In the management of forests, gender matters

BOGOR, Indonesia (23 July, 2011)_At the recent Poverty and Environment Network Conference, some interesting results related to the gender differentiation of roles related to rural livelihoods were presented. Aggregating global data from 36 long-term studies determined just who does what in contributing to the family’s well-being and what value forest products represent in the livelihood strategies of local people.
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Photo courtesy of Eileen Delhi

BOGOR, Indonesia (23 July, 2011)_At the recent Poverty and Environment Network (PEN) Conference in London, “Counting on the Environment”, some interesting results related to the gender differentiation of roles related to rural livelihoods were presented. Aggregating global data from 36 long-term studies of forest proximate communities in 25 countries, representing more than 8,000 households, it was possible to determine just who does what in contributing to the family’s well-being and what value forest products represent in the livelihood strategies of local people.

There are many assumptions about the role of men and women in contributing to the household economy in many rural societies. The first of these is that men are more likely to be engaged in the generation of cash income from non-timber forest products (NTFPs) while women tend to collect forest products for direct household use. As such, it is therefore assumed that women rely far more on forest products than their male relatives. But is this really the case?

In order to understand the importance of gender, the PEN global data set was used to assess within-household gendered differences, i) in the consumption and sale of forest products and, (ii) in the reliance of processed and unprocessed forest products.

This was able to be done accurately because during the data collection process, information was gathered on who collected what (e.g. male, female, child) and what forest product was actually harvested. To check whether patterns of forest product use are consistent across regions, the analysis was conducted at the global and regional levels. Taken together, the results are somewhat surprising.

Almost without exception, most able-bodied members of the household (men, women and children) do indeed participate in the collection and processing of forest resources. These include a wide range of products from rattan to resin, fruits to forage, medicines to matting. However, what is surprising is the level of gender specialization in the collection and processing of forest products: put simply, men and women tend to collect different forest products.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the value of forest products collected by men surpasses the value of forest products collected by women.  It was also found that women tend to specialise in the collection and processing on forest products that are used for subsistence, whereas men tend to specialise in the harvest of forest products for sale.

There are important regional differences to this overall pattern. In the Latin American cases, the value of unprocessed forest products collected by men considerably surpasses the value of forest products collected by women. In the Asian cases, the value of unprocessed forest products collected by men and women is less marked and in the African cases, the value of unprocessed products collected by women is larger than the value of unprocessed products collected by men. On all three continents, however, men tend to play a more predominant role in the processing and sale of forest products and generate the greatest income. Despite assertions to the opposite, the male members of rural households really are doing their bit for the household economy!

So what does this all mean? The regional differences suggest there is no neat “one-size fits all” policy fit for gender-oriented research or NTFP-focused development interventions. The highly specialised gender differentiation evident from this research suggests that locally focused gender-responsive forestry policies and programs should explicitly take into account the opinions, needs, and interests of both genders. The single most important policy take-home message? Gender matters!

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  • It makes me curious about the meaning of ‘value’ used here. The ‘value’ of contributing to subsistence/survival is critical for any household. Is this comparing ‘value’ to ‘price’? It’s been known for a long time that in Africa and elsewhere, women dominate in production of ‘subsistence’ crops (what feeds the family), while men dominate in production of ‘commercial’ crops (what sells to export markets.) What’s more important, however, is how they ‘spend’ what they make. The women ‘spend’ their produce in feeding the family, while men tend to spend on themselves. Is there evidence in this study that males ‘really are doing their bit for the household economy!’ – are they contributing what they earn to the household, or for themselves?

    • Terry Sunderland

      Thanks for your comment Jane. I think one thing we need to do with the data set is to determine whether this stereotype of male household spending really prevails. We have sufficient data to suggest we can look at this more closely. For value, we use “share value” as the definition, subsequently broken down into subsistence and sale value. The paper that is being developed based on this will expand on the definitions further. Regards, Terry Sunderland.

  • Terry Cannon

    It seems that a fundamental and gender-steotyping mistake is made in this analysis, especially this paragraph:

    “Contrary to popular wisdom, the value of forest products collected by men surpasses the value of forest products collected by women. It was also found that women tend to specialise in the collection and processing on forest products that are used for subsistence, whereas men tend to specialise in the harvest of forest products for sale.”

    This should refer to the MONETIZED value, not the use or other value (including subsistence…) Women’s work is rarely as monetized as men’s, and that is the whole point about misleading gender analysis.

    Terry Cannon
    Climate Change Team, Institute of Development Studies, UK

    • Terry Sunderland

      Dear Terry, We accept that the statement needs clearer definition. The breakdown of “value” is in both subsistence and sale but the limited space devoted to a blog and the inability to illustrate with graphs presented in London make interpretation sometimes ambiguous. A paper being developed on the wider data set will clarify the distinctions further. Regards, Terry Sunderland.

  • I fully agree that the issue of value is critical. One would expect that ‘monetized’ commodity ‘values’ are those related to products gathered by men – or those who have access to external markets – whereas ‘non-monetize’ values are related to products essential for daily life.

    I am looking for a scientist studying the difference in research on this topic done by men and women researchers. ‘Value’ of resources – especially critical NWFP in forests – to households and local markets is a central question in understanding the ‘value’ of forests. I would like to be in contact with researchers who are studying the kind of research – theory and methodology – conducted on this broad issue.