, class, race and ethnolinguistic origin with the distribution, allocation and control over others’ work, together with dynamics of access to land and water. Recognizing irrigation, or more precisely the machamba (plot), and the household as negotiation domains where people exercise their agency through everyday practices will allow me to identify marginal spaces, marginal people, and the threats they face.
Methodologically, a feminist approach means conducting reflexive research where one is aware of the own biases and expectations and of the risk of defining and reconfirming ideas about my research community’s lives and the situations of oppression they experience – which might not be the ones I assume. It claims for positionality as one develops situated and embodied knowledge and has to constantly negotiate her place within the research process.
After identifying the gaps in the data I collected in my first fieldwork period, I decided to explore life stories as my main methodology for two reasons. First, it allows me to put my research community at the centre and let them themselves be the ones telling me what they value in their lives as farmers and why do they value it. An idea would be, for example, to ask them about their aspirations and expectations on urban agriculture as their livelihood. Second, it allows me to come back to them with my interpretations and to ask for their feedback in a truly collaborative spirit. For instance, if I have observations on their family dynamics, I can double check with them if my views respond to their own and if they feel my questions and findings are somehow helpful in solving their concerns of achieving their goals around their production. Life stories also call me to ground my concepts on the field: let my data speak to the theory rather than the other way around.
Finally, a feminist approach will allow me to contribute to an informed policy debate on the meaning and value of irrigated farming for the people involved by talking back to the official narrative of productivity decline. This narrative (or any policy discourse) has differentiated impacts for different people. In my case in particular, it shapes the possibilities of different people to control water and irrigated land and the benefits resulting of their work. It informs water interventions framed in Maputo’s urban planning which prioritizes some uses over others, sanitation over irrigation, in a way that some uses and users become marginal.
In conclusion, a feminist perspective allows me to link my case study to a broader context by guiding me to understand how dominant discourses (re)produce or deconstruct relations of marginality. It provides with the tools to unpack power relations in irrigated farming beyond gender. It helps me in justifying why I propose a situated and embodied knowledge that responds to a call for a collaborative and partial rationality rather than objectivity; to come up with a language and terminology that makes justice to Maputo’s urban farmers and their livelihood; and consequently to engage with policy debates on gender, development and urban planning.
With that goal in mind, my second fieldwork period started in December 2019 and was guided by two umbrella questions that helped me apply the principles of the here described reflection: What does it mean to be an urban farmer in the particular case of Infulene Valley? And how urban farming is (or used to be) part of Maputo’s urban development? Stay tuned, because I am working on my reflections of this second stage, which was incredibly eventful and rich in terms of the lessons I learned and the growth I saw in myself as a researcher.
Photo credits: Natalia Rejes Tejada