Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 34, Issue 4, pp 995–1006 | Cite as

Exclusions in inclusive programs: state-sponsored sustainable development initiatives amongst the Kurichya in Kerala, India



We critically discuss the impact of sustainable development initiatives in Kerala, India, on biodiversity and on women farmers in the matrilineal Adivasi community of the Kurichya-tribe in Wayanad. By contextualizing development programs regarding the specifically gendered access to land, division of labor, distribution of knowledge and decision-making power, we situate our analysis within the theoretical framework of feminist political ecology. We first outline women’s gaining of social and political space in local self-government institutions (Panchayath) and then critically discuss the impacts of women’s farming groups (Joint Liability Groups: JLGs). Decentralization and development programs have aimed at empowering women and reducing poverty through improved food security. However, little success has materialized, as patriarchal power structures concerning decision-making processes as well as control over the most valuable resources (land and rice) and traditional knowledge have been maintained. Whereas women’s self-help groups (Kudumbasree) in Kerala have enhanced their position, women’s farming groups (JLGs), by contrast, have brought little betterment. In some cases they have even downsized women’s management and knowledge of resources related to agriculture and do not integrate or enhance Kurichya women’s knowledge. As some women are now introducing high-yielding rice seeds and fertilizer and as it is impossible for them to control land and get access to traditional rice seeds—the domain of men—we contest the notion of women being considered the preservers of agrobiodiversity. We argue, rather, that the construction and transformation of ecological traditional knowledge is highly dependent on the gendered multi-scaled power structures of state and community.


Gender Agrobiodiversity Feminist political ecology (FPE) 



Area Development Samithi


Community Development Samithi


British Department for International Development


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


Feminist Political Ecology


Joint Liability Groups


Neighborhood Groups


National Perspective Plan for Women


Scheduled Castes


Scheduled Tribes


United Nations Conference on Environment and Development


Women, Environment and Development


Women in Development

Introduction and conceptual framing

Narratives of rural indigenous women saving trees and forest livelihoods in India have paved the way for critical studies on the relationship between gender and environment in the Global South. The work of Vandana Shiva (1989) was particularly influential in bringing the Chipko Movement to prominence to strengthen her argument that women play an important role in environmental protection. Shiva and other scholars adopting an ecofeminist perspective have argued that women and nature have been subject to a shared history of oppression by patriarchy and the domination of Western culture (Mies and Shiva 2014; Biehl 1991), emphasizing the natural connection between women and environmental resources and constructing women as unrecognized vanguards of the natural environment (Dankelman and Davidson 1988; Dankelman 2003; Rodda 1991; Sontheimer 1991). Ecofeminism is grounded in a form of radical environmentalism and aims at transforming social and environmental injustices in a holistic way by giving women a central role in the process of change. Ecofeminist perspectives have areas of overlap with the Women, Environment and Development (WED) approach, which has primarily been applied within development policy since the 1980s, as both put women at the center of environmental action. However, in their statements and designs for environmental programs, mainstream development agencies have tended to echo ecofeminist discourses in much less radical ways, thereby depoliticizing them (Leach 2007).

Although ecofeminist perspectives may provide a good starting point for analysis, as they link domination and hierarchies over nature as well as over humans, there is a large body of scholarly work—including feminist political ecology (FPE)—criticizing this naturalist approach, as it concentrates merely on one aspect of oppression in society, namely that of men over women, and therefore essentializes gender relations (Agarwal 1992; Rocheleau et al. 1996; Jackson 1993). Scholars within the FPE framework have thus shifted the focus of their analysis to a more intersectional approach, asking how changing environmental conditions are related to certain categories of inequality, including gender, and elaborating on multifocal power relations in political economies, processes of commodification, and changes in women’s labor conditions, especially in terms of access and control (Elmhirst 2011; Elmhirst and Resurreccion 2008; Harcourt in this issue). Also included in the FPE approach is work on gendered environmental knowledge (Jewitt 2000; Howard 2003; Padmanabhan 2011) as well as on development policy and governmental development programs (Leach 2007; Cornwall et al. 2007).

In this vein, reform and development programs are themselves not “innocent of gendered power relations”, claim Elmhirst and Resurreccion (2008: 4) but are rather embedded in gender discourses, have impacts on life opportunities, inclusion and exclusion, and (re)produce gendered subjects as intended or unintended consequences. Similarly, Cornwall et al. (2007), Leach (2007) and Jewitt (2000) worked on re-establishing a more differentiated and politicized perspective and debate concerning the gender–environment–development nexus. Jewitt (2000) has sought to de-romaticize women’s agroecological expertise in India, while criticizing the essentialization of gendered environmental knowledge (see Kunze in this issue). In light of criticism of the WED and ecofeminism approaches and the scant success of merely women-centered programs, Leach has argued that development agencies are now distancing themselves from the myth of women having a special relationship with the environment, asserting that “[e]arth mother myths may still be perpetuated through ecofeminist writings and certain strands of ecocentric environmental activism, mainly in the north. But they appear no longer to permeate, even implicitly, the environment and development policy and action statements of donor agencies, governments and NGOs” (Leach 2007: 78). Although this does seem true for the kinds of multinational and national agencies that Leach focuses on—such as the World Bank and the British Department for International Development (DfID)—with regard to state-sponsored sustainable development initiatives in Kerala—which is our focus—we have found no such reconsideration of women-centered approaches, as these initiatives appear to treat women predominately as a homogenous group and continue to essentialize naturalized assumptions about men, women and power. Such approaches do seem to still be widely promoted within sustainable development policy arenas where women maintain a central role as effective managers of natural resources and are constructed as key actors in conservation programs, as our example of the Kurichya will seek to demonstrate.

