Section 2

Figures that Loudly Portray Reality

From Knowledge to Action: Supporting Women in Agriculture in Latin America

Understanding different women’s needs in agriculture is important to creating successful sustainable development initiatives

There is a large body of literature that describes women’s important roles in agriculture at the household, community, national and international levels. Women participate in all stages of food production, from harvesting to sale; they are seed savers and storytellers, thus supporting community food security over time. Women migrate to agricultural areas to work seasonally on farms, within and outside of their home communities, further contributing to food destined for national and international markets.

Despite the clear importance of women in agriculture and food security, three outstanding issues remain. First, many women’s knowledge and skills remain underreported and underrepresented. Second, women’s unique needs and challenges are not always adequately considered in agricultural research and interventions. Third, despite having knowledge that we need to better support women’s development goals, many programs lack clear roadmaps for action.

The goal of this article is to contribute to the above three issues by: 1) representing women’s knowledge and skills, 2) discussing women’s unique challenges, and 3) providing directives to better support women in agricultural interventions. This article is organized as follows: In the first and second sections, we review women, food security, and agriculture with a focus on their knowledge, skills, and unique challenges; we draw on cases and examples from Latin America as well as researcher experiences in Costa Rica. In the third section of this article, we provide a roadmap to better support women in this field.

Women are often the savers of seeds and the primary keepers and caretakers of home gardens.

I. Women and agriculture in Latin America
Seed saving & home gardens. The practices of seed saving and maintaining home gardens continue to be integral to preserving agrobiodiversity, cultural value, and food security (Galluzzi et al. 2010, Phillips 2013). Historically, household responsibilities, including maintaining the land that is around the home, belong to women. Therefore, women are often the savers of seeds and the primary keepers and caretakers of home gardens. Across 39 case studies in Latin America, Howard (2006) found that women most commonly manage these gardens. In San Ignacio, located in northwestern Mexico, Buechler (2016) documented that many women contribute to the household economy through their home gardens and utilize their unique knowledge set to develop adaptation strategies needed to maintain production. Researcher Mariana Rodriguez shared that Bribri women in Yorkin, Costa Rica are constantly exchanging seeds and food with their neighbors, how women, in contrast to men, tend to keep several edible plants and animals in their farms and how many men are focused mainly on growing commercial crops (personal communication).

Climate adaptation. The drastic impacts of climate change on agriculture have required many farming communities to adapt to achieve food and economic security. These strategies have relied heavily on the distinct knowledge and experiences of women, who have provided unique and innovative adaptatation strategies. In northern Guanajuato, Mexico, Bee (2014) described how women use climate-resilient crops to confront climate challenges and how they transmit this knowledge to their daughters. Furthermore, two organized groups of rural women in Chiapas, Mexico used knowledge exchanges to share their know-how regarding increasing agrobiodiversity to adapt to a changing climate (Lookabaugh 2017). In rural Quechua communities of the Peruvian Andes, women play a critical role in the cultivation of a diversity of potatoes for climate adaption (Walshe & Argumedo 2016).

Migrant workers. Throughout Latin America, many agricultural sectors rely heavily on the work carried out by migrant women. Lee (2010) recounted the experiences of Nicaraguan migrant women working in Costa Rica’s agriculture sector, primarily in the cassava and pineapple industries. Due to the undocumented status of many, the only work available in agriculture for these women is that left unwanted by citizens or documented migrants who have access to better paying and less intensive work. The significant contributions to global food security made by migrant women are often coupled with the injustices they face due to their legal status and/or gender. In Mexico, Fleury (2016) highlighted the trend that exists of listing migrant women as agricultural helpers to their male counterparts, resulting in lower pay, even though the work is often the same as men’s.

Food justice leadership. Women lead peasant unions, co-operatives, and food justice advocacy groups all over Latin America. Women’s cooperatives advocate for agroecology, agriculture that supports diversification, family nutrition, and social and environmental well-being (e.g., Calmañana in Uruguay; Oliver 2016). Strong female leadership within La Vía Campesina, a transnational peasant movement, has been important to create programs and policies that support food sovereignty, from the local level up to the level of the United Nations (Desmarais 2003). In Brazil, women have led a key environmental, human rights, and food justice movement called Marcha das Margaritas; through their marches, they have achieved important gains regarding: women’s participation in agriculture reform, labor rights, and violence against women (Marcha das Margartias 2018).

