Around the world, women harvest and process non-timber forest products for sale. For the poor women of Maranhao, Brazil, extracting palm kernels from the babacu palm is their single most important source of income. The activity involves over 300,000 families. Women in Botswana, India, Malaysia, and many other countries weave baskets, mats, and plates made of forest products. Women also collect or process wild nuts and fruits, medicinal plants, and palm hearts.
These activities provide employment and incomes. However, in most cases the women get low returns on their labor for each hour they spend and they typically use very rudimentary and laborious processing technologies. Many times men end up controlling most of the proceeds. Much of the work goes on at home or in nearby forests, fallows, and home gardens. That allows women to combine their income generating activities with child raising and other domestic chores, but can also keep them politically and culturally isolated and deprive them of access to jobs and products located that are farther away.
Unless they are careful, projects designed to encourage the processing and sale of non-timber forest products can actually have a negative impact on women. When machines replaced hand stitching of sal plates in India, men displaced many of the women and left them without work. In another case from India, promotion of a formal forest management plan to promote non-timber forest product extraction also led to men taking over what had been primarily an activity for women. Similarly, women were unable to participate in a galip nut project in Papua New Guinea because the project centralized the processing activities in a town distant from the women’s households.
On the other hand, when projects include specific components for women this can help them increase their political power and their ability to defend their economic interests. In Ghana, women have enthusiastically embraced the creation of leaf gatherers association that has strengthened their ability to negotiate with the forestry department and their political influence within their villages. Over 1,300 women farmers in Uganda benefited from a shea butter project designed specifically for them.
These are just a few of the interesting conclusions from ’Commercialisation of Non-Timber Forest Products: Review and Analysis of Research’ prepared by Roderick Neumann and Eric Hirsch for CIFOR and the FAO. The report reviews the literature on a wide variety of issues related to harvesting and processing non-timber forest products for sale. Gender aspects constitute only a small part of the topics it covers. Among other things, it looks at who benefits from these activities, whether they deplete the natural resources involved, and what governments, NGOs, and grassroots organizations can do to help people manage them better.