In our article we elaborate on the question how sustainable development initiatives in Kerala, India, impact biodiversity and women farmers in the matrilineal Adivasi community of the Kurichya-tribe in Wayanad. By contextualizing gendered sustainable development initiatives undertaken by the Indian state in terms of their specifically gendered access to land, division of labor, and distribution of knowledge and decision-making power, we situate our analyses within the theoretical framework of FPE in order to examine the impacts of such initiatives on inclusions and exclusions, intended or unintended (re)production of gendered subjects, deployed essentialisms, and agrobiodiversity. We therefore enhance the critical discussion and knowledge on the processes and impacts of state-sponsored efforts towards decentralization and sustainable development. Furthermore, this article stresses the analytical and epistemological values of feminist research on human-nature relations in rural development.


Wayanad is a biodiversity-rich and hilly terrain in the Western Ghats of South India. According to the 2011 Indian census, the total population of the district is over 800,000, with an Adivasi (aboriginal) population of just above 153,000, representing the largest such population (17% of total inhabitants) in the state of Kerala. The major Adivasi communities—out of eleven altogether are the Paniya, Adiya, Kattunaikka, Oralikuruma, Mullukuruma, and Kurichya.1 Although all indigenous groups are supposed to have the same access to and benefits from affirmative programs funded by the state, the land-owning Kurichya and Mullukuruma benefit disproportionally compared to the other groups. Kurichya communities are usually comprised of twenty to fifty joint families, but in Wayanad there are around 300 such joint families, which are called Kurichiya Mittams, consisting of 56 different clans. Each Kurichiya Mittam is comprised of more than 100 people who own an average of 40–50 acres of land per joint family, a residential complex of three or more buildings and a number of cattle as property. Economically, the Kurichya mostly live through subsistence economic activities, with the Kurichya Mittams practicing collective farming of paddy in the wet lands. Rice is very important for the Kurichya, as it is their staple food and growing paddy their main economic activity, dependent on family labor (Vayaleri 1996; Ravivarma 2004; Chakko 1994). The Kurichya also cultivate and conserve many varieties of traditional rice, vegetables, tubers, bananas and medicinal plants on their land. Cultivating cash crops such as coffee, pepper, and arecanut on dry land also generates cash income (see Padmanabhan and Schöley in this issue as well as Kumar et al. 2010). The housing complex, the agricultural land around it, and cattle population are the assets or property of a Kurichya Mittam held in a community form of ownership. The Odekkaran is the custodian of all immovable property and agricultural products of a Kurichya Mittam as well as being listed as the owner of the land in all government documents (Suma 2014). The members of the Kurichya Mittam do not hold individual property rights over land, as it is always maintained as the property of the joint family. All male and female members of one Kurichya Mittam are organized under the Odekkaran, his wife (Odekkarathi) and a council of elder males, the Kootam. These three units constitute the decision-making bodies of the joint family (Suma 2014). All important decisions in the life of Kurichya women, such as about education or marriage, are taken by men, including elder male members in a family (Karanavanmar) or a family council of all male members (Koottam) (see as well the descriptions of Ravivarma 2004).

Although Kerala is known for its matrilineal communities, such as the Nayar, Tiyyar, and Kurichya in North Kerala, the matrilineal structures there actually favor men. Land among the Kurichyas is usually inherited through the female line, and individuals acquire their membership in a joint family (Mittam) through their mother’s line, which makes them eligible to receive a share of joint-family property rights and agrarian products, food, shelter, medicine, and clothing. However, residence patterns annul these advantages, as a Kurichya woman will need to move to her husband’s matrilineal estate for the duration of their marriage, living with and working for her husband’s joint family. She has no rights to property (Ravivarma 2004) but always receives provisions for her livelihood and some important ritual rights. Kurichya children have no membership in their father’s family and move to their mother’s family when they have matured. However, despite the disadvantages, the most important aspect of matrilineal structures in this highly patriarchal system is that social security is provided, as unmarried girls and widows can always stay or return to their mother’s Mittam. A Kurichya woman cannot remain in her marital house after the death of her husband, and it is the responsibility of the elected male headman (Odekkaran) of her own Mittam to take the widow and her children in (Vayaleri 1996).


The empirical component of the research being presented here was conducted between December 2011 and May 2012 by T. R. Suma in six Kurichya joint families in Wayanad, using ethnographic methods such as participant observation, key-informant interviews and personal interviews with men and women, as well as resource mapping. Personal interviews with members of women’s self-help groups (Kudumbasree) and with male members of their families were carried out as well as participant observation of Kudumbasree group meetings, joint family meetings, Orkootams, which are meetings on the village level (Grama Sabha) for indigenous people, and of the daily life and farming activities of women in each of the six sample joint families. Apart from the primary data collected, reports of Kudumbasree and the minutes of previous Orukootams from the corresponding rural local council (Panchayath) offices were analyzed.


