Closer to Nature: women, livelihoods and community forestry

RECOFTC’s Program Officer for Gender and Rights, Bhawana Upadhyay, writes on the importance of including women in natural resource management decision-making, using a case study from Nepal.

I had a great belly laugh last week while I was reading through case studies of Nepali rural women and their roles in natural resource management for my presentation at an upcoming conference. One case study explaining what happened when women were excluded from the decision making process in a Community Forestry User Group (CFUG) was a particularly entertaining read.

Here’s the story:

Decision makers, mainly men, at that CFUG introduced a rule permitting collection of only dry biomass fuelwood without the consent of women resource users. The women, unaware of the new decree, started collecting both dry and wet biomass according to their customary rights and practices. While collecting the biomass, they were apprehended, held and interrogated.

These women were not able to cook dinner in absence of fuel, as dry and wet biomass serve as the primary source of energy for these resource-poor households.  Later, when their husbands and sons came home and discovered the issue behind the uncooked dinner, they appealed themselves to revise the CFUG rules.

The interesting part of the case study is that women showed the significance of their roles and responsibilities to their male counterparts, or the decision makers, who then took action for change.

More importantly, the lesson learned from the case is the urgency of the need to have gender inclusive rules and practices even in a local-level institution like a CFUG.  

We tend to assume that men and women’s needs, aspirations, opportunities, constraints, roles and responsibilities with regards to the utilization and management of natural resources are alike.  But, in practical sense they differ – and these differences need to be well acknowledged.

Various schools of thought on gender and the environment have argued in favor of a synergistic relationship between women and good husbandry of environmental resources. A growing body of literature recognizes women as the primary managers of natural resources, citing their 90% involvement in collecting water and fuelwood and about 98% role in food processing in developing countries.

Despite this growing recognition of the staggering numbers of women involved in the use and management of natural resources compared with men, women’s contributions are undervalued and often reported as insignificant. The role of women is often painted as merely involving unproductive or non-commercial tasks, as evidenced by the perpetuation of gender-blind programs and policies even at the lowest levels (like CFUGs) where their involvement is vividly visible.

Several research studies have suggested that where community forestry affects the collection of forest products, flawed benefits-sharing can severely impact the livelihoods of resource-poor women and men. In some cases, people from well-off families retain control over most aspects of decision-making, with women and marginalized groups often left out of communication channels and sometimes unaware of the formation of forest users groups in their own communities.

This may be due to the prevailing misconception that women’s roles, although very significant, are concentrated in and around the domestic sphere, dealing with (unpaid) domestic work (i.e. general childcare and household work), whereas men tend to prioritize (paid) productive work (general income-earning, agricultural and commercial activities, etc).

However, over the past few decades, escalating insurgent activities, sectoral violence, shrinking forest cover, depleting water tables, land fragmentation, soil degradation, and frequent droughts and floods in Nepal have worsened the situation and pose serious threats to food security, especially for resource poor families. At the same time, rural men are increasingly seeking off-farm employment opportunities in urban areas. The result has been the feminization of agriculture and natural resource management in Nepal.

Though natural resources provide food, fuel, fodder, timber, medicines, building materials, and services including ecotourism, watersheds, carbon sequestration and soil fertility, the feminization of agriculture has significantly increased the daily workload outside the home for rural Nepali women.

The sad truth is this: throughout the developing world women play a significant role in managing and conserving natural resources, and yet their roles, indigenous knowledge, and skills are undervalued and underrepresented in decision-making, program strategies, and government policies.

I wonder how the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) can be achieved if equity and environmental sustainability issues are overlooked when four of the MDGs (MDG 1-the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, MDG 3- promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women, MDG 5- improving maternal health, and MDG 7- ensuring environmental sustainability) are directly relevant to achieving equity and sustainability.

One thing is certain: building the capacity of rural women through improved education and training and inclusion in decision-making can help not only to reverse the trend of unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, but also to ensure equity and environmental sustainability in the long run.

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1 Comment

  1. Sameer

     /  February 8, 2012

    I have realized it that women in Nepal are more involved in agriculture and forestry related work. The workload is triple for them and again their rights have always been seen from the lens of men’s right or the right of the household head.

    The blog is really interesting and has shed light on this aspect. RECOFTC should post more blog highlighting social dimension for a wider readership.


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