I met Meritxell and Laia one bright sunny day in April, in the Pallars Sobirà, a mountainous county in the Catalan Pyrenees. Both are women farmers and work in livestock management – Meritxell is a cattle rancher, while Laia herds goats and makes cheese.
Unlike most women in the region, both have made a conscious choice to live and work in the Pallars’ hills, despite the harsh conditions. Even as spring unfolds, from their houses they can watch the flakes of snow still covering the mountain pastures. Soon the foothills are slowly revealed, uncovering green meadows and flowers, with bees popping out from the white winter coating.
I met Meritxell and Laia through the AGATA research project on the social and agricultural dynamics in the Pallars Sobirà region. I am trying with my colleagues to understand the threats to agricultural and pastoral systems in mountainous areas, including environmental and socio-economic changes, with a specific look at gender issues. In addition to Pallars Sobirà, we are also looking at two other case studies in Spain, in the mountains near the Mediterranean.
In our research, we found that traditional farming is not acknowledged and that people like Meritxell and Laia, who through their activities take care of the mountain ecosystems, have become largely invisible. Yet they fight back, in particular trying to make a difference to adapt to and mitigate climate change.
The choice of a rural life
Meritxell is from an old casa (household in Catalan) in the countryside. Historically, the casa was at the productive and reproductive core of the Pyrenees society. Originally, only the hereu and the pubilla (the first man or woman of the family) were in charge of the transmission of the socio-economic heritage. In an unequal society, women were in charge of chores, children, activities close to the house. They also helped in all the other farming activities. A triple burden of work, often invisible.
But times have changed. Meritxell is not the pubilla, but she “always wanted to be a woman rancher, to live in the mountain and manage animals”. After studying and working away from the farm, she ultimately decided to come back to preserve the traditional activity of her family. For Laia, she studied arts and moved from the city because she, like many other newcomers, was seeking a different life and wanted to “reconnect with nature and silence”. The economic crisis and “love” eventually led to this choice.
Both women believe that mountains and villages are the gatekeepers of an ancestral rural culture to which they gave birth. Combined with new socio-economic models, this culture may offer responses that can help mitigate climate change.
Matança for breakfast
Laia rises at 6 a.m. every day. After helping her husband milk the goats, she attends to their children and then prepares the tools she needs to make cheese. Today she will be making a typical cheese from the Pyrenees, el Serrat, whose recipe she learned from the oldest women of the village, known as las padrinas.
In the afternoon Laia will take over from her husband working with the shepherd dogs. She will walk with them and a hundred of goats to the communal lands, where the animals have been grazing, generation after generation, spring after spring, maintaining this cultural landscape.
Meritxell also wakes up early. She quickly finishes her chores, feeds chickens and waters the home garden. She wakes up her 10 year-old daughter, home for Easter holidays. Their breakfast is made of handmade cheese and xulís, a salami prepared during the traditional slaughter of pigs (matança in Catalan) in every house.
After, they will walk a few kilometres to the granja (farm), where they will have a look at the new-born calves and their mothers. After, they will have to move the cows from one field to the other. Meritxell’s daughter is eager to accompany her today and learn how to take care of the vegetable garden and the animals.
Villages are emptying
Meritxell is one of the few women in her family to pursue the traditional agropastoral activity. Her sisters were not interested and believe that a job in the city would earn them a better livelihood. Besides, they feel that hill life was too hard for women. But to Meritxell, traditional activities and local knowledge are precious and perhaps the only way to save the mountains.
In recent decades, local economics and Pyrenees society have been transformed drastically. This is due to the progressive urbanisation and the modernisation of agriculture that started in the 1960s and continued through the 1990s, progressively depopulating rural areas.
This process has been amplified by the economic crisis and the European agrarian policies in the last two decades. They prioritise intensive production in the plains and tourism or conservation-based policies in the hills. Such policies reflect a certain “colonisation” of the mountains and how its imaginary has been captured by the urban.
Transmission of traditional farming culture weakens
Such changes have encouraged farmers to leave their local livelihoods, migrate or look for other work. Women were particularly interested by such shift from the agropastoral system to tertiary activities. In return, their transmission of traditional farming culture and knowledge to children weakened.
In Meritxell’s village, only three families remain today, compared to the 25 that lived and worked here in the 1960s. Many young people have left, others are unemployed and disdain “traditional jobs and ways” of pagès (farmer in Catalan). Many fields in the region have been progressively abandoned, starting with less accessible lands, where mechanisation was not possible. Others gradually followed, due mainly to the shortage of youth and specialised employees, progressively increasing the rewilding of mountain pastures.
Without human presence and activities of animals, this hilly cultural landscape is at risk of disappearing, with stark consequences. It can directly affect key ecosystem services such as healthy food, provision of water and soil carbon storage. Rewilding can also disturb biodiversity and its associated ecological functions, such as pollination, dispersion and the protection of lands, animals and people against destructive fires. Such dynamics leave the land vulnerable, a process that can be accelerated by climate change.
Losing control over resources
Current EU environmental and agrarian policies have not been designed to protect small families and producers of livestock or these cultural Mediterranean landscapes. European decisions have also tampered with traditional livelihoods.
As the stock market defines food value, small producers become dependent of its fluctuations. Unfair pricing and an unequal distribution of subsidies within a complex bureaucracy deepen the wealth gap between agriculture and herding and other professions. In the process, farmers lose control over lands and resources, as transformation, distribution and consumption patterns are being dictated by institutions and markets.
