Women in Southeast Asia and the Green Revolution

By Mary Gillespie

Drought, famine, and ill-equipped soil have long been obstacles that have created some massive problems for farmers throughout history.  Many steps have been taken to ease the process, but none have impacted the world and its way of looking at agriculture like the Green Revolution.  The Green Revolution is generally accepted as a positive change for mankind, and is seen as a means for famers to meet the ever-increasing demands of society (Conway V).  However, as stated in Germanos’ chapter earlier in this publishing, the Green Revolution has caused inequality amongst members of societies where these changes have taken place.  It was given its name by the press to describe the increase in cereal-grain production through various innovations, and technologies that were developed mainly during the 1970s (Borlaug 3).  It has provided food for more people than ever before, less famine has occurred because of the Green Revolution, and blights, diseases and droughts have not impacted harvests as much.  The fertilizers, new genetic plants that were developed, and other technological advances have helped the yield, but this is only looking at the Green Revolution from one perspective.  It can be easily said that society today could not thrive the way it does without an adequate food supply (1).  This fact, however does not provide the true insight into the food supply of many countries.  Many cannot provide an adequate food supply due to the climate, lack of funding or work force, or an overly oppressive government.  There have been major socio-economic impacts that have occurred in first world nations, as well as the developing nations of the world.  First world nations have experienced all of the positive implications the Green Revolution has provided, but the developing nations have experienced a roller-coaster ride of effects since the Green Revolution first came about.

This chapter is going to focus on the developing nations in Southeast Asia and their experiences since the Green Revolution started. For the purpose of this paper, Southeast Asia refers to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and the Philippines (Green Revolution 1).  Within this area, the farmers and rural villages have seen ups and downs as a result from the Green Revolution.  It has been recorded that Southeast Asia’s population increased drastically by 68.2 percent between 1975 and 1995, which is attributed to the increased yield of various crops grown in the area (1).  With these new improvements, Southeast Asia has regained its hope to be able to provide for the entire area since the possibility of expanding fields and agricultural land is next to zero due to densely populated areas and cities.  However, not much scholarship has been written on one specific group of people within the rural villages; women have been impacted by this revolution in ways not many first world nations and other scholars have thought.  This paper is going to address the role women played in Southeast Asia before the Green Revolution impacted this are, then compare it to the new roles women found themselves taking on after the Green Revolution came to Southeast Asia, and then discuss whether this change was ultimately for the better or if it hurt women’s roles in the villages.  In order to do this, the traditional role of women, and the concept of the village must first be outlined, in order to fully understand the impact the Green Revolution had on women in Southeast Asia.

Before the role of women in the rural village pre-revolution can be determined, the concept of ‘village’ in the context of Southeast Asia must be defined.  Jonathan Rigg took this task on when he wrote a paper entitled “Redefining the Village and Rural Life: Lessons from South East Asia.” In his paper, he mentions how villages are seen as “units of society, production, identity and administration, and as such often form the structure on which analyses of rural life are based (123).”  The village has been seen as a tight-knit community that is perceived as a ‘little republic’ (124).  His paper takes steps to determine that these concepts are, in fact, false and just form a stereotype that is widely accepted. He accepts that there was a ‘traditional’ village within Southeast Asia, and then as time progressed, a more ‘modern’ village began to form. He uses the idea of the ‘traditional’ village as a means to compare the changes that occurred, as the ‘modern’ village revealed itself.  The agents of change have been identified as technology, commercialization, or the government (for the purposes of this paper, technology and commercialization will be the main focus) (127).

The first concept addressed is the idea that the traditional village is egalitarian in nature: that the people were all living in poverty, whereas the modern village is never seen as egalitarian.  This is a false representation.  First, “in an agrarian community based mainly on farm production, the major determinant of household income is the size of its landholdings (Estudillo, 71).  There were differing levels of socio-economic statuses.  This occurred through variations of prestige, power, connections, and access to land.  There was a class of dependent landless people, and then a class of landowning peasants who used the lower class of landless peasants as a source of labor (Rigg 127).  This shows that pre-revolution there was, in fact a division of power, with a higher and lower class living within the confines of a ‘village.’  This needs to be kept in mind, when the roles of women are discussed later on.

The second idea is that community and village are seen as synonymous.  This connotation of the word village needs to be discarded if the roles of women can be analyzed.  Individualism and self-interest rains supreme, even before the Green Revolution, and the modernization of the villages in Southeast Asia (128).  However, there was a system in place, known as the bawon system.  This system is an example of the working class gaining wealth; in this part of the world it would be rice, through the redistribution of the upper class’ wealth. This idea is paramount to the understanding of the changes women and the rural villages experienced during the Green Revolution; this system was in place due to the abundance of land, and a limited workforce.  This encouraged workers to come and harvest the rice, and provide and adequate workforce to gain the peak yield needed (129).  In conclusion, the concept of the traditional village needs to be seen as a multi-socio-economic class system with and abundant amount of land, and a small population of people available to work the land.

