Carmen Diana Deere


Carmen Diana Deere is Director of the Center for Latin American Studies and Professor of Food and Resource Economics and Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. For many years she was Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is a past president of the Latin American Studies Association and was a member of the founding executive council of the Latin American and Caribbean Economics Association. Deere is an associate editor of Feminist Economics and a long-time member of the editorial board of World Development, among other journals. She was a Fulbright-Hays scholar at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in 2000 and held the Bacardi Family Eminent Scholar Chair in Latin American Studies at the University of Florida in 1996. She has also held visiting scholar or professor positions at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague; the University of California, Berkeley; the Kellogg Institute of the University of Notre Dame; and the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College. Her PhD is in Agricultural Economics from the University of California, Berkeley.

  • WM: In your early work, in the mid-1970s to 1980s, you were breaking new theoretical ground in the analysis of peasantries and their reproduction and transformation, as in Household and Class Relations: Peasants and Landlords in Northern Peru (1990). How did you come to be interested in the theoretical concerns you aimed to tackle then?
  • CDD:  Household and Class Relations developed out of my doctoral dissertation research in Peru in the mid-1970s and represents the evolution of my thinking on peasantries over several decades. My initial research question focused on how rural women's work was related to capital accumulation. In my dissertation proposal I had framed this in terms of the articulation of modes of production — a dominant, capitalist mode of production articulated with a subordinate, non-capitalist mode. The link between the two was male migration. My thesis was that women's subsistence production maintained male wages low for capitalist development (Deere, 1976).My focus changed considerably during my fifteen months of field work. Definition of that non-capitalist mode of production proved illusive, and I came to focus on the multiple relations of production in which peasant men and women participated. I came to understand that it was precisely by engaging in heterogeneous relations of production that peasant households were able to reproduce themselves over time in the face of their growing impoverishment. This allowed me to demonstrate the crucial role of the sexual division of labour in peasant household reproduction. These ideas are summarized in an article that I wrote with Alain de Janvry, my dissertation advisor at UC Berkeley (Deere and de Janvry, 1979).By the early 1980s, when I began the process of re-writing the dissertation as a book, I was greatly influenced by the work of two of my colleagues at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst — Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, the founders of the journal Rethinking Marxism. Their work on the concept of class largely inspired me to rethink my focus on the relations of production. Thus in the book I reconceptualize the peasant household as the site of multiple class relations. Where I departed from the Resnick and Wolff framework was that I gave equal weight to household relations — the conditions that support the peasant household as a unit of reproduction of labour power. The focus on gender relations within the household and the interaction between household and class relations generated the central theme of the book: how the subordination of women has high costs for the well-being of rural households, exacerbating peasant poverty.
  • WM: Looking back, what would you consider as the most innovative conceptual–theoretical ideas from that phase in your research?
  • CDD: The idea that has probably been most influential is that it is difficult to treat the household as an undifferentiated unit when the men and women within it engage in very different income-generating activities. Another idea, but which I also cannot take sole credit for, is that women are not an undifferentiated category. Rural women's work, particularly their agricultural work, varies substantially depending on the other income generating activities in which household members engage and particularly, with respect to their access to land.
  • WM: In the same period your academic contributions have also been significant in the field of Women, Gender and Development (WGD), particularly the study of rural women and agrarian capitalist development in Latin America. How did your collaboration with Magdalena León come about, and how would you assess the influence of this collaboration on your work in this area?
  • CDD: Magdalena and I first met in 1975 when I was on my way to Peru. She was just completing the first national-level study of urban women in Latin America and was eager to follow that up with a national-level study of rural women. Our collaboration began fifteen months later, when I joined her in Colombia as an associate researcher on that study. The result was the book co-ordinated by her (León de Leal, 1980) on women and the process of capitalist development in four regions of that country, as well as a monograph and series of articles on the sexual division of labour in agriculture.Magdalena and I always learn an incredible amount from each other, partly because of our different disciplines (sociology and economics), and partly because of our different life experiences. She has always been an integral member and intellectual leader of the Latin American women's movement, while my experience is more centred in academe. Together we are much more productive (and ambitious!) than we would ever be on our own. Our main complaint over the years is that we make each other work too hard and take on too many projects, but part of the reason for this is that we truly enjoy working together.
  • WM: A wealth of debates accompanied the development of feminist theory and practice in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the debates on gender and modes of production, on the link between the sexual division of labour and women's subordination, on the (peasant) household as a unit and on gender relations within the household, to mention just a few. In which debates have you been actively involved and how has this given direction to your (subsequent) work?
