Making forestry work for women

On 8 March 2014, RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests celebrates International Women’s Day to honor women’s important contributions to community forestry throughout the Asia and the Pacific region.

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a Thai woman weaving the organic thread
Credit: Bhawana Upadhyay

At a recent gathering of forestry professionals to discuss gender mainstreaming in forest policy, Dr. Tint L. Thaung, Executive Director of RECOFTC, highlighted the gender divide in the forestry sector, and the urgent need to address it.  “Even today, the forestry sector is perceived by many as a ‘man’s’ profession,” he said.

Statistics from the forestry sector in this region back this up. For example, female staff at one forest ministry make up a mere three percent of employees.  Community forest user groups are not reaching the target of 50 percent female inclusion. In another typical example, one ministry has 12 percent female staff, with the majority hired in administrative positions.

Addressing the various challenges to gender mainstreaming in the forestry sector require multi-dimensional approaches. Fundamental questions need to be explored to inform these approaches: how would gender responsive national forest policy help achieve gender equity in practice?  What are the intervening factors and how do we address them? All forest-related interventions need to be seen through a gender lens to recognize these fundamental issues.

a Nepali woman collecting fodder Credit : Rupa Joshi

a Nepali woman collecting fodder
Credit : Rupa Joshi

Amidst a discussion on gender disparity during the gathering, a participant from the Philippines shared her observation on a paradigm shift in gender inclusivity in the forestry sector in her country. Forestry courses, which were traditionally predominantly male, have shown increases in female enrollment. Currently, women outnumber men in forestry courses three to one. In fact, there are more female staff in the Forest Management Bureau of Philippines, with some occupying the most senior positions.

While female representation is important, however, it is not enough. It is critical to understand that gender mainstreaming is just a process and not a panacea in itself. Unless efforts are made to change mindsets, through awareness raising and developing capacities of stakeholders, achieving gender equality in forestry seems a far cry.

RECOFTC strongly believes that women’s empowerment is a key component of sustainable forest management. Thus in collaboration with its partners, RECOFTC is working to strengthen social and gender equity in all aspects of community forestry.

We would like to wish you a Happy International Women’s day and look forward to working together towards strengthening social and gender equity in community forestry.

“The Forest is Our Supermarket…and We Don’t Need Money”

RECOFTC’s first Executive Study Tour on food security brings up questions on need, greed and forest creed.

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Organic rice field at Huai Hin Dam.

With the steep rise in global food prices pinching millions of poor rural households, families are becoming more dependent on natural resources for their sustenance. RECOFTC –The Center for People and Forests, has been working with local communities living in and around forests in the Asia-Pacific region for 25 years, trying to understand the challenges and solutions for improving their lives through community forestry.

On October 12, 2012, RECOFTC organized its first Executive Study Tour on “Forest and Food Security” for 11 senior government and civil society professionals from four countries in the region. The group visited the ethnic minority Thai Karen village of Ban Huai Hin Dam, some three hours  west of Bangkok, and spent the day listening to their story of settlement as refugees 200 years ago, the threat that led to the formation of their community forest in 1995, and what it means for their way of life today.

In a materialistic world, it’s important to remind ourselves that there are also people who regard money as meaningless when life depends on the preservation and skillful use of natural resources. It’s a powerful message that resonated throughout the presentations made in the morning, the lunch served from forest products, and the walk through an organic farm and agro-forest plantation in the afternoon.

Regenerating the forest…and their lives

Tracing the story of the community forest on a hand drawn map, the Village Head Mr. Joe Kueng Ba Ngamying  recounts how a logging concession from 1974-89 led to the loss of farming land for the community and destroyed the forests and watersheds, leading to drought, loss of sustenance and great distress for the community. Continued encroachment of the open land even after the concession ended in 1989, brought the community, now 567 strong, together to preserve their environment and their way of life. With support from NGOs, the community forest committee was formed in 1995, boundaries were demarcated, and regulations for the joint and sustainable use of natural resources were put in place.

