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Shady Practices: Agroforestry and Gender Politics in The Gambia. Richard A. Schroeder. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. 172.
Scholars commonly abstract the realities of daily life in Sub-Saharan Africa in their efforts to conceptualize the institutions available to, the obstacles faced by, and the issues confronting communities, firms, households, and individuals throughout the region. Such abstractions (e.g., formal versus informal economies, modern versus traditional societies, urban versus rural biases) are appealing, in part because they simplify complex issues and contexts, create theoretically unambiguous boundaries between groups and philosophies, increase the clarity of arguments and allow scholars to present cogent cases in support of a particular approach to development policy. Although most are aware of the limitations of abstractions as a means for predicting human behavior, many agents and agencies in the development community eagerly integrate such theoretical simplifications prima facie into policy prescriptions and aid initiatives targeting African communities. As Richard Schroeder aptly demonstrates in his Gambian case study, such direct applications of development theory are often accompanied by slippage when conceptual ideas are processed into applied projects and programs by development institutions and agencies. In doing so, agents and agencies may mistakenly view such models and idealizations as being more representative of human nature and behavior than reality itself and this, in turn, may lead to project failures as implementation contexts and local power relations are inadequately accounted for in the design phase of a development initiative.
Shady Practices details over two decades of economic, ecological, social and spatial change in lowland farming systems in the community of Kerewan, situated on the North bank of the Gambian River. Schroeder focuses primarily on the garden systems developed by collectives of women starting in the late 1970s (up until 1995) on lands traditionally controlled by male elders. The book provides a detailed history of these gardens and describes how they were transformed from small-scale contributors to household welfare into primary sources of income for many families as traditional cash crops (e.g., groundnuts) became less tenable in the face of drought and structural adjustment policies. The story is particularly intriguing when Schroeder explains how womens success in off-farm crop sales bred resentment among many men (husbands) and led to conflicts within the community and households. In some cases, men attempted to regain control of lowland areas through the (re)assertion of traditional patrilineal land-use claims, especially as they related to earlier rules on tree planting and tree crop usufructory rights. Beyond detailing the dynamics of such gender politics, Schroeder shows how intra-household relations were influenced by foreign aid initiatives and also does a superb job of demonstrating how NGO project officers and state extension agents at first facilitated (through Women in Development [WID] based initiatives), and then obstructed (through sustainable development programs), the development of womens garden plots in Kerewan. The longitudinal nature of this work allows the reader to observe the shifting sands of foreign aid programs in The Gambia over two decades and is therefore an excellent empirical case study that demonstrates some of the problems that arise when development objectives rapidly shift from one paradigm to the next. In this case, it is the shift in donor priorities from WID to sustainable development programs that enables men to regain some of the economic power lost to women as a result of their success in the gardens.
This book tells a fascinating tale rife with lessons about the dynamics of rural development processes, gender relations and the political economy and ecology of foreign aid. At its best, the book forces the reader to consider the complex ways in which intra-household and community power relations interact with foreign capital and ideas to influence the outcome of seemingly straightforward development programs. Moreover, the study questions some of the abstractions applied in the development of such programs and critiques contemporary theories on the role of women in development, the relationship between women and the environment, and sustainable development. In essence, Schroeders book is one part political ecology, one part political economy and one part farming systems research that powerfully demonstrates the value of longitudinal studies that examine the dynamics of development at the local level within Sub-Saharan Africa.
The book is a brisk read that is divided into seven chapters and an extensive Preface. Chapter 1 introduces the study and presents a small sample of the literature (mainly that related to women in development and womens relationship with the environment) influencing Schroeders approach to the research. Chapter 2 describes the farming systems of Kerewan and reviews the changes to these systems since the 1970s. Chapter 3 describes how husband-wife relations changed with womens success in the lowland production of horticultural products for off-farm sale and tells how foreign aid agencies actively aided women in the establishment and maintenance of the cooperative gardens. Chapter 4 details the labor inputs required by women to produce these crops and describes the difficulties faced by women trying to calibrate the labor outputs required for garden production in the dry season with those needed for rice production (a critical staple) during the rainy season. Chapter 5 examines the lowland garden system from the perspective of the landholders the men and describes how elders in the community began to regain control over lowland land claims through a renewed interest in tree planting and with the help of foreign aid agencies promoting sustainable development practices. Chapter 6 evaluates the net impact of mens attempts to reassert their power and presents some of the outcomes observed among the sample of garden sites researched by Schroeder. Chapter 7 raises interesting questions about the conceptual bases for many development initiatives and stresses the need to account for agents and power relations more readily in development theories and applied programs.
The books main strengths derive from Schroeders understanding of The Gambian context, gained through his experience living among and working with the Mandinka people; moreover, he efficiently details the social relations, economic practices and external influences (i.e., foreign aid and state sponsored programs) that have shaped (and reshaped) gender relations in a rural Gambian community. Ultimately, the book is a powerful case study that leads to four general conclusions: 1) idealized conceptualizations of women, as manifest in theories that view them as nurturers of the environment or as maternal altruists (willing to do anything to preserve the well-being of their families), may lead to development initiatives that ultimately undervalue the social and economic cost of womens labor; 2) the abstractions used by development agencies to model African households and farming systems may excessively blur the realities of daily life and ignore the power relations existing in a community, which can lead to unanticipated outcomes from aid initiatives; 3) rural women should not be viewed simply as helpless victims of patriarchal societies and male-dominated development processes, but rather as agents of change and as political actors engaged in a daily struggle to restructure a social and economic system undoubtedly biased against them; 4) donor and state agencies and actors often actively participate (knowingly or unknowingly) in gender relations at the household level, especially during the implementation or funding of development projects.
As for weaknesses, the primary concern is that the book reads a bit too much like it was carved out of a much larger text (i.e., a dissertation) and seems thin in terms of its conceptual grounding. This criticism in no way detracts from the value of the book as an empirical case study, only that it was difficult to situate the work within a broader theoretical tradition as the literature review was a bit narrow in focus and short in length. Another criticism relates to the fact that the Preface contains extensive and important information about the methods, history, and approach of the study that should have been weaved into the main body of the text. Otherwise, the book is extremely well written and the tables, maps and photographs are effective and informative throughout.
The book will be of interest to a variety of individuals in both scholarly and applied settings and will be particularly valuable as a tool to demonstrate the complexity of rural development processes in Sub-Saharan Africa. For students and teachers, the book can act as a useful case study in courses dealing with such diverse subject matter as gender, political ecology, cultural ecology, the political economy of development aid, sustainable development, farming systems, rural sociology and environmental ethics. For scholars, the Kerewan case offers an excellent base for comparative research on rural land-use systems in developing countries and on gender politics in Sub-Saharan Africa. In sum, Shady Practices is an important contribution to the literature on rural livelihoods, common property systems, gender relations, and development politics in Sub-Saharan Africa, and is a book that will serve as a valued resource on Gambian farming systems for many years to come.
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