While the world is coming to appreciate the unique perspective women have on forest management, researchers, conservationists and policy makers are still struggling to find ways to incorporate these views into their work.
A new report by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) sets out to offer guidance.
By combing through 40 years of literature and tracking down researchers with relevant expertise, Carol Colfer and her co-author Rebakah Daro Minarchek were able to place existing methodologies to address gender and forestry research into three broad categories, each corresponding with the level of resources available.
The most optimal was the broad, multi-level participatory approach, whereby well-trained, qualified researchers, committed to being regularly involved in the lives of villagers, strive for long-term and beneficial development. In addition to significant finances and expertise, however, this requires a lot of time — sometimes decades.
“Although we recognise a number of institutional and resource constraints to doing this, we see this approach as the most likely to result in improvements, both for the environment and the welfare of both women and men,” said Colfer.
Moreover, she argued, shorter time spans supposedly required by the other two approaches are often a chimera. The systematic, academic approach (using existing documents, qualitative and quantitative analysis, and interpretive methods), is suitable to those with access to significant social science expertise. Most often these findings end up being published in peer-reviewed journals.
And, for those with very limited resources, there is the “quick (and sometimes, somewhat) dirty” approach, whereby a researcher may head into the field for a rapid-fire assessment of local people’s interests and goals. Not ideal, perhaps, but better than having no information about gender at all.
“Whichever case, though, unless you explicitly say women and men as you gather your information, people will often ignore the women,” cautioned Colfer.
“Generally, when people do address issues of people and forests, they very often see the community as a homogenous mass who all interact with the forests in the same way.”
Not all forest users are created equal
Decades of research have consistently shown that in addition to playing important roles in forest use, women and men appreciate forests in very different ways. Rather than exploiting resources (timber, game and mineral wealth), in many areas women have long recognised the value of more sustainable activities, such as gathering edible fruits, and harvesting of medicinal plants. In some parts of the world, they also are more actively involved in the trading of non-timber forest commodities, such as nuts and shea butter.
Unfortunately, the role gender plays in forests is rarely, if ever, addressed in the political arena.
This is largely due to the globally disadvantaged situation women face as compared to men, something that is now starting to be acknowledged, with a number of institutions, including the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Institute of Social and Environmental Transition, establishing indices to measure disparities.
Still, this does not provide instruction on how to fix the problem.
And even for experienced forestry researchers who well understand the powerful contribution women have to make, it’s often hard to escape old, preconceived notions that they are primarily interested in family and health.
“All the systems we know are inequitable towards women,” says Colfer, “so it’s a topic that people have difficulty addressing.”
Though a number of reviews of women and natural resources have been produced, Colfer is unaware of any to date specifically relating to forests.
That’s what makes this new how-to report, 'Women, Men and Forest Research', so unique.
“I felt there was a need for something that is longer than an article, because the amount of material compared to what is out there is phenomenal compared to when I started working in this field in the early 1980s, and the analyses have become much more sophisticated,” Colfer said as the world marks International Women’s Day.
“Today we increasingly appreciate that we not only need to acknowledge that women have different kinds of involvement in production activities, but we also need to look at things like power differentials and interactions between men and women. The more we know about women, the more complex the systems become.”
Saving forests with a stethoscope
For example, there are many issues that affect women that may not intuitively be related to forests, like violence against women (some are subject to reprisals for legitimate activities outside the home) or the need for family planning.
“If we want forests to thrive, we need to have a fairly low population density in the area,” says Colfer.
“If we want women to have equal access to education, income generation, and political leverage, we have to allow them to control their fertility – and there is a widespread demand for more birth control.”
A handful of initiatives, Colfer noted in an earlier CIFOR study, are already striving to integrate conservation and human health.
Women living in the lush, biologically diverse forests of Indonesia’s portion of Borneo, for instance, are vulnerable to lung disease from cooking with wood, a problem that is exacerbated when land-clearing fires blanket the region with heavy, choking smoke.
Because they have so little access to formal healthcare (few doctors, clinics or drugs) they have to travel long distances on bad roads for anything from a routine doctor’s visit to a medical emergency. The latter costs money, enough at times to ruin a family financially, forcing some to turn to illegal logging, others to burn rainforest to clear new land for pesticide-laden crops and plantations. Clean watersheds become contaminated and floods damage fields and roads and accentuate disease.
It’s a vicious cycle, one the Indonesian non-governmental organisation, Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI), based next to Gunung Palung National Park, sought to address by setting up a high-quality mobile health clinic.
In addition to offering free birth control, affordable diagnostics and ambulance service, they offer training in organic farming. Treatments don’t have to be paid in cash. Patients and their families can instead give manure for the clinic’s garden or seeds for its reforestation site.
Integrating gender is good science
Colfer acknowledges she and her colleague only scratched the surface with their latest report, but it’s a starting point.
Cristina Manfre, author of a related CIFOR guide published recently agrees. In 'Integrating Gender into Forestry Research', she lays out the numerous steps that researchers can take to ensure that perspectives on gender are included in their work.
She hopes the research will help fill the knowledge gap — and rectify many of the imbalances in people’s daily lives.
“How do you involve women in governance? Formal government, resource governance, and household governance – who does what work and who benefits,” Manfre said.
“This is ultimately about the division of labour: who gets to determine who does what.”
This requires long-time collaborative work with communities, she said. Only then is it possible to implement policies effectively.
“Integrating gender perspectives,” she said, “is good science.”
For more information about CIFOR’s gender research, click here.
This work is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.