Women and men often work together in agriculture and their roles can be dynamic depending upon the context.

Women and men’s cooperation, changing roles, and differences among women. The above review, with select examples from Latin America, illustrates that women have central roles in sustainable agriculture, food security, and food justice. While highlighting these roles is important, we need to exercise caution in our analyses to avoid overgeneralization. Women and men often work together in agriculture and their roles can be dynamic depending upon the context. For example, Indigenous Bribri farmers in Costa Rica often work in gender mixed groups in home gardens and agricultural fields (e.g., Sylvester et al. 2016). Mixed gender groups also manage home gardens in Oaxaca, Mexico (e.g., Aguilar-Støen et al. 2009). Furthermore, gendered roles can change over time and can be context specific. Male out-migration, in Guatemala for instance, has increased some rural women’s roles in commercial agriculture (World Bank 2015), a phenomenon termed the feminization of farming (De Schutter 2013). Understanding women’s dynamic roles is increasingly important as global pressure on agriculture is changing, particularly in countries with a growing middle class (Delgado 2003). Lastly, women are not a homogenous group; their roles in agrobiodiversity conservation, home gardens, climate adaptation, commercial agriculture and food justice will depend on individual differences (e.g., life-stage, nationality, ethnicity, and individual histories, affinities, and opportunities).

II. Women’s unique challenges
Understanding different women’s needs in agriculture is important to creating successful, sustainable development initiatives. As Doss et al. (2018) assert, “simply having data on women’s labor in agriculture does not tell us how to increase food security or strengthen rural livelihoods (p. 71)”. We need to work with men and women to understand their unique challenges as well as what they need to overcome them.

One key area for dialogue is women’s triple burdens. A triple burden is a person’s triple workload in the areas of 1) work outside the home or agricultural labour, 2) household maintenance, and 3) childcare. Researcher Clara Ramin shared with us a day in the life of a female farmer in the Longo Maï community, Costa Rica. Many female farmers start their day often very early, at four a.m., prepare the house and the food in the pre-harvest stage of agriculture, and do not rest after working in agriculture fields due to their household maintenance and/or child care activities (personal communication). What Clara describes is not unique to Longo Maï. Sylvester and García (2018) describe similar daily tasks that occupy women’s time in the Talamanca Bribri Territory, Costa Rica, where women wake up at three a.m. to start the fire and prepare for agricultural work. They work in fields in the morning, return to cook for lunch, and then spend the afternoons working on other tasks such as drying seeds and grinding corn, cacao, or coffee. Below we discuss directives for action to minimize the burden on women with agriculture interventions, as well as how to better support women’s development aspirations and needs.

III. Directives for action to better support women in agriculture

1) Understand agriculture as a multi-stage process. Conceptualizing agriculture as a multi-stage process is central to accurately representing women’s knowledge, skills, leadership, and challenges. Although there is a growing body of literature describing the gender dimensions at different stages of agriculture, the main emphasis has been placed on the field work and food harvesting stages. Sylvester et al. (2016) describe how Bribri Indigenous agriculture starts at a pre-harvest stage, i.e., where women and men prepare for the day in the field through activities such as cooking as well as preparing machetes and tools - this is a mixed gender activity. Similarly, agriculture does not stop after field tasks are completed; rather, women are involved in many food processing activities after work in the fields such as food processing and preparation before consumption or sale. Thus, to ensure we understand men and women’s full contribution to agriculture and food security, analyses should examine the full suite of activities that make agriculture possible. These activities include: pre-harvest preparation, field preparation, planting, tending to agricultural fields, cleaning fields, harvesting, processing, preparation, marketing, sharing, and sales.

Practicing a gender-sensitive methodology means being sensitive to the different social and economic realities of men and women, and adjusting ones program accordingly.