  • CDD: We engaged in all of those debates. I think the main contribution of my early work with Magdalena was two-fold. On the one hand, we provided a framework for linking women's subordination at the level of the household and localities, to regional, national and international processes of socio-economic change (Deere et al., 1982). On the other, we gave a lot of attention to measuring rural women's work, contributing to the growing body of work in that period dedicated to making women's work visible.
  • WM: Reflecting on this period, which of your contributions to these debates would you re-assess as having been the most important from a policy point of view?
  • CDD: From a policy point of view, the work on rural women and agrarian reform has probably been the most influential. I first studied women's exclusion from agrarian reform as part of my dissertation project in Peru. In early 1980, Jaime Wheelock, the Sandinista Minister of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Reform, invited me to serve as an advisor to CIERA (Centro de Investigación e Estudio de la Reforma Agraria) and to work on how women could be incorporated into the Nicaraguan agrarian reform. My most important applied field work was in Nicaragua in the first half of the 1980s, particularly the work with agricultural production co-operatives (Deere, 1983). I also did a lot of research on other agrarian reform processes in this period, leading to my predilection for comparative work (Deere, 1985, 1986).
  • WM: Since the 1970s the acceptance of gender and gender relations as crucial aspects of development theory and practice has been growing impressively. Some would say that today there is even an ‘almost axiomatic’ inclusion of gender in development policies and programmes. What are your views on this?
  • CDD: I think ‘gender mainstreaming’ has had mixed results. On the one hand, most studies carried out by international agencies now have a gender component, although not always well integrated to the overall analysis. On the other hand, including data on women is not the same thing as incorporating a gender analysis. Few of these studies delve into gender relations. While the quality of data on women has improved, particularly women's employment data, there is still much to be done. For example, few agricultural censuses or household surveys gather data on the ownership of land and other assets by gender.
  • WM: Your Cuba research in the 1990s seems to represent something of a diversion from the general tendency noticeable in your academic work of incorporating gender analysis. If this is true, why was this so?
  • CDD: My interest in Cuba was spurred by my experience in Nicaragua and most of all by the question of what it takes for agricultural co-operatives to succeed, particularly for rural women. My entry into Cuba research was facilitated by my collaboration in Nicaragua with Niurka Pérez, Professor of Sociology at the University of Havana. She was part of our Rural Women's team at CIERA and our dream was to replicate our Nicaraguan studies in rural Cuba. It took a number of years for me to get a grant to do field research there (the MacArthur Foundation finally financed this work) as well as permission from Cuban authorities. By that time the Cuban Federation of Women was engaged in research on women and more or less held a monopoly on the topic. In order for us to be able to work independently, we decided to focus our work on households and the process of agrarian development over the twentieth century, rather than on contemporary gender relations (Deere et al., 1998). Someday we hope to analyse the gender dimensions of our 1991 household income survey.
  • WM: In the current search for progressive alternatives to neoliberalism, are there lessons to be drawn from the Cuban case with respect to economic justice and gender justice?
  • CDD: The Cuban case illustrates the important role of political will in implementing gender-progressive state policies and in reducing both social and gender inequalities. However, this case also illustrates the limits of state policy. While the position of women has improved greatly over the course of the revolution, machismo is still very much a factor. For example, the high share of women that became members of the agricultural production co-operatives in the 1970s and 1980s (roughly one-quarter over this period) was largely the result of state incentives supporting their membership, combined with the active role of the national peasant organization in recruiting them. And while a growing number of women came to occupy skilled, technical positions in the co-operatives (itself a result of Cuba's inclusive educational policies), women continue to be under-represented in co-operative leadership.
  • WM: You say that your early research work revealed the peasant household unit as internally differentiated along gender lines and a site of multiple class relations, and demonstrated the importance of the intersection between intra-household and class relations for peasant household reproduction. What relevance would you say these insights still have in the light of present globalization processes and of contemporary debates such as those on multiple identities and difference?