Now that the concept of the village has been defined, the relationship of the economy in the rural villages within Southeast Asia and the culture of the people need to be assessed before the Green Revolution took root, and influenced the people of Southeast Asia.  The culture of people aids in the formation of roles for the various groups within the village, and the economy aids in the change of culture.  With this logic, the Green Revolution changed the economy, the economy changed the culture, and the culture in turn changed the roles women and other groups played within the village.

Therefore, the Green Revolution did in fact change the roles women played in the rural areas of Southeast Asia.  These changes will be described and explained later on in the essay.  In the essay “Culture and Economic Development in South Asia,” the connection between culture and the economy of the area is defined and explained.  The economy in the area is affected by the seasonal monsoons, irrigation systems being set up, and the use of muscle power provided by domesticated animals.  The essay also mentions that over time, there was change, but never severely drastic.  A familiarity can always be seen when looking at the history of the area (Adams 156).  A major change that occurs alongside cultural change is rapid economic development, as shown by high economic growth rates (159). The main consensus is that the class structure and the economy relationship is important, along with the traditions surrounding the class system and the implications those traditions have for the modern work force (162).  Adams concurs with Rigg on the relationships within the village and the impact it has on farming; “Many families may own land or have tenancy rights to small plots, and many families may provide farm labor, although most landless worker are from the lowest [class].”  Adams continues by saying, “the imprint of [class] on the rural division of labor is undeniable and continues forcefully down to the present (163)”.  This makes the connection to the idea of the village: the culture and traditions put a restraint on the work force, and in turn, restricted the economy in the traditional view of the village.  This impacted women because their traditional roles already restrict them within the workforce, if women are allowed to work at all, and the economy suffers even more.

Just like everywhere else in the world, the economy was, in fact, effected by the Green Revolution; and since the connection between the culture and the economy of an area has been made, it can be assumed that these changes had an impact on the culture, and therefore the roles being taken on by women and other groups within the village.  The main question of the effects of the Green Revolution on the economy is who exactly benefits ultimately from these innovations and advances.  Most of the work is privately funded, and therefore will be more expensive (Conway 159).  This means that the smaller farmers throughout the world will not have access to said research.  In many areas, the drought-resistant crops have helped farmers gain a larger yield of their crops.  However, within a climate more accustomed to heavy rainfall, this change in drought resistance has had little effect on the yield farmers bring in, particularly with the smaller-sized farms.  However, since there is a lot of rainfall, this area of the world has better irrigation systems than other parts of the world, and therefore, the crops developed during the Green Revolution have been greatly benefitted, since irrigation is necessary for a big yield of crops (Fitzgerald-Moore, 4).  Also, farmers with greater profits can then, in turn, buy newer machinery and technology that can aid in yielding an even higher harvest the next year (5).  But with these great bounds in profits and availability to newer technology, it must be emphasized that since different farmers have different economic status’, the smaller farmers generally still cannot afford the new innovations, and a greater divide occurs among the more wealthy class, and the working, poorer class (9).  These changes are both positive and negative, and both sides play a role in affecting women’s roles within the society of the rural village.

The first concept to understand about women in traditional Southeast Asia is the idea that marriages were monogamous, and women had the right divorce just as much as men; however women were by no means equal (Reid, 629). A bridewealth was paid for the woman being married to a man within the village, which shows that women were seen as a form of property that could be bought and sold (632). The majority of women were involved in marketing, although men were equally as dominant in this field. In modern times, however, women have to live up to the standard that they are thriftier, and more commercially savvy than men when working in this field.  Traditional women were not limited to rural and small-scale markets, they had freer reign (634).  Even though traditional women were not restricted, foreign traders and male traders were still in fact, the dominant group within the larger-scale markets.  Aside from marketing, women played a role in being the head of the household, just like in most patriarchal societies.  They took care of the children, cleaned, and cooked for the rest of the house. Water was fetched from the local supply, and wood is collected for cooking fires.  Smaller jobs like winnowing, threshing and hand-pounding rice was a common job for most women in these rural villages (Women 1).  Just like Germanos stated, women were shown to be just as effective as men, when it came to farming and implementing the newly developed technology, but were just not able to because of traditional and cultural restrictions that applied to women.

The roles women took on after the Green Revolution drastically changes, and yet similarities can still be seen.  The availability for labor-intensive work all but went away after the revolution.  With the new technology being introduced, the jobs previously held by women became obsolete.  Rice mills took the place of the low-wage jobs, and the only job left was the de-husking the rice, since the mills almost always preferred men to work.  However, even the de-husking is not a guaranteed job.  In many places, motorized de-huskers have been introduced putting almost 1.2 landless women out of a job.  Two general trends seem to occur post-revolution: the wealthy landowners have benefitted from the Green Revolution than the poorer, landless workers, and men have benefited tremendously more than women in the rural areas (Women 1).  The unfavorable impacts that the Green Revolution has had on women occur because, “increasing the need for cash incomes in rural households to cover the costs of technological inputs which has forced women to work as agricultural [laborers]; increasing the need for unpaid female [labor] for farming tasks thereby augmenting women’s already high [labor] burden: and displacing women’s wage earning through mechanization (1-2).”  Essentially, the landless women living in these rural villages were impacted greatly, in a not so positive way.