2) Practice gender- and culturally-sensitive methodologies. Practicing a gender-sensitive methodology means being sensitive to the different social and economic realities of men and women, and adjusting ones program accordingly. To understand these realities, we need to have conversations with the farmers and participate in their daily routines. While working with Bribri women in Costa Rica, primary author Sylvester uncovered that past research and interventions were extractive and increased women’s work burdens. During interventions, women have had to cook for outsiders, wash their clothing, attend to their questions, and guide them in community customs. Furthermore, women explained that outsiders rarely follow local schedules; this means women have to wait around the house for outsiders to wake up, around seven or eight in the morning, to prepare their food and guide them in their work. That outsiders do not understand women’s schedules can be a significant setback because women wake up at around three in the morning and are out of the house working in their fields by six a.m. Thus, not only have outsiders increased women’s work burdens, they have also negatively affected their wage labour. One idea to solve this problem was presented by Sylvester’s Bribri colleagues who suggested that, during research, she help with daily workloads (e.g., working in agriculture fields, processing food, washing). Working with women in their daily tasks freed up their time to complete interviews and/or allowed Sylvester to complete interviews while doing daily work (Sylvester & García 2018). 3) Work with women to understand their differences. Without an analysis of how women’s and men’s situations differ, we run the risk of simplifying the dynamics of our agriculture and food systems. By recognizing the variability of women, we can identify the specific factors that promote (or hinder) land tenure, access to resources, and other factors that strengthen food security (Doss et al. 2018). Understanding site specific factors will help us better direct our development initiatives. 4) Document cooperation among men and women. Many agricultural tasks are collaborations from members of both genders, and such a fine-grained analysis is key to accurately representing men and women (Sylvester et al. 2016). Although home gardens are reported to be commonly managed by women in Latin America (Howard 2006), some cases show these are gender mixed spaces (e.g., Aguilar-Støen et al., 2009). Without a complete picture of cooperation among men and women we may experience unintended outcomes of interventions. First, we may misrepresent key knowledges of women and men (e.g., men as home gardeners or women as migrant laborers). Second, if we only document gendered differences, we may create broad generalizations of women as sole leaders in agrobiodiversity conservation or climate adaptive practices. Such simplifications has resulted in targetting women only for sustainable agriculture or climate resilient intiatives – this practice can subsequently increase their already heavy workloads (Dosset al. 2018). 5) Work with men. Women’s issues do not exist in a vacuum; they are linked to the wider power networks within households, communities, and societies that involve men. Thus, better supporting women means working with men. Scholars in the wider field of gender and development have documented how working with men can greatly benefit gender equality goals (e.g. Sweetman 2013). Increased cross-fertilization with the field of development can help provide agriculture scholars and professionals with roadmaps to working with men. Sweetman (2013) suggests three key areas to address some of the wider drivers of inequality: 1) working on violent masculinities as part of women’s empowerment projects, 2) supporting men to be responsible husbands and fathers, and 3) working with adolescents. These three areas should be valued as equal priorities in agricultural outreach work, i.e., supporting women’s access to agrobiodiversity, climate-resilient crops, education, technology, and land. 6) Support women’s rights. Many migrant agricultural workers in Latin America have undocumented status; this means women can be forced to take jobs that are unwanted by citizens or documented migrants and these undocumented women may not be fairly compensated for their work. Women can be listed as helpers to male counterparts and thus earn less money, even when their agriculture work is the same as men’s (Fleury 2016). In these cases, it is essential that researchers and practitioners work on data gathering and/or interventions that highlight areas where women’s human rights are not yet upheld. A series of human rights conventions are directly relevant to women’s work in agriculture, including: 1) The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW 1979), and 2) The Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW 1990; UN Women 2015).

Women are central to agriculture, food security, and social justice in Latin America.

Women are central to agriculture, food security, and social justice in Latin America. We reviewed some of their many roles in seed saving, home gardens, climate adaptation, commercial agriculture, and environmental leadership. We highlight the triple burden as one of the unique challenges experienced by women in agriculture. Lastly, we outline six directives for action to: 1) better support women in agriculture, 2) work towards Agenda 2030’s goal of leaving no one behind, and 3) ensure projects directed for women reduce, rather than reinforce, existing inequalities.


Aguilar-Støen M., Moe S.R., and S. L. Camargo-Ricalde. 2009. Home Gardens sustain crop diversity and improve farm resilience in Candelaria Loxicha, Oaxaca, Mexico. Human Ecology 37: 55-77.