  • CDD: In the 1990s a lot of excitement was generated by the discovery that peasant households pursue diversified livelihood strategies and often engage in non-agricultural activities, sometimes posited to be the result of globalization. My early work shows that the pursuit of multiple income-generating activities was a characteristic of peasant economies long before globalization. Globalization simply accentuated this trend. In a recent study for UNRISD on rural Latin America, I argue that one of the main trends of the last couple of decades has been the feminization of agriculture in two dimensions (Deere, 2005). First, women are a growing component of the seasonal labour force for non-traditional agricultural exports. Moreover, they often constitute the majority of the workers employed in the packing plants associated with these global industries. This latter phenomenon is the one directly linked to globalization. Women have always formed part of the seasonal labour force for traditional agricultural exports, such as coffee and cotton. Second, the decline of peasant agriculture has accelerated long-distance migration (such as to the US). While whole families are increasingly migrating in pursuit of agricultural wage labour, adult women are more likely than their partners to remain at home. Under these conditions, many women are becoming the family's principal farmer. There has long been an inverse relationship between farm size, male migration and women's participation in peasant agriculture. What seems to be new is prolonged male absence from home and women's greater role in farm decision making. This phenomenon is related to the profound crisis of peasant agriculture in many countries, linked to globalization and free trade agreements.
  • WM: Besides Households and Class Relations (1990), your study Empowering Women: Land and Property Rights in Latin America (2001), with Magdalena León, clearly represents one of the highlights and major contributions of your professional work. Comparing the theoretical perspectives and policy views of your early work with those which informed Empowering Women, what would you identify as being the most important changes in your vision and strategic policy proposals?
  • CDD: As opposed to Households and Class Relations and my early work with Magdalena, which was heavily theory-driven, Empowering Women was policy-driven. Our intention was to write a manifesto for women's land rights that would serve the cause of the growing rural women's movement in Latin America and influence policy makers. Of course, as scholars we were also concerned with making a theoretical contribution and we spent a great deal of time thinking about and incorporating many of the advances in feminist theory over the previous decade. Magdalena had been intensely involved in most of these debates.Bina Agarwal's (1994) formidable study of gender and land rights in South Asia inspired the bargaining power approach that we took in this study. One of the main arguments in support of women's land ownership is that land rights increase a woman's bargaining power within the household by enhancing her fall-back position — that is, her ability to survive outside the marriage should the household bargaining process break down. The main contribution of Empowering Women, however, was its documentation of what rural women have already achieved with respect to land rights in Latin America and the analysis of the processes through which they have successfully claimed their land rights in different national contexts. It drew on twelve country case studies, representing the countries where we had previously conducted research.
  • WM: In connection with the debate on women's land rights and which form(s) feminists should seek to achieve — individual, joint or collective — the book states: ‘There is little question but that independent land rights for all women should be the goal of feminists’ (Deere and León, 2001: 340). What has brought you and Magdalena to this conclusion? Would not a whole range of conditions be needed to realize the benefits of such individual land rights in practice, similar to those indicated in the study as necessary for the realization of the benefits of joint allocation and titling?
  • CDD: This conclusion is partly theory-driven. In a bargaining power framework, independent land rights are more likely to enhance women's autonomy, particularly if a marriage dissolves. Let me give you an example. Say household relations become intolerable and a woman wants to leave her marriage. If she owns her own parcel of land she at least has somewhere to go to build a dwelling and to farm; if she is the landowner she is also in a stronger position to make her husband leave the home, say in the case of domestic violence. If she owns her parcel jointly with her husband, this might enhance her bargaining power within the household in terms of decision making, but it certainly complicates her exit option. If the land is jointly owned, it is more difficult for a woman to leave an intolerable marriage, as she does not necessarily have a place to go or a means of supporting herself. It may take years to go through the legal process of separation or divorce that would allow the jointly-owned land to be divided up.In practice, of course, a whole range of conditions are needed to ensure that either individual, joint or collective land rights result in effective land rights for women. As we illustrate in Empowering Women, it is not just formal land rights, but women's control over the land that they own that is key to their autonomy and well-being.
  • WM: But also, individual land titles are part of the neoliberal project, a project which at the same time undermines small landholders' survival capacity. Would not opting for a strategy of all-women collectives or production co-operatives wherever potentially feasible be a more desirable feminist policy goal than favouring individual land titles for women?
