The Only Sustainable World is an Equitable One

Carol J.P Colfer addresses audience at IUFRO 2014.
Carol J.P Colfer addresses audience at IUFRO 2014.

Plenary 4: The People and Forests Trajectory – 1994-2014 and Beyond 

In much of the developing world women remain invisible in attempts to create sustainable forests because of issues related to equity and because they’re often excluded from governance.

“We have been ignoring the potential of half the world’s population,” said Carol J.P. Colfer, who addressed the fourth plenary session of the 2014 IUFRO World Congress.

Colfer, senior associate at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and a visiting scholar at Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program, has authored a number of books that explore the interactions of humans with their forests, including The Complex Forest and People Managing Forests: The Links Between Human Well-Being and Sustainability.

Colfer began her plenary address with a discussion of CIFOR’s contributions.

“CIFOR started out with several commitments, including the need to be policy-oriented, to involve interdisciplinary teamwork, and to engage in research at all scales, from international to field-based.”

Research by CIFOR and partners on the interactions between people and forests includes studies on addressing human well-being, working collaboratively with communities, and incorporating the knowledge of indigenous people about forests and non-timber forest products. CIFOR has also focused on power relations, especially with regard to ethnic, gender, and decentralization studies. In the mid-2000s, Colfer said, there was recognition that many countries were decentralizing their governments, and studying the impacts of that decentralization on people was important.

“Globally, most forestry institutions still have little or no community experience or training,” she said.  There are exceptions, but most tend to have a single-minded focus on timber with little interest in biodiversity or non-traditional forest products.

“Often there is antagonism toward local peoples, labelling them as poachers or slash-and-burn farmers,” she added.

Colfer noted three obstacles — or, as she referred to them, “elephants in the room”— that stand in the way of equity for women. Rather than being addressed, these obstacles are ignored.

“The first is population growth,” she said. “Population growth is a big problem for forests. Women without access to birth control have limited options.” Limiting a woman’s options in turn limits the contribution she can make.

The second obstacle to equity is the social vacuum that’s created if women leave the home and enter new fields. Men would need to have a greater involvement in the household. “There would need to be some juggling in childcare and other domestic responsibilities,” she said.

Finally violence and the threat of violence must be addressed. “Women who are routinely subjected to violence, or even witness violence against another woman, dare not move outside their comfort zones,” she said.

Given those obstacles, why should forest researchers bother to venture into such topics?  The answer is simple.

“To enhance sustainability,” she said.

“We should ensure that we do no harm. We should strengthen people’s motivations to maintain or improve forests via a more equitable distribution of benefits,” she said. “We should also catalyze the creativity of all affected people as a way of achieving better forest management.”

Although the path toward gender equity and sustainability is a long one, Colfer has seen some successes. “The work we did with adaptive collaborative management in a number of sites shows that women gained skills in analyzing and negotiating.”

For example, in Zimbabwe women were digging up broom grass that they sent to market to make brooms. The market needed grass that had been dug up, rather than cut, because that’s what the broom design required, but this practice was not particularly sustainable.

“The women created a new design for brooms that allowed for cut grass to be used, thereby reducing negative environmental impacts,” she said.

Colfer noted a positive trend in research. “I have been quite amazed in the recent interest in gender issues,” she said, noting that these days proposed research might not receive funding if it doesn’t incorporate gender issues.

She also sees potential in the future of research that works closely with communities via adaptive collaborative management or participatory action research. “Research should try to marry what the local communities know and want with broader goals,” said Colfer. “We can figure out ways to minimize damage while benefiting local people and the environment.”

According to Colfer, four useful methods can help clarify the links between people and forests. “First, there are conventional academic studies,” she said.  Though reliable, they’re often couched in jargon and require a long time commitment.

Participatory rural appraisal is second method. Though good for educating policymakers about rural realities, it can provide misleading results. Third, ethnographic approaches allow researchers to gain holistic, reliable information, but should be undertaken by people trained in the method.

Finally, participatory approaches, when used by people who have been well trained, allow researchers to learn and build on the goals, interests, knowledge, and capabilities of community partners.

“In search of sustainability, we should overcome assumptions we have about both men and women,” she said. “We must be focused and holistic in the information we gather and analyze.”

“We need to think about how to integrate what we learn into our forest management.”

Written by: Peter Gomben


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