Bee, B.A. 2014. ‘‘Si no comemos tortilla, no vivimos:’’ women, climate change, and food security in central Mexico. Agriculture and Human Values 31: 607-620.

Buechler, S. 2016. Gendered vulnerabilities and grassroots adaptation initiatives in home gardens and small orchards in Northwest Mexico. Ambio 45(Suppl. 3): S322-S334.

De Schutter, O. 2013. The Feminization of Farming,, accessed 19/07/2018.

Delgado, C. L. 2003. Rising consumption of meat and milk in developing countries has created a new food revolution. The Journal of Nutrition 133(11): 3907S-3910S.

Desmarais, A.A. 2003. The Vía Campesina: Peasant Women on the Frontiers of Food Sovereignty. Canadian Woman Studies/Les Cahiers de la Femme 23(1): 140-145.

Doss, C., Meinzen-Dick, R., Quisumbing, A., and S. Theis. 2018. Women in agriculture: Four myths. Global Food Security 16: 69-74.

Fleury, A. 2016. The Overlooked: Migrant Women Working in Mexico. United Nations University,, accessed 15/07/2018.

Galluzzi, G., Eyzaguirre, P., and Negri, V. 2010. Home gardens: neglected hotspots of agro-biodiversity and cultural diversity. Biodiversity Conservation 19: 3635-3654.

Howard, P. 2006. Gender and social dynamics in swidden and homegardens in Latin America. In: B. M. Kumar and P. K. R. Nair (eds.) Tropical Homegardens. Springer. 378 pp.

Lee, S.E. 2010. Unpacking the Packing Plant: Nicaraguan Migrant Women’s Work in Costa Rica’s Evolving Export Agriculture Sector. Signs 35(2): 317-342.

Lookabaugh, L. 2017. Talking about the weather in Chiapas, Mexico: Rural women’s approaches to climate change adaptation. The Latin Americanist March 2017: 61-80.

Marcha das Margartias 2018. Pautas das Marchas,, accessed 28/07/2018.

Oliver, B. 2016. “The Earth Gives Us So Much”: Agroecology and Rural Women’s Leadership in Uruguay. Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment 38(1): 38-47.

Phillips, C. 2013. Saving more than seeds: practices and politics of seed saving. Taylor & Francis Group. 286pp.

Rocheleau, D., Thomas-Slayter, T., and E. Wangari. 1996. Gender and the environment: A feminist political ecology perspective. In: Rocheleau, D., B. Thomas-Slayter, and E. Wangari (eds.). Feminist Political Ecology: Global Issues and Local Experience. Routledge. 352 pp.

Sweetman, C. 2013. Introduction: working with men on gender equality. Gender & Development 21(1): 1-13.

Sylvester, O., García Segura, A. G. 2018. Ulàpeitök: Applying Bribri Indigenous teachings to an ethnobiology Ph.D. methodology (in press, Engaged Scholar Journal).

Sylvester, O., García Segura, A. G., and I. Davidson-Hunt. 2016. Complex Relationships among gender and forest food harvesting: Insights from the Bribri Indigenous Territory, Costa Rica. International Forestry Review 18(2): 247-260.

UN Women 2015. Women Migrant Workers’ Human Rights,, accessed 19/07/2018.

Walshe, R., and Argumedo, A. 2016. Ayni, Ayllu, Yanantin and Chanincha. The Cultural Values Enabling Adaptation to Climate Change in Communities of the Potato Park, in the Peruvian Andes. GAIA 25(3): 166-173.

World Bank. 2015. Women in Agriculture: The Impact of Male Out-Migration on Women’s Agency, Household Welfare, and Agricultural Productivity, World Bank. 46 pp.

  • Share this article
Francisco Rojas • From Knowledge to Action: Supporting Women in Agriculture in Latin America Francisco Rojas

Rector University for Peace, Ciudad Colón, San José, Costa Rica

Olivia Sylvester

Researcher University for Peace, Ciudad Colón, San José, Costa Rica

Yasmeen Zahar

Researcher University for Peace, Ciudad Colón, San José, Costa Rica