Kurichya women gaining social and political space in local self-government institutions and women’s self-help groups

In 1993, India’s constitution was amended in order to decentralize administration and further the devolution of power. Decentralization was intended to facilitate local-level development by mobilizing both people and resources at that level. The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments aimed at revitalizing the rural local councils known as Panchayaths2 throughout the country, thus marking a watershed in furthering democratic local governance in India through strengthening the representation of marginalized groups.3 According to the Kerala Panchayathee Raj Act of 1994, Panchayaths as local rural bodies are to be located within district administrations and divided into a three-tiered system comprising District, Block and Grama4 Panchayaths, for dealing with all issues on the district, sub-district and village levels, respectively.

In the context of the WED approach in development policy and the mainstreaming of the enhancement of women’s issues, due to international discourses, conferences and programs within the International Women’s Year in 1975 and the UN Decade for Women of 1976–1985, women’s empowerment became an integral part of development policy. The focus on women and development was thus included in the Indian national Sixth and Seventh Five-Year Plans and the National Perspective Plan for Women (NPP) in 1988, which recommend a 30% quota for women in all decision-making institutions, including Panchayaths. In 1996, Kerala launched a unique decentralizing planning process to enhance participatory democracy and the quality of life for local people in order to implement the principles of the above-mentioned constitutional amendments. This decentralization initiative in Kerala known as the People’s Planning Campaign—has been aimed at bringing about sustainable development through community-based resource usage, giving emphasis to the primary production sector in agriculture (Véron 2001). As part of this campaign, Grama Panchayaths became the key body for local self-government and development at the village level in Kerala.

As the government’s concept of sustainable development in Kerala has been putting emphasis on the inclusion of socially excluded sections of the society into the development process, the Kerala Panchayatee Raj Act has mandated proportional representation to marginalized groups in local self-government institutes, including members of the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and women. Separate Grama Sabhas, called Orukootams, were also established for indigenous (Adivasi) people to further the protection of their special development needs (ibid.). This additional institution provides Adivasi communities—such as the Kurichyas of our case study—the opportunity to integrate their traditional knowledge on agrobiodiversity and aspects of sustainable natural resource management into local-level development planning. A very significant aspect of Kerala’s People’s Planning Campaign is a special focus on gender issues, as it reserves for women 50% of the positions in local decision-making bodies, meaning the District, Block and Grama Panchayaths.5 This has led to a greater numerical visibility of women in the Panchayath councils, as the Panchayath bodies now consist of equal participation of men and women. Women’s participation at local-level governance has therefore been strengthened (Bhaskaran et al. 2006).

In terms of the numerical representation of members of different Adivasi communities and women in the District, Block and Grama Panchayaths in Wayanad, Kurichya women currently hold the greatest amount of reserved seats proportionally to the other communities. Among the 25 Grama Panchayaths, four Block Panchayaths and the District Panchayath of Wayanad, 115 members from different Adivasi communities are represented. In the Grama Panchayaths, there are 98 Adivasi representatives, amongst them 49 women, with 24 being from the Kurichya. In the Block Panchayaths, 14 reserved seats for Adivasi communities are occupied by eight women, among whom are three Kurichya. Among the three Adivasi members in the District Panchayath, two are women and one is from the Kurichya group. By contrast, the Paniya, being the largest and also landless Adivasi community in the district, can only send four women representatives to the Grama Panchayaths, while the Mullukuruma—the second largest land-owning community—have 16 women representatives in the Grama Panchayaths.

These figures indicate a clear numerical dominance of Kurichya women over the other seven main Adivasi communities in the district, which has led to the domination of the land-owning Kurichya over other communities in institutions of local self-government, implying that the affirmative programs of the government for indigenous population have indeed had a positive impact on the numerical representation of some Adivasi communities but may be excluding others. In comparison to women of other Adivasi communities, Kurichya women have been able to strengthen their presence and representation within existing institutions of local self-government, seeming to demonstrate a willingness and capacity to gain political positions and to take over decision-making responsibilities.

Women’s self-help groups (Kudumbasree): enhancing women’s space and legitimization

Women’s participation at the local level is also being increased through democratic grass roots institutions, such as women’s self-help groups, called Kudumbasree, which represent one of the largest women’s empowerment programs in India today. The Government of Kerala launched the Kudumbasree Mission in 1998, intended to diminish poverty through community action under the leadership of local self-government institutions. Kudumbasree groups are organized in three tiers, paralleling the Panchayath structure: at the local level, Neighborhood Groups (NHG) send representatives to the Area Development Samithi (ADS) on the ward level, which then send representatives to the Community Development Samithi (CDS) on the Grama Panchayath level.6 Built around the components of microcredit and entrepreneurship, Kudumbasree groups describe themselves as aiming to address the basic needs of less privileged women, empower them, include them in the development process, and help them to achieve a better life ( To build such groups, women from below-poverty-line households are organized into groups with 10–15 members, which are linked to a weekly savings scheme at the Neighborhood Group level. The savings collected at the weekly meetings of the Neighborhood Groups are deposited in a cooperative bank and are used for loans to members, with all participants acting as savers, lenders, account keepers and finance managers, after having taken part in training and capacity building programs. At the time of writing, the Kudumbasree program in Kerala has about 3,700,000 members and covers more than 50% of all families. In Wayanad there are 7718 Kudumbasree units. In each Kurichya joint family, there are a minimum of two Kudumbasree units involved in microcredit and other activities. As we will describe in the following, these institutions have helped to improve women’s situations and well-being, as they provide means of social cohesion for them, as well as enhancing their presence, representation, decision-making power, self-confidence, and capacities.

