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On the front lines of conservation: How do rural women feel?

  • Researchers interviewed women living inside a national park in the West African state of Guinea-Bissau about how the park affects their daily lives.
  • The women felt the park was the cause of malnutrition because chimpanzees and baboons in particular damaged their crops and they did not receive compensation.
  • Although reluctant to participate in conservation, they hoped the researchers could help provide compensation and improve their lives.

A new study published in Conservation and Society explores the views toward conservation held by women living inside Cantanhez Forest National Park in the West African state of Guinea-Bissau.

Overall, the women expressed negative views of the park, which they see as a threat to their livelihood. All of them were concerned about the damage to their rice and fruit crops by wildlife from the park and felt that the animals were the cause of malnutrition. Without compensation, the women were reluctant to participate in conservation programs.

“Women living inside the park feel helpless and stuck,” Susana Costa, a social researcher at the University of Lisbon in Portugal and the lead author of the study, told Mongabay. “They know that they cannot keep certain economic activities (slash-and-burn, hunting) to preserve the park’s flora and fauna, though the lack of alternatives and a compensation plan make their lives harder than they were before the protected area establishment.”

Successful conservation programs depend on the support of local communities. Often unheard and downplayed, the voices and concerns of women are important to address for effective biodiversity conservation because they engage in farming, feed their families, and gather non-timber forest products such as charcoal and plants for medicine. Costa and her colleagues wanted to find out if women inside the park were willing to participate in conservation programs.

From 2007 to 2008, Costa and her team interviewed a total of 47 women from five villages living inside Cantanhez Forest National Park. Situated in the Tombali region in the southern part of the country, the park comprises a combination of rainforest and mangrove. Known for its high population of chimpanzees, the park’s habitats are among the Global 200 eco-regions selected by the WWF for their distinct biodiversity. This study is part of a project aimed at conserving the western chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus), an endangered species under threat mainly from habitat destruction and poaching. Their population dropped 80 percent from 1990 to 2014, according to research released earlier this month, emphasizing the need for greater commitment by national governments towards saving this species.

Prior to the establishment of the park in 2007, hunting, bushmeat, and slash-and-burn cultivation was common because the villagers are reliant on forest resources to survive. Hunting was a major source of income for men. When the park was formed, slash-and-burn cultivation and hunting was forbidden. However, it still occurred at a small scale for all primate species except for chimpanzees, which the villagers consider inedible.

Houses in Caiquene village (Cantanhez Forest National Park, Tombali, Guinea-Bissau). Photo by Susana Costa.

The women belonged to two ethnic groups: Nalú, representing 10 percent of the population in the area, and Balanta, representing almost a third of the population. Both ethnic groups rely on subsistence farming. The Nalú are considered owners of the land and used to grow fruit trees such as oranges and bananas; later they started harvesting palm oil. The Balanta came to this area from the north in the 1920s for rice farming.

Interviews consisted of five half-an-hour-long focus group discussions where 10 to 12 women were guided by the researchers using the help of a local translator fluent in Portuguese and Creole who raised broad questions such as: “What does the park mean to you;” and “Tell us about any problems you experience in your daily life.”

Initially, women were interviewed individually, but the “men were always trying to interfere with their answers,” revealed Costa. As a result, women-only focus groups were chosen so that women felt more comfortable speaking out.

Still, the women were also interviewed individually so that each had a chance to express their views without hesitation. The topics covered in the interviews were centered on their views on the village, the forest and the animals, sources of income, hunting and diets, and their expectations towards conservation.

The researchers analyzed the interviews on two levels: textual and conceptual. On the textual level, the most repeated words and ideas that emerged in the discussions in relation to a theme were quantified. Conceptually, these words were linked to each other based on whether they are associations, contradictions, or have the same meaning.

Hard labor, lack of food, and inflation of rice prices

The women engaged in subsistence rice farming, which they described as physically demanding. Despite the strenuous work involved in farming, they felt it did not provide sufficient food value or translate into profits, and as a result they were cash-strapped.

