From Voiceless to Valuable: Rural Farmers in Southern Chile

By Ivy Ken, Food Institute Faculty Coordinator 

Women farming cooperative with props for a play.

Women in a rural region in southern Chile said they lived for decades in “a community of depression,” feeling isolated, vulnerable, and voiceless.  Their husbands felt entitled to the paid jobs at the local dairy processing plant and some physically assaulted their wives and restricted their daily activities as means of social control.  Few other employment opportunities existed for women in this community, and relationships with neighbors were marred by mistrust and fear after the aggressive, revanchist, 17-year-long military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.  As the mayor of the nearest town described the people of this community, “They went through life with cut wings.”

My collaborator Benjamín Elizalde and I met these women as we conducted fieldwork in the regions of Los Ríos and Los Lagos in Chile in 2016, when—thankfully—their fortunes had dramatically improved.  What happened?  They became farmers.  It did not happen overnight and it required a great deal of intervention.  But through the help of a new midwife in the community who noticed that patient after patient came to her complaining of the same situation, the women received technical assistance from the state in organic or “clean” growing techniques and formed a farming cooperative.  After nearly twenty years, the farming cooperative is still going strong and that visionary midwife is now the mayor mentioned above.

This is a success story, to be sure.  These farmers laugh now about how they boss their husbands around and demand harder work from them in the fields, saying, “You have to give us more!”  They produce plays at the local elementary school starring vegetables, and they gather daily in their greenhouses to offer each other support.  They also talk about how the experience of forming a farming cooperative changed their collective outlook on life.  As one of the women describes it, “Empezamos a ver que como personas éramos valiosas,” or “We began to see that as people we were valuable.”

This transformation is the focus of an article we recently published in a special issue of the Yearbook of Women’s History called Gendered Food Practices from Seed to Waste.   Along with a celebration of the changes in these women’s lives, though, the article is also an analysis of the strategies the state employed to turn these women from depressed housewives into “valuable” members of the market.  In what feminist anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod might call an “ethnography of the particular,” we dig into the mix of technical assistance and “empowerment” workshops the state provided for these women over a period of years.  The goal of the workshops to help women change the dynamics of their abusive, isolating family structures is both righteous and effective.  And yet it also reflects the priority of the state to invest in individual empowerment through economic independence rather than in the prosecution of men’s crimes or the strengthening of the social safety net.  We find it telling that the state did not teach these women to think of themselves as smart, strong, or wise.  Rather, they were taught to understand themselves as “valuable,” just like their crops.

Find the full article, “Rural Chilean Women’s Transformation from Depressed Wives to Organic Farmers,” at https://sociology.columbian.gwu.edu/ivy-ken.