All Kudumbasree units examined within the present study hold their meetings at the joint family house complex, which gives the women involved the opportunity to gather there once a week and discuss their own issues, something which they had never done in the past. Women’s activities in a Kurichya Mittam circle around the agricultural fields, the kitchen building (Adukkalapura), and the building for de-husking of paddy (Nellukuthu pura) and the Orakoodu. These are the spaces that Kurichya women identify as theirs in a Kurichya Mittam, but they had not been allowed to sit in or use the spaces in the front yard or the middle part of the main building of a joint family house, as this was designated as the space to be used by the Karanavanmar (the elderly men) for their usual meetings and discussions.7 Women were only allowed access to that area when they were called for receiving the blessings of God or an ancestral spirit. But since Kudumbasree meetings have become accepted by all joint family members as a legitimate activity, their formal meetings can now take place in the main part of a joint family house every Sunday afternoon. Even the joint family council and elderly men have come to accept this, as they consider the Kudumbasree meetings to be directed by the government. As one Karanavanmar explained, “Sunday afternoon is for women, they have to meet for Kudumbasree […] so we don’t fix any other meetings at that time. It is their time.” After joining a Kudumbasree, women go once a month to the Grama Panchayath office for group meetings and training (e.g. in stitching, agricultural production, marketing, banking). Through meetings and attendance at such training sessions, women’s mobility and their social interaction with people outside their Mittam has also been increasing.

Decisions concerning joint family matters used to be taken by councils of men, excluding women, but now Kudumbasree have created an official organization and space for women inside the patriarchal set up of the Mittams. So now the Kudumbasree units function in a complementary manner and enable communication between the male decision-making bodies of the joint families. Kurichya women organized through Kudumbasree can also function as mediators in communication and negotiations between the village, sub-district and district levels, in both formal and informal ways. This was stressed by Lakshmi Balan, a female Block Panchayath member from Kakkottara Kurichya Tharavadu: “Now the council of men often communicates their needs to me in written form”.8 Therefore, it can be said that women in Kurichya joint families have not only been able to widen the social spaces they can occupy but also increase their participation in decision-making processes. Moreover, activities in Kudumbasree groups have been enabling women to be more self-confident and capable of participating in other institutions of local self-government, such as taking positions in the reserved posts in Panchayaths. On this point, Lakshmi Balan noted that, “it is the experience of working as a CDS president in the Kudumbasree mission that gave me confidence and that convinced my husband to give me permission to campaign in the local election”.

Indigenous women and agrobiodiversity revisited

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines agrobiodiversity as

the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries. It comprises the diversity of genetic resources (varieties, breeds) and species used for food, fodder, fibre, fuel and pharmaceuticals. It also includes the diversity of non-harvested species that support production (soil micro-organisms, predators, pollinators) and those in the wider environment that support agro-ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic) as well as the diversity of the agro-ecosystems (FAO 2005: 2).

The necessity of biodiversity in agricultural production in order to enhance food security as well as environmental conservation is widely acknowledged by scholars. Farmers play a vital role in this process, as they are users, managers and can therefore be conservers of agrobiodiversity (Padmanabhan 2011). In this vein, Kurichya agriculturalists have developed efficient systems for managing agro-resources and gaining their sustenance over generations. The traditional social and political organization of the Kurichiya, based on the joint family system, centers around the idea of a sustainable usage of natural resource for ensuring the food security and self-reliance of the community (Menon 2012). They have developed unique cultivation practices for each season, according to climatic conditions and availability of agricultural inputs. To ensure food security during crises, they have selected and conserved specific seeds, suitable for different soil types and tolerant of droughts as well as floods. Kurichya peasants have also developed effective water management practices through years of observation and have learned to use many species of trees, herbs and creepers for medical purposes and rituals (Suma 2014; Vedavalli and Kumar 1998).

Asymmetrical management of resources and knowledge

Traditional knowledge regarding agro-biodiversity is often aligned with gender and other categories through which inequality is enforced, including class, status, age, or descent and is connected to power struggles within families and communities as well as to control over land, resources and social capital (Padmanabhan 2011). Among the Kurichya of Wayanad, management of resources for agriculture and knowledge on agro-biodiversity follows clear-cut gendered roles that privilege men, as they have control over the collection, storing, and sowing of rice seeds and the growing of paddy, the principle crop and staple food of the area. Especially elderly men have a vast knowledge of different classifications of rice seeds and paddy fields, according to soil type and character. Men also dominate and are responsible for water and land management, general seed and land selection, and cash crops. As paddy cultivation is labor intensive, it has led to the evolution of social structures such as a joint labor system among the Kurichya. Women between 30 and 50 years of age spend 60% of their total working days in the paddy field as part of their required community work, in the process carrying out all land preparation, replanting, harvesting and polishing of grains. Although, as we have seen, the selection, preservation, and sowing of the rice seeds is the domain of men, elderly women generally have vast knowledge and a strong sense of confidence to talk about rice varieties, seed selection techniques, and pest-control measures as well. Meanwhile, young women and girls also exhibit immense interest and knowledge about rice agriculture in all of its stages: from land preparation, planting, irrigating, and harvesting, to seed collection.