Mind-sets are also increasingly urbanised, leading to new dietary and consumption habits. Many Catalonians, including farmers, now buy cheap products of poor quality they find in supermarkets rather than looking to their own lands for high-quality meat and produce. As such pressure and changes grown, women have suffered collateral damage.
Fighting invisibility and stereotypes
In Catalonia’s rural areas, the culture is conservative and centred around work, and women still have few rights. Studies indicate that only 26% of women in Catalonia own land in their own names. While this is better than in Spain as a whole – the rate is 21% – many women who run farms are not even registered as farmers.
The numbers would rise if underprivileged and migrant women were fully accounted for. Often invisible, they can become the victims of abuse and exploitation in intensive farming.
On the top of such discriminations, Meritxell, Laia and other rural women farmers also have to fight against stereotypes that affect their daily lives. They denounce the negative social image that can paint them as secondary players, the ones who “help” the man, or are the “wife of”, “mother of” or “daughter of”.
Sexist and paternalistic views within society and the livestock-management sector undermine the value of such women’s work. They usually hear the same unsolicited advices over and over again:
“Nena (baby), this is not a work for a woman”
“A girl should not drive a tractor”
“A woman should not walk alone in the mountain”.
When they hear such comments, Meritxell and Laia usually shrug. They dismiss the idea that they should conform to gender stereotype of being “feminine” while working as farmers. “I have neglected my hands because they take care of the animals and the earth” says Laia. Meritxell adds: “People are surprised because I drive a truck, wear boots and still use makeup”.
Women-only farmers Facebook groups
Despite so many obstacles, Meritxell and Laia are striving to make a difference. Like other women I have met, they are demanding a voice in the decisions made within the household, the community and society. They ensure that responsibilities between the houses and the farm are shared, and they’re becoming more involved in traditional organisations such as trade unions, shepherds associations and communal institutions.
Today, two young cattle ranchers from the county head the “Association of the Vaca Bruna” (an native breed of Pyrenees cow) and other women are part of the “Association of the Pyrenees Horse”. In this way, they ensure that roles are not defined on a gender line, and work to establish a better and more equitable production. They expect empathetic behaviour toward animals (and individuals), which they want to nurture through a more respectful, patient and less “macho” approach.
These women-only groups prove safe spaces beyond the boundaries of traditional farming communities to express emotions, lobby for gender equality among farmers, or simply exchange information and knowledge. Women can also access information and join public debates and panels with governmental and non-governmental institutions. It also allows them to take part in decisions on key policies and measures for the sector, give voice their concerns for women or other marginalised groups in rural areas and campaign for alternative economical models.
Blending traditions and innovations
In their communities, Laia and Meritxell try to fight the economic constraints of the agrobusiness model, mixing traditions and innovations. They promote their products based on the way they are conceived: respectful of the nature, the seasonal migration of animals, and mindful of the hills’ resources and their own bio-cultural heritages.
Meritxell learned from her parents and ancestors. She went to the fields with her father, worked with in the garden with her mother. Her grandmother taught her the use of natural therapies for animals and local names of plants and flowers. Names of the rocks she learned from her grandfather, who would take her to the mountains in summer like all the other cattle ranchers and shepherds.
Meritxell keeps up the tradition. Every Sunday she and her family meet with groups of other farmers. Together they manage the shared communal lands. It is important for her to spend time in the community, discussing and making decisions together, and one day she will pass on all her knowledge to her daughter.
“Adopt” a sheep
In the case of Laia, she studied at a specialised school. The Shepherds School works toward saving the intangible heritage of local farming to transmit it to new generations, as well as introducing new agro-ecological principles.
A few years ago she started making artisanal cheeses. She prefers direct selling or farmers market so she can build new relationships with consumers and within the rural-ecological touristic sector. Other local creative initiatives sprouted, such as the Xisqueta Obrador, which was establish to valorise the use of the wool from a native breed of sheep, as well as ecomuseos. They allow visiting families to “adopt” a sheep or a goat, spend a day in the mountains with a shepherd, or visit a farm and taste cheese.
Laia isn’t afraid of innovation – last year her French-style cheese won several national competitions – but she always prepares the traditional cheeses to ensure that local taste and traditions live on. Along with other shepherds, she feels that “a culture of quality and restraint”, “based on rescuing the commons” can maintain the extensive livestock management and keep small farmers alive. In fact, four of her friends, two men and two women, recently funded the first cooperative in the area of ecological goats.
Where are mountains and women going?
Yet many questions remain to be answered. How do we envision the future in such Mediterranean mountainous regions among traditions, rural abandonment and alternative innovations? As we observed during our project, saving the mountains and their key ecological functions requires defending livestock management, preserving local knowledge and pioneering local socioeconomic and agri-food models. To do it, social inclusion and gender equality play a key role.
Will Meritxell be able to interest her older daughter in the way she has been working with animals and seeds at home and in her fields? Will Laia be able to face up to the risks involved, defend traditions while continuing to innovate, connect with other sectors to defend a close, sustainable and alternative economic model? Will that be enough to deal with global environmental challenges ahead?
The “Meritxell” and “Laia” stories and names have been intertwined with real-life accounts of women farmers and cheese makers we interviewed in the Pallars Sobirà in 2018-2019. They are archetypes of women in the area we can find among old families and newcomers.
Created in 2007 to help accelerate and share scientific knowledge on key societal issues, the Axa Research Fund has been supporting nearly 600 projects around the world conducted by researchers from 54 countries. To learn more, visit the site of the Axa Research Fund.