Snow leopards and bee reserves

One conservation group with operational experience is the Seattle-based Snow Leopard Trust, which works in five Asian countries to conserve the endangered snow leopard (Panthera uncia). People kill the cats for their fur or in retaliation for preying on livestock, and infringe on their habitat with agriculture.

Research has shown that women, especially poor and rural women in the developing world, are more affected by environmental change than men, and the Snow Leopard Trust conducted surveys in 2014 showing a similar effect. The surveys also showed that a lack of steady income was one of the major factors predicting retaliatory leopard killings.

 

An endangered snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in a valley in the Ladakh region of northern India. Photo by Tashi Lonchay via Wikimedia Commons
An endangered snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in a valley in the Ladakh region of northern India. Photo by Tashi Lonchay via Wikimedia Commons

“Women tend to have greater negative attitudes towards predators such as the snow leopard than men, partly because as the principle manager of households and livestock, they might bear disproportionately greater costs of wildlife-caused damage such as livestock depredation,” Charudutt Mishra, the group’s Science and Conservation Director, told Mongabay.

Identifying these gender differences led the group to focus on women in some of its projects. One of them, called Snow Leopard Enterprises, trains women to produce and sell products made from the wool of camels, sheep, yaks, or goats. The idea is to supplement household income to compensate for livestock lost to leopards.

“[W]omen gain a degree of financial independence. At the same time, they take on ownership of the conservation aspects of the project; the communities pledge to not hunt snow leopards and their prey,” said Mishra. If they refrain from hunting, the community receives additional cash bonuses.

In snow leopard territory, village councils and political leaders tend to be exclusively male, and the handicraft initiative is a deliberate attempt to improve women’s political and social capital in addition to their literal financial capital, Mishra said.

It also aims to let women share in more of the benefits that traditional conservation programs offer. Research has shown that more men participate in conservation projects than women, and are therefore more likely to benefit from them, for example through employment as guards or rangers.

A Kyrgyz woman holds a pet mat, one of the products produced through a program that aims to both improve women’s incomes and encourage communities to conserve snow leopards. Photo courtesy of the Snow Leopard Trust
A Kyrgyz woman holds a pet mat, one of the products produced through a program that aims to both improve women’s incomes and encourage communities to conserve snow leopards. Photo courtesy of the Snow Leopard Trust

The African People and Wildlife Fund (APW), an NGO based in New Jersey and Simanjiro, Tanzania, takes a similar approach. The group helps rural Tanzanian pastoralist communities — many of them belonging to the Maasai ethnic group — build small environmentally friendly enterprises. It has a project that trains and provides microfunding to women to set up beekeeping businesses.

The women sell the honey locally for its medicinal properties or to make honey beer used in Maasai celebrations. This year they harvested their first batch for marketing under the Mama Asali (“Mother Honey” in Swahili) brand, hoping to appeal to nearby cities and safari lodges that want to sell local produce.

Environmentally, the idea is not only to promote local pollinators but to form bee reserves — areas with numerous beehives that are protected from detrimental agricultural practices but available for traditional Maasai livestock grazing. APW asks the 1,000-plus participating women to “pay back” their grant funding through environmentally friendly activities like planting trees at schools or picking up litter.

Why women? “Partially, of course, because I’m a woman, I’m driving the program, and I see how much need, in particular in these Maasai communities, that women have… to get more of a voice in these communities which are very strongly male dominated,” Laly Lichtenfeld, APW’s co-founder and executive director, told Mongabay. “I also just think women get things done. I mean, don’t we know that?”

The program seeks to capitalize on what Lichtenfeld views as women’s more direct relationship to the environment than men’s. “The women…are the ones out there collecting firewood, getting the water, washing the clothes, building the houses. Everything that they do is tied very strongly to the environment,” she said.

But does it work?

Projects like these aim for a win-win for women’s finances and the environment, but there is very little research into whether they actually work, particularly on the environment front.

A 2013 literature review by the conservation NGO WWF-UK neatly captured that reality. The review sought empirical evidence as to whether adopting a gender-aware approach helps achieve conservation goals, but the author found the question difficult to answer. Less than 1 percent of the conservation studies reviewed even included a gender dimension. And amongst those that did, development outcomes, rather than conservation outcomes, tended to be the focus. Furthermore, the projects covered by the studies tended to involve the more popular approach of increasing women’s contribution to policy and management decisions, rather than their incomes.

A participant in a program that aims to help both women and snow leopards in India. Communities in snow leopard country often kill the cats for their fur or in retaliation for their preying on livestock. Photo courtesy of the Snow Leopard Trust
A participant in a program that aims to help both women and snow leopards in India. Communities in snow leopard country often kill the cats for their fur or in retaliation for their preying on livestock. Photo courtesy of the Snow Leopard Trust

WWF began introducing a gender dimension into its own policies a decade earlier, leaving the reviewer to comment: “Judging by the paucity of information available, we might be excused for wondering just how far we have come since then.”

Nevertheless, a separate line of research shows one clear, albeit indirect, environmental benefit of improving the incomes of women: they are better able to educate themselves and their children and to invest in their family’s health, which can lead to smaller families that leave a lighter environmental footprint.