But, in contrast to their time spent on rice production and the knowledge they possess regarding rice cultivation, women in a Kurichya Mittam have little access to traditional rice seeds, as their collection, storing and sowing are the responsibilities of men and associated with many rules and taboos. Such rice seeds are considered to be a male asset and, thus, are kept under the control of the Odekkaran in a centralized system, with their cultivation process being accompanied by a series of rituals. Meanwhile, Kurichya women have developed a vast knowledge about their environment, especially regarding cultivated and wild edible plants and know numerous medicinal usages of a variety of plants around them. While the existing division of responsibilities gives men more access to and control over joint family resources such as land, cattle population, paddy, other agricultural produce, and the rice seed system, women are granted access to and control over vegetables, tubers, and other supplements for food and medical uses. Consequently, women are responsible for kitchen gardens and vegetable production, growing for example different types of green peas, cucumbers, bitter and snake gourd, pumpkins, and leafy greens during the season from December to April, as well as collecting and preserving the seeds of vegetables and tubers. Another area of women’s knowledge is related to the leafy vegetables that are available in their local surroundings and paddy fields (Vedavalli and Kumar 1998). Vegetable seeds are kept in a much more decentralized manner in contrast to rice seeds. Each woman has her own seed storage in different places within the premises of the shared kitchen. Even older men consider women to be the preservers of knowledge regarding leafy vegetables and custodians of all vegetable seeds. Kelu, the Odekkaran of the Paramoola joint family, noted that “[v]egetables are the area of women. […] If you want some seeds ask any elder woman”. This makes clear that, within the management and knowledge of agricultural resources, there are clear-cut gender differences that are directly related to the gender division of labor and power relations inside Kurichya joint families.

Women’s farming groups: no improvement in women’s control over land and rice

A special form of Kudumbasree are called JLGs, a program which was launched in 2009 in order to augment credit flows to female farmers, especially small, marginal and tenant farmers, oral lessees and share croppers. The JLGs are intended to enhance mutual trust between credit institutions and the target groups, with a special focus on farmers seeking to strengthen agricultural production, productivity and livelihood promotion by supporting activities like crop production, consumption and marketing. Therefore, JLG aims are twofold: first, poverty reduction through improved food security and, second, the empowerment of women, especially by increasing women’s incomes from financial returns through increased agricultural production within this collective farming program.9 The state Government of Kerala provides JLGs with production incentives and interest subsidies to promote women in agriculture, who become eligible for the Kudumbasree Interest Subsidy Scheme when they avail themselves of agricultural loans from banks, translating into a 5% subsidy on a 7% interest loan.

Following the WED approach, which was already being applied in the 1980s, the JLGs have aimed at empowering poor women, enhancing their agricultural productivity, and therefore acting as a substantial means for reducing poverty. But the WED approach, which sought to transfer the already outdated Women in Development (WID) perspective of the 1970s into the environmental sphere, is built upon on a rather static concept of women’s role in the agricultural sector, depicting them as a homogenous group “caring for the environment as an extension of their caring roles for their families” (Leach 2007: 69). Consequently, by neglecting local gendered power relations, decision-making processes, and the cultural context of gendered access and control in natural resource management we would like to show that the implementation of JLGs—even with their improvement of access to agricultural credits, incentives, and subsidies—has not automatically led to either an increase of agriculturally based production activities among Kurichya women or to the improvement of their control over important resources like land and rice.

The importance of female property rights and control over land in women’s struggles for equality in gender relations has been emphasized by Bina Agarwal (1994). One hurdle for Kurichya women in this regard is the male-controlled common property of the joint family, due to which it has been virtually impossible for women to receive land from Mittam property to undertake cultivation. As we have seen, all decisions related with land and cultivation are taken by the decision-making bodies of men under the leadership of the Odekkaran, who has to meet the individual needs of family members regarding food, clothing, and medicine as well as performing many spiritual rituals for it. Furthermore, he allots grain amounts for daily food consumption of family members. The council (Kootam) of elder male members of a family decides on land allotments for different crops, discusses seed and crop selection, timing of harvests, sale and incomes from agricultural products, and presides over annual rituals, festivals and functions. Whereas the Odekkaran organizes the male members of the family, the female members are organized under the Odekkarathi, the wife of the Odekkaran. She acts as his counterpart in organizing women for household and field work and is also in charge of distributing meals to all members of the family. The Odekkarathi also sets a division of field labor among the women of a family, who are not allowed to work on the land without her permission. The Odekkarathi and other elder female members, called Muthachi, also decide on the selection of vegetable seeds and tubers to be cultivated.10 This makes clear that power relations between women and men inside Kurichya joint families are based on the division of labor among them and their participation in the production system, as reflected in a range of practices and ideologies determining access to resources and gendered positions inside the community.

Women who are organized in JLGs have to ask for the permission of the Odekkaran to use joint family land for their agricultural activities, which used to pose a challenge for them, as Kumba, the eldest member of the JLG Kakotara Kurichya Tharavadu JLG, explains:

We had to ask permission from [the] Odekkaran to use some land for cultivation. It was not easy, as we were not doing such things [as cultivating on our own] before. So first we approached him through his son’s wife, as she is a member of our self-help group. But now it has becomes normal, so we directly ask the Odekkaran before the season starts, and he then discusses the issue in the decision-making council and allots land for us.

