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A once forbidden tree

How Adaptive Collaborative Management is breaking cultural taboos in Uganda and empowering women
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Fruit of the Ficus natalensis, or Natal fig. Cultural taboos are now loosening over the tree that was once restricted to planting by men. (Image cropped from original).
Fruit of the Ficus natalensis, or Natal fig. Cultural taboos are now loosening over the tree that was once restricted to planting by men. (Image cropped from original). H.J. Ndangalasi

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Uganda - Trees have strong cultural meanings worldwide. Among the Baganda people of central Uganda, the Ficus natalensis tree signifies chiefdom. In the past, when the king chose a chief, he would plant a Ficus tree for him.

At the household level, the tree signifies ownership of land. For this reason, until very recently, a woman could not plant Ficus. Because the very act symbolizes she is the head of the household, husbands forbid it.

Although this cultural taboo is still pervasive, one way to change it could be through the implementation of the Adaptive Collaborative Management (ACM) approach.

ACM is an approach where stakeholders who share an interest in a common natural resource agree to act together to plan, observe and draw lessons from the implementation of their plans.

Scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), in partnership with the Association of Uganda Professional Women in Agriculture and the Environment (AUPWAE), have used the ACM approach to implement forest-related activities in six study sites across Uganda since 2011.

“Customary norms commonly mediate land and tree tenure over most of Africa, and usually limit women’s rights to land and trees even where policies and laws are supportive of women’s tenure rights,” says Esther Mwangi, Principal Scientist at CIFOR.

“This project aims at exploring what needs to be done to strengthen women’s rights especially in settings where customary norms are biased against women’s tree and land tenure.”

Empowering women

Ficus natalensis is a multi-purpose tree that is highly suitable for agroforestry. It can be used as fodder and firewood, and can be fashioned into timber for furniture or boats.

Most importantly, its bark is used to produce bark cloth, which is used for traditional functions and burial ceremonies here. Due to the age-old cultural taboo surrounding its planting, women were deprived of this significant source of income. But following the ACM sensitization meetings organized by CIFOR and AUPWAE, 50 out of 99 women group members have planted Ficus. Five of them have even been able to sell bark cloth and benefit economically.

Among them is Mrs. Mukwaya. “Because of confidence building acquired in the many ACM activities, I have been able to persuade my husband to allow me plant Ficus trees intercropped with my coffee and I have now started benefiting economically by selling bark cloth,” she says.

The ACM meetings are prompting more women to negotiate with their husbands to allow them to plant Ficus.

“Before, if a woman planted Ficus, it was enough to earn you a divorce,” says Namanda, a 70-year-old member of the ACM forest user group. “That is now changing.”

ACM encourages negotiations right from the household to higher governance levels. The ACM approach enhances participation by all stakeholders in a community and a deliberate effort is made to enhance the participation of marginalized groups in all processes, including decision-making and benefit sharing. Women are empowered to negotiate for their rights to trees and success is being recorded, even for the most taboo trees like Ficus.

“This outcome, where Ficus is turned from a tree once forbidden to women to one that women can not only plant but benefit from its sales, is significant,” Mwangi says.

“It shows that discriminatory tenure can be turned around, and that customary norms are negotiable rather than etched in stone. Some of the lessons generated here can be used in other settings in Uganda and elsewhere.”

Concepta Mukasa, AUPWAE, indicates that obtaining women rights requires getting men’s confidence and support and this requires working together with men in all activities.

On October 26, 2016, CIFOR in collaboration with AUPWAE will hold a meeting with legislators from Uganda’s Parliament to present findings from the gender project, as well as to obtain input on how to improve policy implementation to strengthen women’s rights and to enhance gender equity in forest decision-making. The meeting will also solicit legislators’ ideas on how to scale up Adaptive Collaborative Management and to institutionalize it into government programs. It will be attended by Uganda Parliament’s Natural Resources Committee and the Uganda Women Parliamentarian Association.

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For more information on this topic, please contact Esther Mwangi at e.mwangi@cgiar.org.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
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