  • CDD: Yes, some people question whether rural women should demand their own land parcels, given that small-scale agriculture in the neoliberal era is a losing proposition in much of Latin America. Access to one's own piece of land has to be viewed first of all against the alternative — owning no land at all. While smallholders are not always better off than the landless in terms of income levels (this being context-specific and dependent on a host of other factors, such as the state of local and regional labour markets), ownership of a land parcel is a source of security, a means of providing a modicum level of subsistence. Second, if given a choice, for the reasons noted above, I believe it is preferable for rural women to demand ownership of their own parcels, rather than jointly-titled ‘family’ parcels. Third, under the right conditions — principally, a strong and supportive rural women's organization — it certainly might be preferable for rural women to demand collective access to land and organize their own production co-operatives or a mixed farming system. There is little question but that female farmers are at a disadvantage compared to male farmers — whether in terms of access to credit, technical assistance, or other services — and female collectives or co-operatives might be a way of overcoming these disadvantages. There have been some interesting experiences in this regard in Honduras. But the key here are the conditions under which such experiments are potentially feasible. In the period of neoliberalism these have been few and far between.
  • WM: More generally, in the light of developments such as the recent wave towards democracy, the apparent move to the left, and the diversification of the women's movement in Latin America, what scope do you see for alternative policies addressing key concerns highlighted in your work?
  • CDD: The main policy that is being adopted throughout Latin America — both by neoliberal and progressive governments, by the way — is the joint titling of assets to couples, whether land or housing, that are facilitated through state programmes. This is a very good outcome for women. Another very progressive policy being undertaken in Brazil is the extension of social security benefits to rural women engaged in family farming. This is truly innovative since peasant farmers in most Latin American countries are excluded from the social security system. We did not examine social security systems in Empowering Women, but we did examine the role of strong rural women's organizations, and it is precisely because of the role of the latter that so much has been achieved in Brazil in recent years.
  • WM: What future trends do you anticipate in WGD studies? In which direction(s) do you see the field developing, particularly with respect to theory and policy areas corresponding to your own fields of expertise and interests?
  • CDD: The bargaining power approach has opened up whole new arenas for research. Much remains to be done on property rights and on how women's ownership of assets condition household relations. After completing Empowering Women, and a subsequent update of the data (Deere and León, 2003), Magdalena and I turned to a historical study of married women's property rights in nineteenth century Latin America. This work illustrates how institutional factors, such as marital and inheritance regimes, condition women's property rights in diverse ways and, potentially, their bargaining power within the household (Deere and León, 2005).My own recent work has focused on the analysis of assets more broadly and the gender distribution of wealth. I have just finished guest-editing with Cheryl Doss a special issue of Feminist Economics on women and wealth (Deere and Doss, 2006). This collection is part of a growing trend among economists to focus on wealth rather than income, and asset poverty rather than income poverty. It is an important development within feminist economics, for the distribution of asset ownership often provides a more glaring indicator of gender inequality than does income; moreover, the ownership of assets is particularly important to women in the case of divorce.
  • WM: What would you consider to be critical areas of concern requiring serious attention by the Latin American women's movement, particularly in the contemporary quest for alternatives to neoliberalism and concomitant trends in globalization?
  • CDD: Given its urban bias, the Latin American women's movement has not given sufficient attention to the process and implications of the feminization of agriculture that I referred to earlier. While there have been some recent advances in organizing women workers in agro-industry, such as those of the packing industry in Chile and in a few regions of Mexico, the vast majority of temporeras are unorganized. Some of the mixed-sex rural organizations recognize this, and most of these (particularly those affiliated with CLOC — Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo) now have women's secretariats or sections trying to address their needs — with varying degrees of success. Generally, the rural women's organizations have tended to be based in the peasant sector. There is a great deal of variation in how effective they have been in addressing the situation of female farmers. One of the most effective has been FEMUPROCAN (Federación Agropecuaria de Cooperativas de Mujeres Productoras del Campo) in Nicaragua. Nicaragua is also one of the few countries where rural women are a strong component of the national women's movement. In Brazil, the rural women's movement may even be the strongest component of the popular women's movement. In some countries, such as Mexico, there is a very weak link between the two.Finally, it is also worth mentioning how the rural organizations in Latin America — particularly those in CLOC and Vía Campesina (the international peasant association with which it is affiliated) — are in the vanguard of opposition to neoliberalism in all its dimensions. Partly as a result, rural women today are more politicized than ever. This, in turn, has spurred a greater gender consciousness among the mixed-sex rural organizations. In Vía Campesina and the MST (the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra of Brazil), for example, women now comprise half of the leadership. This is one of the most interesting developments of the past decade.

Wicky Meynen is a rural sociologist specialized in the fields of gender issues, land reforms, fisheries and social movements, and for many years associated with the Institute of Social Studies, PO Box 29776, 2502 LT The Hague, The Netherlands.