Sex and Forest Tenure

The ability of women to participate equally in community forestry varies from country to country. Photo by FAO.
The ability of women to participate equally in community forestry varies from country to country. Photo by FAO.

A-26: Impact of tenure arrangements on forests, livelihoods and gender dynamics

A hush fell over the crowd. Heads turned as the candid speaker who remarked: “Would I encourage my daughter to study forestry? No. Would I encourage her to travel thousands of miles for conferences? To conduct research in dusty and remote places with no water? No! I would encourage her to study medicine.”

People in the audience were obviously appalled that someone might consider forestry an inappropriate pursuit for women. However, session presenters proved that barriers do exist for women who want to participate in forest management and research. Obstacles include tenure systems and culturally-defined gender roles. Read more in a CIFOR review article referenced by a session presenter.

Forest tenure impacts socio-economic equality

Forest tenure refers to the formal ownership and uses of forests, rules, and how strongly those rules are enforced. Men and women have different perceptions of forest tenure. According to Purabi Bose (International Center for Tropical Agriculture, Columbia), men usually prefer land to be privately owned while women prefer collective tenure. Even under collective forest tenure, men often dictate women’s roles. Forest access can come as a patronizing “privilege” provided to women by men.

Communities deriving higher income from forests enjoy greater socio-economic equality, including gender equality. Pam Jagger (University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill) studied 360 villages through the Poverty Environment Network (PEN), finding higher levels of subsistence income associated with state-run forests compared to forests run by communities or private individuals.

PEN researchers also observed greater income derived from forests with little to no enforcement of tenure rights. Strong tenure enforcement can provide long-term protection to forest resources, but at the expense of low-income households. Such findings encourage open discussions about tenure systems and the potential tradeoffs between socio-economic equality and resource protection.

Cultural practices lag behind forest policy

Madhu Devi Ghimire (Nepal Ministry of Forest & Soil Conservation) and Anne Larson (Center for International Forest Research, Nicaragua) described progressive reforms to empower women in forestry. Unfortunately, rules on paper are often slow to take root.

The 2008 Gender and Social Inclusion Strategy in Nepal mandates equal participation of women and men on executive committees for community forest user groups (CFUGs). Yet women remain underrepresented, with as little as 12 percent representation by women on some CFUGs. Similarly, laws in Nicaragua grant women equal rights to forest resources, but survey results show that disparities remain. According to Larson, a third of Nicaraguan women feel they have inadequate access to forest resources, and 75 percent think they lack the capacity to participate in decision making.

Cultural barriers contribute to slow policy implementation. In Nepal, women are discouraged from traveling with men, but promotions in forestry depend on traveling for field work. Men (and some women) in Nicaragua are slow to accept the participation of women in government. If women hold day jobs, who will take care of the house and children?

Women ARE engaging in forest management

Kana Siripurapu (University of Maryland) encouraged the audience to celebrate women’s accomplishments in sustainable forest management. His research in the Orissa province of India revealed women-run forest committees, women groups for patrolling community forests, and women convening discussions on forest issues.

Aida Lapis (Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Philippines) shared the important role women and children play in mangrove restoration. Women perform different tasks than men, such as collecting mangrove propagules and running nurseries, but their involvement is crucial to rehabilitation success.

Gender equality is about more than women versus men

Making generalizations about women’s role in forestry prove nearly impossible. Political, cultural, and economic contexts greatly influence gender dynamics country by country, even household by household.

Unequal access to forest resources can exist within sexes. Women’s social status differs by caste, ethnicity, religion, age, etc., and this can dictate their role in forest management. Presenters emphasized the importance of comparative studies that advance theory, as well as detailed case studies to illustrate nuances.

Recognition of these nuances is one thing, but reporting on them is another. A session participant noted, for example, that speakers referenced heterogeneity in gender dynamics, but proceeded to summarize results for all women versus all men.

Women should and do participate in sustainable forest management. When women have more opportunities to engage, they can decide for themselves if they want to study forestry or if they want to study medicine.

For more information on this topic, Purabi Bose (session organizer) invited everyone to attend a book release tomorrow from 12:00-1:00 pm in room A-26.

Written by:  Megan S. Matonis

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