Forests and women – some encouraging signs

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By Carol Colfer
Senior Associate, Center for International Forestry Research

One of the first professional positions I held was as a ‘Women in Development Specialist’ in the early 1980s. Despite decades of research, many of the problems identified in the 1970s and 80s persist: the invisibility of women’s forest-related work for policymakers, extension personnel, and even researchers; the inattention throughout the value chain to the forest products women use; a lack of women’s voices in policymaking, as well as in household decisions related to forests; the inadvertent but adverse effects on women of well-meaning forestry programs.

The recent special issue on ‘Forests and Gender’ (International Forestry Review) is a breath of fresh air. While the scientific forestry community has been receptive to studies of women’s forest-related work, they have found some of our more theoretical and qualitative studies a hard slog. The use of terms such as ‘hegemony’, ‘symbolic representation’, ‘alterity’, and ‘habitus’ render such studies inaccessible to foresters.

This special issue, however, is written in accessible language and addresses important theoretical and practical topics that have passed under the collective radar screen. The authors address women’s active, if informal, forest management roles (for example, Bose, Brown, Lewark et al., Shackleton et al., Shanley et al.). Each paper goes beyond simple documentation to address broader issues.

Shackleton et al. use cases from three African countries to demonstrate variability across countries and non‑timber forest products (NTFPs) with regard to value chain stages and differing gender impacts. The value chain theme is also addressed by Purnomo et al., who conducted action research among Javanese furniture producers. These papers suggest to policymakers and forest researchers the importance of following forest products beyond the forest, of thinking and acting with processes and processing in mind.

Bose examines the effects of the recently enacted Forest Rights Act on two tribal communities in northern India. Besides showing common unintended adverse effects on women, she brings to light a common and potent pattern that is rarely discussed: members of the more male-dominant culture unthinkingly inserting their own assumptions about gender roles into a much more egalitarian social system, with potentially long‑lasting adverse effects. Important implications of her study include both the need for further and more in‑depth social research in forest communities, as well as further introspection among policymakers about their own assumptions.

Many articles in the special issue emphasise the proactive nature of women, which is important for overcoming the common view of women as passive victims, unable to act in either their own or society’s interests. Shanley et al. document the evolving links between Brazilian human rights and conservation movements, and the active roles of women in collective action and networking. Women represent human resources that governments and development workers have not yet sufficiently acknowledged or used for the common good.

Sun et al. use the long-term dataset generated by the International Forestry Resources and Institutions research network, supplemented by interviews and focus groups, to examine statistically the implications of male‑dominated, mixed, and female-dominant user groups in four countries. Mixed gender groups performed best in terms of forest management, an interesting and somewhat surprising conclusion with intriguing policy implications. 

Djoudi and Brockhaus examine men and women’s attitudes and perceptions about climate change and the differing adaptation strategies each prefers, in two adjacent communities in Mali. They reveal the importance of male migration and the opportunities and disadvantages that male absence has for women. A central implication of their work is the local human and ecological variability, with the resulting challenge of developing policies that capture and respond effectively to such differences.

Some authors studied policies directly. Bandiaky-Badji traces the historical legal features in Senegal that have contributed to women’s invisibility, including ubiquitous male patron–client relationships, women’s lack of rights to land, and female illiteracy. Brown examines Cameroon’s policies on climate change, seeking evidence (without finding much) that women’s interests are addressed in planning and policy documents. Lewark et al. assess the impacts of forest and NTFP certification on women in two communities in Nepal, finding generally positive perceptions thereof.

Most articles give attention to local variation, whether between men and women, among ethnic groups, in how forest products are used, and/or over time and scale. Recurrent themes included women’s travel constraints, illiteracy, lack of legal rights and informal norms that discourage them from speaking up in public, all interfering with women’s efforts to improve their circumstances in life and contribute to better forest management.

Although there is little doubt that gender encompasses a range of ‘wicked problems’, this collection accompanies some encouraging trends: 1) the global research community’s increased sophistication in dealing with the holistic nature of gender issues; 2) the development of global mandates such as the Millennium Development Goals, several of which feature gender; 3) the growing acceptability of participatory approaches (needed to deal with the diversity and constraints in addressing women’s issues); and 4) a healthy, if early, recognition of men’s roles in gender issues.

Although we all recognise that difficult issues remain, this special issue suggests that at last some significant progress is being made.

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