To be allowed to use land is no guarantee to be able to grow rice, as there are some rules in each Kurichya Mittam for the usage of land, crops and varieties to be cultivated. The first season (June–December) is exclusively for the joint cultivation of rice by the Mittam, during which all members participate. Consequently, the women’s groups cannot undertake any additional agricultural activities in the first season, which prevents many of them from cultivating rice, as water availability poses a problem during the second season (January–May), when land can be used by individuals or single families to do any kind of cultivation they choose. Allocation of land is decided upon by the Kootam of each joint family, taking into consideration all of the applications submitted for the right to use land by Mittam members and current land availability. A JLG can also submit an application to the Odekkaran, and it will then be considered by the Kootam council. However, in the second season, there are always many applications and the members of the Women’s Self-Help Groups receive the least priority. Additionally, the allotted land for their use is usually less well irrigated, less arable, and furthest away from the joint family household. Women in one of our sample joint families (Athikkolly Mittam) explained that, for the last four years, they have been cultivating vegetables in the barren land near a river, which is often flooded by summer rains but otherwise has to be irrigated by carrying water long distances during the second season. So, even though women do obtain access to land and opportunities to farm through Kudumbasree group farming, they still do not have any control or decision making-power over selecting the land they are allowed to use. Therefore, we argue that the aim of the JLGs regarding the empowerment of women through increasing their agricultural production has not succeeded substantially, as the program has failed to address the complex power relations and control mechanisms within natural resource management amongst the Kurichya. By only focusing on women and neglecting the specific cultural context, this program has not proven themselves capable of questioning gendered power structures and granting women greater participation in decision-making processes. The potential political project of achieving greater gender equality has lost its transformative force and gender has been reduced to merely a technical-fixed term (see also Cornwall et al. 2004).


Women as preservers of agro-biodiversity?

Adivasi communities still have great potential to conserve germplasm and traditional knowledge of plants through agricultural systems that largely serve their needs. In Wayanad, Adivasi communities like the Kurichya and Mullukuruma still continue their subsistence mode of production and hold vast knowledge regarding agro-biodiversity (Suma 2014). The integration of such knowledge into local-level planning has been advocated by many researchers for achieving sustainable development goals, the protection of biodiversity and enhancing food security. Research has shown that traditional knowledge embodies a wealth of wisdom and experience of nature gained over millennia from direct observation and transmitted, most often orally, over generations (Gadgil et al. 1993; Fulvio 2006). Patricia Howard stresses that women, and predominantly indigenous women, have played a pre-eminent role in the management of plant biodiversity and, therefore, should be the main actors in conservation efforts for biodiversity. Although her focus is predominantly on women, the contributions in her book Women and Plants emphasize the importance of the specific cultural background of gendered knowledge and management of plant diversity in indigenous communities (Howard 2003). In a similar manner, the WED/ecofeminst approach ascribes indigenous women a vital role within conservation discourses and programs. Their importance is stressed in the preservation of agrobiological diversity by their knowledge about and handling of plants as well as with reference to their breeding activities of indigenous crops and their alleged natural connection to environmental resources. However, this connection or special access of women to environmental resources is, as we have argued, not due to their female nature but rather according to constructed and reproduced gender-specific power relations materialized in access to and control over certain natural resources in their communities. As we have seen, Kurichya women, for example, have control over their respective field of responsibility, namely vegetables and wild edible plants, but not over rice.

In the course of participating in JLG programs, such women have been finding themselves in a paradoxical position. These programs are geared towards providing women with production incentives and knowledge by offering seeds, fertilizers, and training. The training sessions are designed and developed by state institutions such as the agricultural department and universities, in association with the Agency for Agriculture Extension and Knowledge Dissemination and include information and education on how to increase crop production by, for example, using high-yielding seeds and fertilizers. When employed during the Green Revolution, this strategy usually addressed men as heads of their households and excluded women from access to such technology, as men were usually considered the mediators of knowledge, technology, and practices between state institutions and cultivators (Agarwal 1994: 312). This is now different for Kurichya women participating in JLGs, as they have become the motor for introducing new agricultural practices. Women take part in training sessions and learn the usage of fertilizers and the alleged advantages of new crops, including high-yielding (rice) seeds. Women joining such sessions tend to use the high-yielding seeds, not only with the hope of higher yields but also because of the impossibility of their getting access to traditional seeds. If they want to cultivate rice, they need rice seeds which grow in the dry season, because they have no access to land in the rainy season and get no traditional rice seeds for their own cultivation anyway. Therefore, if women want to cultivate rice, they are mainly dependent on high-yielding rice seeds from the agricultural department or from other farmers (see Padmanabhan and Schöley in this issue). Consequently, if women want to cultivate rice, a traditionally male-controlled area, they might introduce high-yielding rice seeds. Most women of the JLGs therefore opt for vegetable cultivation. In fact, seven among the ten JLGs in our study had never attempted to cultivate rice in their groups, and only one had tried more than once. The JLG from the Malakattoor joint family, which had cultivated rice for three years, eventually shifted to yams and green peas. The main reasons for this shift were lack of land in the rainy season and lack of suitable access to rice seeds and water in the dry season.

