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Women in indigenous Nicaraguan communities play a vital role in daily life, making key decisions on everything from family and financial matters to which food crops to grow. But one area remains largely out-of-bounds, considered the domain of men: the management of forests.
There are signs that’s slowly starting to change, with government institutions tied to natural resources now expressing interest in incorporating a gender perspective, said Anne Larson, one of authors of the Center for International Forestry Research’s report, Gender and forests in Nicaragua’s indigenous territories.
In addition to analysing national and regional laws and policies, she and CIFOR’s team from the Nitlapan Institute for Research and Development have been working in the forested North Atlantic Autonomous Region (or RAAN) to try to help speed things along.
“This is a particularly exciting time to be involved, because RAAN’s indigenous communities are receiving titles to their land and having to build new governance arrangements to manage large, multi-community territories,” said Larson
It comes, too, at a time when natural resource governance concerns are paramount, she said.
“As such, we have an opportunity to help promote responsible leadership and greater community participation in general – a concern we hear raised in virtually all of the communities in which we are working – as well as the participation of women.”
Studies have demonstrated for decades that women across the globe are much more active users of forest resources than has traditionally been assumed. As in other areas — the world is reminded as it celebrates International Women’s Day 2013 — their involvement has rarely been fully acknowledged, in part because they are not part of the entrenched political system, where men have long hold the reins of power.
That’s true in Nicaragua as well.
Though its laws and regulations have in recent years started promoting gender equity, they lack targeted actions that would increase their involvement in matters — especially those relating to forest management.
“The government has shown an interest in incorporating the views of women, but it needs support in finding effective mechanisms to make them count,” said Xochilt Hernández, another of the report’s authors.
“In that sense, putting in place projects that insist on the ‘participation’ of women, when this is often limited to physical presence, is unlikely to make a huge difference.
“What’s really needed is a new vision for managing forests, one that gives voice to all members of the community who benefit,” she said.
“And for that to happen, the government and outside institutions need to start thinking long and hard about their actions and their own gendered assumptions regarding forests.”
Can you hear the women?
The North Atlantic Autonomous Region in Nicaragua was established in 1987 as part of efforts to provide legal recognition to ancestral collective land tenure rights. In addition to holding 40 percent of the country’s forests, it contains some of the poorest and least accessible municipalities.
Regional authorities have promoted community forestry, but the emphasis has been entirely on timber. While women often make decisions about the commercial sale of wood, charcoal and other products — and how that money should be spent — they have played little or no role in forest management decisions, says Hernández.
“They just weren’t being heard,” she said.
In the communities of the RAAN, where illiteracy rates are well above the national average, the norms by which the people were governing their resources were neither written down nor systematised. To make things even more unclear, because these are indigenous communities, there is an overlap in the law between formal legal frameworks and local traditional law.
“Several of the communities asked the project to help them outline clear internal and community norms and to systematise internal law within communities,” Hernández says.
“This way, they will have a point of reference that will help them in the future with territorial disputes.”
Determining the future of their land
The work is ongoing, but already Hernández and her team can see changes in the ways that women are taking part in determining the future of their land.
“We have seen that more women are becoming involved in community meetings and more women are demanding spaces to learn about the forest,” says Hernández.
“They have been reflecting on what the obstacles have been to them learning more about forest extraction. They are attending workshops and speaking up on issues like protected area management.
“One year ago, we would mostly only see men speaking up and participating.”
Cristina Manfre, author of a CIFOR guide published last year titled 'Integrating Gender into Forestry Research', lays out the numerous steps that researchers can take to ensure that perspectives on gender are included in their work.
“As you move to larger scales of governance, it becomes more difficult to show how the links exist with gender, and there’s less and less research as you move up the governance scale,” she said.
“Despite the widespread recognition that integrating gender into our work is important, people still don’t always know what it means or how to do it.”
For more information about CIFOR’s gender research, click here.
This work is part of the CGIAR Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported by the Austrian Development Agency and Ford Foundation.