Another essay, “Green Revolution: Impact on Gender,” enforces the idea that women have not been aided entirely all that much by this Green Revolution, not just within Southeast Asia, but in the majority of the developing nations utilizing the modern technology that have resulted from this movement.  The essay begins with the idea that, “women, particularly those living in the areas of Third World Countries…play a major role in managing natural resources.  Women have always had a close relationship…which have provided them with the three ‘Fs’ of Fuel, Food, and Fodder (107).”  The traditional role women have played as the head of household has been put in danger by the Green Revolution.  This matters, because the entire culture is forced to change with the lack of women working at home, due to the amount of crops being grown as a result of the Green Revolution. The essay does bring up the cultural values that make many Southeast Asian cultures patriarchal with gender subordination, but it also mentions how the Green Revolution is a method that actually reinforces this within the culture and the villages themselves.

The concept of a male-dominated food production field has stemmed from the Green Revolution, among other mediums, and even though First World nations do not see a drastic change, women in developing nations are greatly affected by this emphasis on male domination within the culture (108-109).  Women still hold one role that traditional women did: the idea that women have to make sure that there is enough food to eat, water to drink, and do household chores.  They still run the household while the men go out and work (109).  The idea that women can easily divorce just as much as men was brought up earlier in this essay.  However, as the fertilizers and pesticides are contaminating the water supply, and soil is degraded and sucked dry of its nutrients, and less land can be used to grow crops, men are divorcing their wives since they cannot fulfill their role of providing clean water and food for their families.  This leaves women without a family, without work, and no means to buy the basic necessities to survive (109).

The social issues are drastic when talking about women and how they have been impacted by the Green Revolution, but the health risks are there too. Women tend to have greater exposure to the polluted water, since it is their duty to fetch it; and with that occurring, these women are passing these harsh chemicals through breast milk and affecting their children (109).  The major health risks directly related to the Green Revolution included but are not limited to: hypothyroidism, Leukemia, particularly in children, Parkinson’s, and a low birth weight and smaller head size in infants.  All of these have been proven by various scientific groups, and are backed up by thousands and thousands of case studies (110).  In conclusion, these health risks, as well as socio-economic effects, are negatively affecting these women living in rural villages in Southeast Asia.

So do the negatives outweigh the positives?  Generally speaking, yes the Green Revolution has helped stimulate the economies in Southeast Asia by providing an ever-increasing yield of genetically altered crops.  However, the economic gains do not totally outweigh the social, health, and economic ramifications that women face because of this Green Revolution.  The gain of the country and its economic strength should not come at the cost of a person’s way of life, or their health.  The impact on the poor ended up being less than expected, and has encouraged natural resource degradation and environmental problems are seen as two major negative aspects of the Green Revolution, so and argument can be made that the Green Revolution has ultimately done more harm than good (Conway 62).  The only thing that the human race has learned from these series of events is the ability to create a massive surplus of food, and the effects altering the genetic makeup, or applying fertilizers and pesticides can do to the environment and the natural resources needed to sustain a certain way of living many developed nations, including the United States, have grown accustomed to.  Developed countries are better equipped to assess, and fix, hazards that are affecting the yields of the farmers.  More developing countries do not have this luxury, due to a lower income level.  As the Green Revolution comes to an end, and a more biotechnological revolution begins, these other impacts need to be taken into account before the innovations and developments are implemented throughout the world.  What works for a more developed nation, like the United States, or Great Britain, may not work for a developing, third world nation like Cambodia or Indonesia.

Norman Borlaug, the 1970 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the father of the Green Revolution puts all of these impacts, both good and bad, into perspective; he states in his acceptance speech that, “by developing and applying the scientific and technological skills of the twentieth century for the “well-being of mankind throughout the world,” he may still see Isaiah’s prophesies come true: ‘…And the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose…And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water’ (21-22).” Borlaug also mentions the need to protect these crops from biological and physical catastrophes, but also mentions that the surplus of food that is being created over the years needs to be made available for all of those in need (2).  He maintains a positive outlook on humanity, however, and mentions, “Since man is potentially a rational being, however, I am confident that within the next two decades he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth and will adjust the growth rate to levels which will permit a decent standard of living for all mankind (21).” Over four decades have passed since he wrote this speech, and Mr. Borlaug passed away in September of 2009.  He lived to see his hopes for mankind fade away, since after two decades over half the population of the world was still living in poverty.

With movements like the Green Revolution comes responsibility; the responsibility that mankind will not just profit for himself, but to aid those in need, and to help the people struggling get on their feet and lead a better life for themselves. Women affected by the Green Revolution is just another perspective to analyze this movement, and the innovations that came along with it, but it provides a powerful reminder that not all development, modernization, and innovation yields good results.  With this trend of an ever-increasing population being put out of work due to the Green Revolution, more and more people are going to suffer from malnutrition, and other diseases only because the concept of sharing comes hard to most countries.  This means that the least developed countries will lose a high proportion of their younger generation, who are needed as a labor force (Conway 20).  This chapter serves as a reminder that the dirty little secrets of innovation cannot be swept under the rug, and forgotten; they must be addressed and solved, before the issue can no longer be solved.

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