Research into the benefits for women is less scarce, but the results are decidedly mixed. On the positive side, women participating in the programs often see clear advantages. For her University of Montana PhD thesis in 2012, Kathryn Khumalo interviewed women involved in income-generating projects aimed at reducing communities’ reliance on natural resources in Namibia’s Kwandu Conservancy. The women told Khumalo that increasing their income and being able to control it was of paramount importance to them and that they spent the extra cash on feeding and educating themselves and their families. “It’s me, because it’s mine,” claimed one respondent.

Likewise, women involved in an ecotourism project in Vietnam who increased their households’ incomes reduced their dependence on men, increased their self-confidence, and became more involved in their communities.

However, the same study saw inequalities, including violence against women, go unresolved. Other income-generation projects aimed at women have brought on a burdensome increase in women’s workloads or conflicts between the sexes when men fear losing control over their wives and daughters or find their social status altered. And of course, women do not always get control over the income they generate.

Income-generating projects often take the form of handicrafts initiatives that ask women to make use of sustainable resources instead of less sustainable alternatives. But some critics point out that these can perpetuate the traditional and sometimes disempowering idea that a woman’s place is in the home, “carrying out ‘petty’ income-generating activities, and nurturing the wider society,” as Liz Watson, a geographer at the University of Cambridge, wrote in a 2005 report evaluating projects in India and Ghana. Watson cautioned that inadvertently supporting this stereotype could undermine the larger goal of challenging gender inequalities.

In the end, it is difficult for conservation organizations to know for sure whether their programs are helping or hurting women’s quest for empowerment, Lichtenfeld concedes. “These are things that are very hard to monitor, what goes down in people’s personal lives and in their homes,” she said.

Of APW’s beekeeping initiative, she said “I do think there are probably cases where the men ask them to hand [the money] over, or at least a portion of it,” adding that one woman’s husband withdrew her from the program because she did not have his permission to participate.

Still, Lichtenfeld said there have been no other obvious signs of trouble. “What we try to do is to have as close a relationship with the women as possible and try to, without prying, always ascertain if there are any problems with how the program is going,” she said. “And so far nothing too alarming has popped up.”

The upshot

Research or no research, the bottom line for Helen Anthem, manager of the Conservation Livelihoods and Governance program at the NGO Fauna and Flora International, is that knock-on women’s empowerment and conservation goals can be hard to accomplish when focusing on financial freedom. That’s a tough assessment coming from someone who has written about the importance of focusing on women within conservation mandates.

“I think more organizations are now working on gender. This is essentially about improving women’s participation in and opportunity to benefit from conservation interventions. Economic empowerment activities may be one way they go about this but it may not be the best way,” Anthem told Mongabay via email.

At three years old, APW’s beekeeping project is too young to evaluate for its effect on either participating women or their environment. While acknowledging the lack of hard evidence that projects like hers pay off for either one, Lichtenfeld said she is optimistic, particularly for the environmental outcomes.

As an early triumph she pointed to the trust APW staff has gained in a community that was wary of conservation organizations after previously being forced to relocate when their ancestral homes were absorbed by national parks. “The fact that we’ve got these women out there, ready to form these reserves, to me, is a very strong indication from an environmental point of view, that the project is headed in the right direction and is working,” she said.

Asked about the project’s prospects for transforming women’s lives, Lichtenfeld was more circumspect, underscoring her optimism while saying time would tell. She added that she is committed to studying the beekeeping initiative’s outcomes, collecting baseline data now and then evaluating again in a few years once the project has had a chance to have an effect.

Tanzanian women carry new beehives into the forest. Photo by Felipe Rodriguez/APW
Tanzanian women carry new beehives into the forest. Photo by Felipe Rodriguez/APW

For its part, Snow Leopard Enterprises has had ample time to pay off, but even so, measuring outcomes is anything but simple. The project started almost 18 years ago with 50 families in Mongolia and has expanded to around 250 families there and in Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and India.

External evaluations have shown that the project is improving livelihoods and attitudes towards snow leopards. For instance, in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains, attitudes have improved over the 18 years of the project, particularly among women, and families’ incomes have increased by around 40 percent.

“There has also only been one known case of a snow leopard being killed by a member of a Snow Leopard Enterprises community [in the Tost Mountains] in that period,” said Mishra.

Another promising sign: over the last six years, the snow leopard population in Tost has been stable. But Mishra stressed that Snow Leopard Enterprises cannot claim credit for this fact. Tost has the only population of the cats in the world that has been monitored long term, so it’s impossible to compare with other areas.

“[T]o the best of our knowledge, these programs are having the desired effect, and sometimes even go beyond that,” said Mishra. “Only the future will tell whether they’re succeeding in saving the snow leopard though.”

Citations

A participant in a program that encourages Tanzanian women to set up bee-keeping businesses carries a hive into the forest. Photo by Felipe Rodriguez/APW
A participant in a program that encourages Tanzanian women to set up bee-keeping businesses carries a hive into the forest. Photo by Felipe Rodriguez/APW
Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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