Having access to knowledge as well as agricultural loans from banks, and, therefore, to markets for purchasing agricultural goods is now enhancing the ability of women to self-manage land. Yet, the introduction of seeds by the government has been leading to huge economic, ecological, and social problems, as seeds and chemical fertilizers have to be purchased each year, and the biological diversity among crops and food security has been decreasing (Shand 1997; Kumar et al. 2010). One Kurichya woman explained the consequences of the introduction of high-yielding cucumber seeds with regard to food security: “The cucumber that we had [previously] was very tasty and [its seeds] could be stored for two years, but the fruits from the new seeds are bitter in taste and can’t be stored for even two months”.

The gendered management and knowledge of resources for agriculture we have outlined above reveal that Kurichya women have accumulated immense knowledge of seed collection, seed preservation and crop management about a huge variety of vegetables as well as tubers and, therefore, can contribute towards sustaining and enhancing agrobiodiversity. Most relevantly, their knowledge also encompasses information on the management of the ecologically sustainable systems in which they live. To strengthen this traditional knowledge and kinds of agricultural practices would very likely be of great value for achieving an improved use of natural resources and ecological services in the region. However, the many benefits of agrobiodiversity such as productivity, resilience in farming systems, income generation, nutritional values, food security as well as ecosystem services—are at risk, in part because the knowledge of Kurichya women has not been integrated into the state-designed women’s farming groups. Furthermore, due to the JLG promotion of high-yielding seeds and fertilizers, women’s traditional knowledge and management of agriculture continues to be ignored and devalued. Moreover, due to the impossibility, created by the patriarchal structure of their communities, of women to grow rice in the rainy season and to gain access to traditional rice seeds, they tend to introduce high-yielding hybrid rice seeds if they want to grow rice. In doing so, they are no longer the expected preservers of traditional rice seeds but rather, strictly speaking, become contributors to the dissemination of high-yielding hybrid rice seeds, which contradicts the idea of women having a central place in the preservation of agrobiological diversity due to their handling of wild plants and undertaking the breeding activities of indigenous crops, as argued by Howard (2003), for instance. We argue, instead, that it is not only women who are actors in safeguarding agrobiodiversity but also men.

The importance of being familiar with the cultural background of particular communities in order to be able to know whom to address in efforts towards the conservation of biodiversity, as proposed by Howard (2003), is also confirmed in our analysis of gendered knowledge and management of agrobiodiversity amongst the Kurichya. Nevertheless, it has become clear that the conservation of agrobiodiversity has not been a prominent goal of state policy, at least not in the ways in which it has been implemented. Kumar et al. (2010) stress invention failures as one cause for genetic erosion, as market deformations caused by governmental programs, intended to countervail economic and demographic pressures, lead to opposite and contrary consequences. In this vein, the praxis of JLG appears to stand in contradiction with its main objectives—women’s empowerment and food security—as, in its present form, Kudumbasree group farming does not seem to be capable of including pluralistic traditional knowledge systems that could conserve agrobiodiversity and ensure food security for the future. Based on a WED/ecofeminism approach, Kudumbasree group farming programs have a clear cut women-centered approach, regarding women as the key actors in development programs but also generally treating them as a homogenous group. This stands in contrast to Leach’s observations regarding multinational and national development agencies, where the outdated women-centered approach and the myth of women having a special relationship with the environment need to be revised (Leach 2007). By not tackling gendered power structures as well as simplifying and essentializing women’s role, JLG programs tend to reproduce gendered subjects and power structures and, consequently, contribute to the reduction of agro-biodiversity, with women being the motor of introducing new crops.


Kerala has launched a unique form of decentralized planning which stresses sustainable development through community-based resource usage, emphasizing the agricultural sector. The aim of all these state-induced and orchestrated institutions and programs has been to empower marginalized social groups—including women and/or the Adivasi—enhance their participation, better their livelihoods and reduce poverty by increasing food security. Therefore, these programs are in line with UN-conventions as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) which recognizes the centrality of gender equality, women’s empowerment and the realization of women’s rights to achieve sustainable development. However, the effects on women of the Kurichya community of these programs, based as they are on a WED/ecofeminist approach, have been ambivalent, both positive and negative. In one sense, these women have been able to improve their numerical representation in the Panchayats in comparison to women of other indigenous communities in Kerala. Within the patriarchal community, however, they still hold a quite subordinate position, and the matrilineal social structure of the Kurichya has not translated into symmetry or advantages for women in terms of roles and rights.

Whereas Kudumbasree in Wayanad have been enhancing women’s presence, representation and decision-making power as well as their self-confidence and capacities, women’s farming groups, known as JLGs, have upgraded women from the position of agriculture laborers to group farmers as well as giving women at least access to land and agricultural credit systems. Yet the JLGs seem to have brought little betterment concerning women’s control over land, seeds, and water and rather tend to reproduce asymmetrically gendered power relations in the agricultural production process and minimize women’s management and knowledge of resources for agriculture. Men still hold virtually all of the decision-making power over the most valued resources: rice and land. Although Kurichya women have vast knowledge about rice cultivation, they cannot use it for actively cultivating rice on their own, as they have no access to traditional rice seeds and land in the rainy season. They also have specific knowledge and control in their respective field of responsibility, namely in terms of cultivation, seed management and preservation of vegetables and wild edible plants. Most of the agricultural products produced by women contribute towards the subsistence of their families and sustain agrobiodiversity in their localities. But the development intervention launched by the state has mainly been limiting them to using their knowledge and their priorities only regarding vegetable, not rice, seeds.

