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29.9.05

Feminist Political Ecology of Wildfire

Towards the beginning of my grad school career, I was really interested in feminist geography. As I got involved in studying wildfire, that interest fell by the wayside. Beyond the standard testing for gender differences in survey responses (which usually came out as not significant in past research), there wasn't much of an obvious gender angle to my emerging research idea. But in thinking about how the two areas of research might be combined, a hypothesis occurred to me. It's too far off from what I'm doing for me to look into it right now, but perhaps some enterprising political ecologist looking for a new project might want to investigate it.

The pre-colonial inhabitants of our case study area -- let's say somewhere in the Top End of Australia -- had an economy based on the use of a diverse range of plants and animals. This diversity was maintained by a sophisticated pattern of controlled burning that optimized the whole suite of products. The incorporation of the area into the capitalist system in the colonial and post-colonial era brought several major changes. First, much of the land was converted to the specialized production of one or two major cash crops (in Australia, cattle and sheep). Second, a gendered division of labor arose in which the cash crops were handled by the men, while the women were responsible for the household and continuing subsistence production. This subsistence production on the side remained important, because cash crop production by colonized people has rarely been sufficient by itself to provide a decent standard of living. The post-colonial fire pattern, however, has altered to optimize only cash crop production. With the remaining non-cash crop areas surrounded by cash crop areas and at the mercy of the latter's burning patterns, they are no longer optimized for the production of subsistence resources. This puts a heavier burden on the women whose work it is to produce those subsistence resources.

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