Interview

In face of climate change, gender imbalance stretches from fields to forums—expert

Solution will be collaborative approaches that don't view women as "passive, helpless victims".
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Agricultoras trabajan hasta la puesta del sol en East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Se cree que las mujeres rurales son más vulnerables que los hombres  frente al cambio climático, aunque es necesaria mayor investigación. Foto: Aulia Erlangga / CIFOR
Agricultoras trabajan hasta la puesta del sol en East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Se cree que las mujeres rurales son más vulnerables que los hombres frente al cambio climático, aunque es necesaria mayor investigación. Foto: Aulia Erlangga / CIFOR

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BOGOR, Indonesia—With the international spotlight on the UNFCCC COP20, many stakeholders are preoccupied with the role of safeguards in reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), or the Green Climate Fund’s goal of raising $100 billion by 2020.

But is there further research on climate issues that hasn’t been done?

Gender concerns are gaining increasing recognition in climate change negotiations. (At COP20, 9 December was designated “Gender Day” to further stress the importance of gender-sensitive approaches across landscapes.)

Although women are believed to be more vulnerable to climate change, data on this issue are scarce.


From the Global Landscapes Forum

  • How do perceptions of climate change and climate risk vary between genders and from landscape to landscape? This and other questions were debated in a session at the Global Landscapes Forum. Click here to see a recording of this session.
  • More news, research and analysis related to COP20 and the Global Landscapes Forum: blog.cifor.org/lima

One researcher is urging a closer look at how climate change may affect rural women—a demographic that could be directly impacted by the policies and initiatives set forth by a disproportionately male delegation.

Carol Colfer, Senior Associate with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) notes that the majority of people who “formally manage forests and forest use … tend to be male and tend to come from privileged urban backgrounds.”

In a recent interview with Forests News, Colfer discussed the role of research and community engagement, rather than top-down policy changes, in helping women adapt to­ climate change.

Question: How is climate change affecting—or how is it expected to affect—rural women?

Answer: Most researchers believe that climate change is likely to have a more adverse effect on women than on men, due to women’s generally greater vulnerability and poverty, globally.

Some scholars, such as Seema Arora-Jonsson, have protested that this reinforces a common and deplorable tendency to view women as passive, helpless victims. On the other hand, helping individuals gain access to and control of resources can help them cope better with climate change.

In many parts of the world, women tend to be responsible for subsistence crops and men for cash crops. Often, women are also considered responsible for putting food on the table. If increasing temperatures lead to reduced crop yields, this can create a very direct burden on women in such areas—women who may be unable to perform the duties they expect themselves (and others expect them) to perform.

Problems with crop yields may also lead men to out-migrate, leaving women solely in charge of production, reproduction and community action in their home areas—a triple burden.

Q: What is being done to address these challenges? What needs to be done that isn’t happening?

A: I would argue that a standardized solution is not possible, and I’m skeptical about the most generally used approaches, like REDD+ and action plans.  They seem like more of the same—methods that we’ve already seen don’t work with generalized “development” or “conservation.”

I believe collaborative opportunity-seeking and problem-solving are the solutions most likely to bear fruit, but they require location-specific strategies

There is enormous variability even in the predicted biophysical outcomes of climate change. We humans have never been particularly good at predicting the future. On top of that, different groups of people have different goals, expectations, desires and capabilities.

I believe collaborative opportunity-seeking and problem-solving are the solutions most likely to bear fruit, but they require location-specific strategies.

Approaching problem-solving with an emphasis on a group’s existing strengths is another useful approach. We need to ask ourselves, “What do these particular people have, or know, or want that can contribute effectively to the particular problems that seems likely to—or even already—plague them?  What problems ‘grab’ them, or motivate them to act?”

Building on people’s strengths and capabilities, rather than always thinking about them as victims, can go far in motivating people to get involved and take action locally.

Q: Are there any success stories you can point to?

A: Most of what I’ve seen has been “more of the same.” Attempts to include women have tended to focus on top-down or legislative solutions, with planning by bureaucrats, politicians and researchers, rather than collaboratively with local folks.

It seems that part of the problem is the disconnect between research and action

There have been a few encouraging cases of action research, such as the work of Maria Brockhaus and Houria Djoudi in Mali, and cases of attempts to describe local settings in such a way that plans can be more tailored to location-specific circumstances.

There may well be more such attempts that I don’t know about, since climate change is not the central focus of my own research. But from the materials that come my way, it seems that part of the problem is the disconnect between research and action.

Researchers are rarely allowed to do anything that smacks of collaborative action, and at best it’s marginally acceptable in a few contexts, like within CIFOR. On the other hand, more action-oriented folks don’t know enough about field-based social science to take advantage of the many opportunities that exist before them.

Q: In your recent speech at the 2014 IUFRO World Congress, you mentioned the need for more inclusion of social scientists in forestry research. How do you think social scientists can help include women in sustainable forest management plans?

A: The most fundamental way is by having learned ways of studying other human beings, being attuned to the people and their ways of life within the forests, rather than to the forests themselves and their biological contents.

Oftentimes, the activities of women are invisible to non-social scientists—even when they occur before their eyes

Biophysical scientists have been trained to look for different things; and even those with interests in or concerns for local people do not typically have the training and skills to distinguish fact from fiction, reality from appearance, or patterns from unique events among humans.

Oftentimes, the activities of women are invisible to non-social scientists—even when they occur before their eyes. We are all blindfolded by our assumptions about the world. We see what we expect to see. Even if we’ve been trained to question and to overcome such assumptions, it remains difficult—but without training, non-social scientists are likely to miss a great deal of relevant information regarding people’s practices, beliefs, and goals for the forests around them.

This is doubly true for women. The people who formally manage forests and forest use tend to be male and tend to come from privileged urban backgrounds—both characteristics potentially interfering with any awareness of rural women’s involvement in forests.

Q: What do we not know about how climate change affects rural women? What further research needs to be done?

A: In most cases we can only guess at what the effects of climate change on rural women may be, since it has thus far been a rather slow process in many areas.  These conjectures suggest a need for monitoring of what does occur climate-wise, and what its effects are on various populations, including women.

There are many gaps in the monitoring of communities likely to be affected by climate change, which, if monitored, could provide communities information needed to overcome climate-related challenges.

We need to know what steps people, men and women, are able and willing to take to adjust to these climate-related changes

Migration is one area lacking in research. We should study who’s migrating, where they are migrating to, and how it affects those left behind and those that have left.

Impacts on family health should be monitored. If it’s deteriorating, what are the implications for male and female household members?

We should measure how household roles are changing between men and women.   Are there changes occurring that imply different new behaviors? If so, that could in turn imply new gender norms.

We also need to study what’s happening with products available from forests and crop yields—both main crops and subsidiary ones that supply micronutrients, and how changes in yields and forest product availability are affecting men, women and children differently, if at all. Who are the winners and losers in these cases?

Finally, we need to know what steps people, men and women, are able and willing to take to adjust to these climate-related changes. We should question what the policy implications are, if any, of these community-based adjustments.

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