However, integration and enhancement of the traditional knowledge of Kurichya women in the state-designed JLG program has not been taking place, as it promotes high-yielding seeds and fertilizers. In fact, some women have now become the vehicle for introducing high-yielding seeds and fertilizers into local agricultural practices, as it is generally impossible for them to access traditional rice seeds, traditionally and still regarded as the domain of men. Therefore, the widely held notion of women being preservers of agrobiodiversity, as argued by proponents of the WED/ecofeminist approach, does not seem to be in evidence in the case of Kurichya women and traditional rice-seed varieties. This underpins Rocheleau’s (1994) argument, that to face sustainable development programs participation is not “the answer” and it is not enough to involve rural people as workers and informants in planning endeavors defined by outsiders. She asserts that collaborative approaches will depend upon the ability to broaden definitions of participation and to accommodate a wide spectrum of land users and local knowledge. Following a feminist political ecology (FPE) approach our analysis disenchants constructions of essentialized human-nature relations, as also argued by Kunze (in this issue), and points towards hierarchical social relations between men and women in their relationship to nature which are reproduced in social practices and through institutions. Amongst the Kuriychia, similar to other ethnic groups under scrutiny in this special issue (Schöley and Padmanabhan, and Kunze), gender is one prominent marker in the organization of seed networks in the area and women form the vital linkage between formal and informal seed systems. The failure of the JLG program outlined here points towards our drawing the conclusion that state policy makers have been ignoring the pluralistic knowledge and diverse needs of Adivasi women as well as the effects of community power relations. The state policy targeting sustainable development seems to only be ensuring equity and women’s participation in theory, while, at the level of implementation, the state itself acts as a paternalistic, centralized power not recognizing women’s traditional knowledge. Moreover, the state has been attempting to implement new knowledge and establish new seeds and crops through its local institutional mechanisms. However, when the state becomes involved in the reordering of traditional forms of agriculture and asserts its rights and power over natural resources that have traditionally been under the responsibilities of community members for generations, pluralistic traditional knowledge systems can become socially and politically irrelevant. In the case of Wayanad, we hold that the traditional knowledge of Kurichya women is becoming politically marginalized due to the patriarchal multi-scaled power setup of state and community structures. The case of Wayanad shows that livelihoods, well-being, and the sustainable use of natural resources are constantly negotiated in the frame of different knowledge systems. Our analysis has underlined the absence of agrobiodiversity conservation resulting from state policy. Moreover, the actual praxis of the JLG program appears to stand in contradiction to its main stated objectives of increasing women’s empowerment and food security. We assert that if gendered access to natural resources, capital, knowledge, and markets is reduced, family well-being, sustainable use of natural resources, and biodiversity might be threatened, as argued by Corinne Valdivia and Gilles (2001) for Latin America, Africa, and North America. Through this case study, we have sought to demonstrate that the specific connection of women to environmental resources, as argued in naturalist approaches to ecofeminism, is not due to their essentialized female nature. Rather, access to and control over certain natural resources are constructed and reproduced on the base of gender-specific power relations within families and communities. Consequently, we propose that a more precise understanding of the complex and multi-scaled power structures within the management of natural resources is needed in order to support effective implementation of more inclusive and just policies.


  1. 1.

    These groups live in social and economic interdependency with Hindu castes and Christian as well as Muslim populations. The relationship between the heterogeneous indigenous groups is marked by hierarchy, with owning land being the indicator for hegemony (Münster and Suma 2012).

  2. 2.

    Panchayath literally means assembly (ayat) of five (panch). In the past, Panchayaths were traditional institutions of high-caste people and were expected to be fair and just in their role of dispute settlement.

  3. 3.

    The constitution of independent India in 1950 did not give these institutions a central place but rather stated that they should function as units of local self-government, meaning that local authorities could assert certain legal rights and were eligible to, e.g., raise local taxes (Buch 2010: 12). In this regard, Panchayaths have more recently acquired a new meaning as institutions of local self-government (LSG) (Oommen 2004).

  4. 4.

    Gramam in Malayalam—the local language in Kerala—means village.

  5. 5.

    With the Amendment of Article 243(D) of the Panchayathee Raj Act in 1994, Kerala increased the ratio of reserved seats for women from 33 to 50% to enhance equity in political participation and development.

  6. 6.

    Today, there are 1,940,000 NHGs, over 17,000 ADSs and 1061 CDSs subsumed in the Kudumbashree program.

  7. 7.

    During festivals and rituals, all invited elderly male members occupy the space of the front yard and eat, chew tobacco, and talk there.

  8. 8.

    All names of interviewees have been anonymized.

  9. 9.

    For more information see

  10. 10.

    Moreover, as women are not allowed to enter the front yard of the joint family household or to enter the granary, the Odekkaran has to take rice from its storage place and then hand it over to the Odekkarathi for daily cooking.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Community Agrobiodiversity Centre, M.S. Swaminathan Research FoundationWayanadIndia
  2. 2.Chair of Comparative Development and Cultural Studies (Focus Southeast Asia)University of PassauPassauGermany

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