Women driving rural transformation in the Spanish Dehesas

By Seline Meijer, The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

The Spanish dehesa landscape, characterized by lush green pastures interspersed with oak and cork trees, has been sustained for centuries by extensive grazing, mostly by sheep and goats, and transhumance, which is the seasonal movement of herds to different pastures. These practices are the main driving force behind the unique ecosystem and its biodiversity. Historically, wool from Merino sheep of the dehesas was one of Spain’s most prominent export products, sustaining both livelihoods of pastoralist communities as well as the biodiversity of the landscape. Due to competition with high quality wool produced in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, as well as the rise in the use of synthetic fabrics, Spanish farmers started losing interest in wool production during the second half of the twentieth century.

Currently, the dehesa landscape is threatened by a complex set of drivers, which includes intensification of livestock, lack of natural generation and depopulation of rural areas, contributing to the erosion of cultural landscapes and practices. A project on cultural landscapes in the Mediterranean, funded by the MAVA Foundation, aims to reconstruct, revitalize and sustain cultural landscapes and associated practices, which requires an understanding of the different driving forces behind the changing conditions. One aspect that has not received a lot of attention to date is the role of gender inequality and the entrenched social and cultural marginalization of women within these landscapes.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) implements a project to enhance the economic sustainability of cultural practices that support biodiversity in the Mediterranean. IUCN, in collaboration with Trashumancia y Naturaleza (TyN), commissioned a gender study to understand and strengthen the role of women pastoralists and wool workers in Spain to ensure that gender dynamics that shape the local economy can be addressed in land-use planning and policy. The findings of the study demonstrate that women in the dehesas of Extremadura are agents of change in moving towards sustainable and ecologically sound agriculture and can play an important role in reviving and maintaining cultural practices that benefit biodiversity, regional identity, as well as the local economy.

Bibi, a female pastoralist and dehesa landowner in Extremadura

Traditionally, women have been a part of the traditional dehesa landscape and provided crucial support to the economic activities sustaining the landscape and its communities. While the men were out on the land taking care of livestock and carrying out other farming activities, women were mainly confined to domestic and care duties. Often, women would accompany their husbands who found jobs on the larger farming estates. While men would receive formal employment contracts and were entitled to benefits in return for their work on the farm, the women were expected to work as domestic servants, typically working long hours without contracts and monetary compensation. The ability of men to sustain their work was anchored in the security that women provided at home, subsidizing the household production system. For centuries, women and their contributions to the dehesas have been undervalued and invisible.

Today, there are multiple initiatives to restore and maintain the traditional cultural practices and the landscapes of the dehesa. Women play a key role in these efforts, as entrepreneurs, wool workers and even as pastoralists. Our study found that women from Extremadura are working together to revitalize the production and market of Merino wool. Women are actively involved in pastoralism and wool production activities, and are deeply committed to their communities and landscapes. IUCN’s work helps to better understand women’s roles and contributions to market chains and rural economies, which contributes to the development of gender-responsive recommendations for economic solutions to preserve cultural practices and landscapes.


Feature image: Merino wool from the dehesas. © Marta Torres Herrero

All photos provided by Marta Torres Herrero