By Regan Suzuki, REDD-Net Asia Pacific Coordinator
Experience from Nepal shows women value forest resources, but taking part in public meetings on REDD provides a democratic space for engagement that enhances their sense of identity
Haven’t we been talking about gender and the need to mainstream it for decades? Why then does it seem to re-emerge every time a new ‘development’ or international issue (such as climate change) makes it into the spotlight? More to the point, what about gender in the context of climate change could possibly be new?
While climate change negotiations have breathed new life into efforts to improve women’s conditions around the world, the reality remains: if the push to mainstream gender over the last decade had succeeded, we wouldn’t need to be having these discussions now. If mainstreaming efforts thus far have fallen short of ambitions, what makes us think we will be any more successful under the rubric of climate change and REDD+?
In my work with REDD-Net in the Asia-Pacific region, I’ve come up against these questions time and again. Over time, I’ve come to believe that reflection on the real value added of highlighting gender in REDD+ and the cost effectiveness of devoting REDD+ funds to gender activities is valid and well-founded. These questions do need to be explored and considered critically as we move forward with REDD+ and other climate mitigation activities.
At the COP17 in Durban earlier this month, RECOFTC and Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and NRM (WOCAN) organized an official side event “Gender and REDD+ in the Asia Pacific: Supporting Champions for Women’s Leadership/ Gender Equality” in which we explored these, and other questions regarding women in the context of forestry and REDD+.
Why does gender matter in REDD+? In a nutshell, men and women use, manage and value forests differently. It is thus critical that this difference is accounted for in REDD+ project design and implementation.
We know, for example, that when it comes to tree species preference, there is not only a difference between the interests, needs, and responsibilities of women and men, but that these priorities can often be in direct conflict. In general, rural women in the region prefer multiple-purpose species, not strictly income-generating timber. They value trees and forest products that contribute to household energy, food and financial security through providing fuelwood, fodder, and food products. They seek out bushy and branchy trees, looking for varieties that can serve as windbreaks or fencing for livestock or contribute to handicrafts such as broom making.
The importance of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) for women is well established. Trees and other flora that contribute fruit, medicinal herbs, nuts, gum, wax, and honey provide products that women can process, market, and benefit from directly. This is in contrast to preferences by men for high value timber species such as sal, eucalyptus, pine, teak, acacia, and gmelia.
In the context of REDD+, there is a risk that men will favor species known for being fast growing and offering significant carbon sequestration (and financial) benefits over the multipurpose trees relied upon by women. Unless genuinely participatory decision-making processes are in place as forest carbon markets develop, there is a real risk that the voices and needs of vulnerable stakeholders will be left out. This has real implications for poverty reduction, food security, and biodiversity.
Two main rationales have been floated for the mainstreaming of gender in REDD+. First, there is the ethical imperative grounded in a rights-based approach. This rationale argues that by virtue of their rights enshrined in the Convention to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women are entitled to be actively and equitably involved in REDD+. Second, there is the pragmatic argument of effectiveness. Here, the argument rests on the premise that directly involving women increases the efficacy of reducing forest-based emissions and, given their differentiated financial and social capital management strategies, overall transaction costs for REDD+ are likely to be minimized.
However, I argue there is a third compelling reason for involving women in REDD+.
While conducting focus group discussions with female members of community forestry groups in Nepal, an unexpected finding surfaced. Why, I asked, would women members be prepared to walk, literally for days through the Himalayas, children in tow, in order to attend community forestry user group assemblies? Of course, they greatly valued the trees and the ecosystem services the forests provided to them and their communities. But even more prized by them was the opportunity, in many cases the sole opportunity, to have a public identity. To participate in democratic processes. To be justified in leaving the house. To have a voice.
Community forestry in Nepal, while perhaps imperfect, has contributed to the increased involvement and voice of women in what has been at times one of the few democratic institutions available in rural areas. Mandating women’s representation at the highest levels of user group committees has normalized the role of women in decision-making processes, created networks of support, generated independent income for women, and, I would argue in short, has made strides in re-writing the role of women in this society.
It is ambitious, but I believe that REDD+ can contribute to similar structural change. As a performance-based system framed by safeguards requirements that will continue to develop over time, strengthening gender requirements and safeguards at national levels can and must be done. Mandating women’s involvement in REDD+ can have teeth in a way that gender mainstreaming in conventional development projects does not.
What is, or what could be new about gender in REDD+? In essence, if designed and implemented well, failing to include women could mean failing to qualify for REDD+ payments. Taking this kind of strict stance can set up a strong incentive for communities to recognize and empower women as equal actors in natural resource management, an important step toward improving quality of life for millions of rural women.
Read the REDD-Net bulletin on gender and REDD+ for more information