Harvested rice was not enough to feed a family for a year so Nalú women produced palm oil — which is highly valued in Guinean cuisine — and used it as currency to buy rice from Balanta farmers (men), especially during the rainy season when food is scarce. Rice is a central part of Guinean cuisine. “If the villagers don’t have rice they will immediately perceive this as famine,” explains Costa. “As such, Balanta people use this to inflate the prices.” Rice price speculation was seen as a cause of malnutrition, which the women referred to as famine.

“The thing is that they want to raise the prices. We go to the [shop] and they say to us that the rice is finished. But this is just to raise the prices. You take the palm oil with you, but it is the rice’s owner that decides the price,” declared one woman.

Chimpanzees “worst animals”

Another major cause of famine, according to the women, was crop losses due to wildlife in the park, especially chimpanzees and other primates encroaching on their land and destroying crops. Perceived as a major threat, “crop damage” was mentioned 19 times during the discussions. After the park was established, the prevalence of monkeys, chimpanzees, and baboons in their fields increased. The women stated that the animals have no food inside the park, and hence “invade” their villages and cropland.

Crop failure was a key concern because the absence of rice means they have to resort to eating less palatable staples like cassava. “Our problem is getting food for us and for our children,” one woman revealed. “It’s a big sacrifice. Right now we have a big problem: there is no rice in Iemberém and we are having cassava. We cannot stand cassava anymore.”

The women resented chimpanzees and regarded them as dangerous pests. They claimed that the chimpanzees knew that the men could no longer shoot them and so they could easily steal food. Hostile interactions between primates and humans have increased and the women considered working in the fields as physically risky.

“We planted peanuts, but the baboons ruined everything in the bush, and the chimpanzees took everything we used to harvest: oranges… This year we do not have any oranges to sell. Last year we did not harvest one single orange to sell,” complained one woman. “This is what we sell to buy food to feed our children. If everything is ruined, what are we supposed to do? This year we made up our minds, even me that I am a woman; I also know how to use a gun. I am a female, but I will get a gun and shoot them all!”

Chimpanzee network according to the women’s perceptions. The signs in the arrows represent: == is associated with; [] is part of; => is cause of; <> contradicts. First number in the {} represent the number of links with other thematic codes; the second value represents the number of times the theme was referred in the meetings. Labels in grey represent the themes most mentioned in the meetings. Credit: Costa et al. (2017). doi:10.4103/cs.cs_14_91

Compensation and alternative livelihoods

The women have yet to receive promised compensation for damage to their crops. In the past, several other research teams and NGOs worked with the women, but no positive changes were seen in their lives as a result of those projects, the women claimed. Still, they were hopeful that Costa and her team would convey their needs to the government and that they could help provide compensation and improve their lives.

Despite their hostility towards primates from the park, the women were willing to co-exist with them if the authorities would provide compensation for their losses and explain why the areas are protected; they were hopeful of a brighter future.

Transforming hostility into coexistence will require creating alternative sources of income such as small-scale tourism to reduce their dependence on farming, according to the researchers.

“These women need empowerment, security, and reliable institutions. Food security does not exist. Climatic changes, crop-raiding and less sustainable farming methods have been contributing to malnutrition,” explains Costa. “Financial compensation depends on external funding and it will not last forever. That is why microcredit — which does not exist in this area — would be so important as well.”

Microcredit schemes funded by various international conservation organizations have empowered women to start their own businesses in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In fact, women work together with the organizations to conserve primates, by planting trees to provide food for wild chimpanzees, for instance.

Empowerment, according to Costa, also comes from education and health care. “An educated woman will have a lower number of pregnancies, will get better chances to be financially independent and, consequently, less vulnerable to poverty. Once less vulnerable to poverty, they will be eager to give up on unsustainable practices and keener to actively collaborate with researchers and conservationists.”

Most importantly, “decision-makers need to go more often to the field to talk to real women… to assess how poor they are and how much they struggle to survive to find solutions that are suitable for these specific social contexts.”

Some of the women from Madina who participated in the focus group discussions (Cantanhez Forests National Park, Tombali, Guinea-Bissau). Photo by Susana Costa.


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