- Women are historically disadvantaged in forest conservation around the world, with patriarchal traditions being a key factor.
- Research is only just beginning to form a detailed picture of their existing roles within forests.
- As such, the benefits – and potential risks – of empowering women in forest conservation remain little understood.
Slowly but surely, thinking and talking about gender equality has become normal in much of modern life, from the actor Benedict Cumberbatch demanding equal pay for his female co-stars, to the raised eyebrows that now greet all-male panels at conferences.
It’s a similar story in the world of forest conservation. Since the 1990s, researchers have been looking at gender and trying to establish what it means to empower women in protecting forests.
But despite this, the global picture still seems murky. While women around the world use forests every day for everything from food to fuel, their role in terms of protecting and conserving those forests often remains little understood.
While we know that 83 percent of the 850 million people globally engaged in collecting fuelwood or producing charcoal are women, according to the recent “State of the World’s Forests” report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, there isn’t much data on a global level on whether those women have any power in terms of making decisions over the futures of the forests they use. There’s even less data on whether, and how, this affects forest conservation.
The research that does exist suggests that, in the main, women are absent from these (tree-lined) corridors of power.
For example, the most recent Poverty Environmental Network study from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that women in more than half of the around 8,000 households surveyed did not participate in forest decision-making at all.
There are many different reasons why this is the case in different societies across the globe, but the patriarchal traditions of many countries are often at the heart of the problem.
This is an issue that people are starting to talk about more, according to Markus Ihalainen, a research officer in gender at CIFOR.
“The ways in which people use forests differently are often due to culturally constructed gender roles and responsibilities, different needs and priorities when it comes to forest uses, and also different barriers to access and managing the forest and forest products. These things have really not been addressed very well yet in forest policy or forest programming,” he said.
That could be because, crucially, there is a dearth of evidence in terms of what it actually means for the forests, and the women, when women do participate in forest leadership, or where projects increasingly encourage them to do so.
“There is not a lot of work done on this specific topic,” Ihalainen said. For example, in a systematic review of 11,000 articles focused on the gender composition of forest bodies and forestry outcomes, only a handful of quality studies were found.
“It’s really difficult to attribute changes in forest cover or condition to changes in the gender composition of forest management groups,” he said. “In a lot of contexts, we see that women only gain control of forests when they have already been degraded. We don’t have a proper baseline.”
He pointed to some work done by other researchers, including the notable feminist and development economist Bina Agarwal. In her work over decades on community forests in Nepal and India, she found that increasing women’s participation does make a difference to forests, particularly when women represent around one-third of the membership of the forest management group.
Women tend to make stricter rules for forest use, providing more protection for forests. Groups with more women also outperform other groups in improving forest conditions, despite — as Ihalainen suggested— often having responsibility for poorer forests in the first place.
In recent years, increasing numbers of projects are now beginning to build on Agarwal’s work.
For example, a CIFOR-led project in Uganda over six years that concluded in 2016 pushed women’s involvement in forest decision-making bodies as one of its key aims. This bumped up female representation on the committees from 14 percent to 50 percent. This increased involvement meant that existing cultural taboos were tackled, too.
For example, among the Baganda people in central Uganda, women are not supposed to plant a certain kind of tree, Ficus natalensis, used for food, firewood, timber and its bark, which can be made into a fabric called barkcloth. The tree symbolizes leadership and ownership; it was historically planted when the king chose a chief, and still represents being the head of the household on a local level. As such, women were forbidden from planting it.
However, after the project, one-third of women starting planting these trees, leading to increased forest cover and diversity.
Material improvements as a result of women’s empowerment, both for the forests and the lives of the women who rely on them, come as no surprise to Tsonya Essivi Sinmégnon, who is also known as Essivi Sinmégnon Acakpo-Addra, a leading environmentalist in Togo.
“Women are the main users of natural and forest resources, and at the same time, the most vulnerable to the effects of the degradation of the forests, so it is important to involve these leading players in the conservation of these resources,” she said.
Tsonya founded Le Consortium Femmes REDD+ (CF-REDD+ Togo) in 2016, bringing together women’s groups to tackle deforestation in the country. The 70 organizations involved now use WhatsApp to communicate, including a weekly training and information session with Tsonya or her staff on issues ranging from the causes of climate change to the use of improved cooking stoves.
She said the strength in numbers and improved understanding had made a huge difference, both in terms of the women’s capacity to get involved in forest leadership and to include activities related to deforestation into the programs of their organizations.
“The initiative has really impacted women’s contribution to the fight against deforestation in Togo,” she said. Tsonya is an example herself: she now sits on Togo’s national REDD+ committee.
Getting women involved in bodies like that is critical, according to Nathalie Simoneau, senior gender and social inclusion specialist at the WWF. She pointed to a project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where establishing quotas for women’s participation in a wider conservation project has had a huge impact.
The Central Africa Forest Ecosystem Conservation project, funded by USAID and including various global and local NGOs and partner governments in the region, requires that 30 percent of the executives on local community development committees be women. This involved some capacity building for women first, but then made a real difference, said Simoneau.
“Women could hold positions that were really in the driving seat, and that made a big difference because women were seen as leaders,” she said. It also saw women coming together to amplify their voices.
For example, in Salonga National Park, in a town called Oshwe, five women’s organizations worked together for a year to get tenure for 5 hectares (12 acres) of land for agroforestry, to ensure their livelihoods. With the support of the WWF, they got official tenure indefinitely.
“Now upwards of 200 women in this small town are involved in these associations and have the security of their own piece of land,” Simoneau said.
There are still caveats, of course. Most of the gains in this field have been in areas where there is already some kind of collective management, rather than in private forests, where women are still disadvantaged. And the gaps in solid, global evidence about the benefits of women’s involvement remain.
Ihalainen also cautioned against pushing too hard the argument that getting women involved in forest conservation will automatically bring positive outcomes for forests, diversity and climate change.
“We risk tasking women who are already disadvantaged with saving the environment,” he said.
Banner image: A worker at a wood-processing facility before export in Myanmar. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.
Jennifer Rigby is a UK-based journalist with extensive experience as a foreign correspondent in Myanmar. You can find her on Twitter at @jriggers
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