RECOFTC has been active in the area since 2000, helping the community sustainably manage and monitor utilization of their forest resources through a project called “The Thailand Collaborative Country Support Program” until 2008. Action research on Bamboo monitoring and planning for the community forest was completed by 2004, after which RECOFTC acted as a facilitator for boundary demarcation and resource management. Two years later, RECOFTC included Ban Huai Hin Dam in its youth-focused “Strengthening Young Seedlings Network: Youth Capacity Building for Sustainable Natural Resource Management,” project under which capacity building work still continues.

Today, life has improved visibly for the community: “We get clothes, food, medicine and shelter from the forest,” says Mr. Noei Aimchan, Chairman of Community Forest Committees of Ban Huai Hin Dam. “The forest is our supermarket. When you go to the supermarket, you need money. We don’t need money but we need to educate people how to use the forest.”

Huai Hin Dam Spirit House.

A Spirit House at the Huai Hin Dam.

Mr. Kwai Ngamying, the local wise man and advisor to the community forest committees, describes a way of life based on inversing the consumerism of the West: “In the West we believe that forests belong to people, but in the East we believe people belong to the forest.” It’s a telling difference fortified by reverence and rituals that have sustained the community for decades. Rituals that include meditating in the forest to know oneself, planting food as offerings for other living creatures and testing one’s wisdom by navigating a maze through the forest during a festive season.

18 years to build trust

To avoid conflict, the community has divided the forestland into zones for growing food, conserving wildlife and plant species, and for human habitation. The creation of a Pu Toei National Park in 1997 presented some problems as it encompassed an area traditionally used by the community for sustainable rotational agriculture. As we walked in that area admiring the abundant vegetables, fruit and grain crops, a committee member explains that trees are felled in a particular way to level a field for planting so that the stumps stay alive and can regenerate when the land is lying fallow. “We had to prove that we could conserve the forest and even improve it with our cultivation methods,” he says, “before the National Park authorities would agree to let us use it. It took 18 years for us to build the trust but we have a good understanding today.”

Through organic farming, the community has ensured a bumper crop of papayas, potatoes, eggplants and bananas and a particular variety of organic rice that is not available in the market. They deliberately  introduce different species on residential and forestland  to enrich the forest ecosystem and diversify the biosphere.  “We don’t use any chemicals here because we make our own organic fertilizer from rice husk and dung,” explains Mr. Kwai Ngamying, as we walk around a compost heap to examine the bark of a medicinal tree. “It’s quite strange, but if you have these leaves when you are sick, you get well. But if you have them when you are well, you may die,” he says, giving us an example of the forest lore which sustains communities even if it seems contradictory to outsiders.

Traditional medicine thrives in the many residential gardens which function as pharmacies, providing a range of remedies for common ailments. Delegates were offered a bitter brew made from forest herbs but many give up after the first few sips from their bamboo cups. I can vouch for the powerful cleansing properties of that drink however, after 24 hours.

Food Security Insurance: A rice bank

Being the basis of nutrition, a rice bank has been established in a small wooden hut opposite the community hall.  Under a barter system, a family may borrow up to 20 buckets (1 bucket = 15 kg.) of rice, but must replace it with 10% interest by the next season. The community also reserves a percentage of their collective cash for the poorest families, ensuring that the food security of all is preserved.

Some of the women community members at Huai Hin Dam.

The women of the community make their own important contribution to livelihood activities. Mrs. Lamyai Kongkae, the head of a women’s group from a neighboring village is here today to learn from the study tour discussions. Like the other women in the village, she is attired in a beautiful hand woven sarong and blouse that would not look out of place around the best addresses in town. Young girls are dressed in white by contrast, to signify purity. Pastel pinks, dusky browns, blues and red, the women look splendid in their ethnic creations. A selection of table runners, scarves, bags and other items woven by the women using natural dyes and the finest cotton are on sale.

The delegates buy presents for family members back home and suggest the women take up the activity on a commercial basis. This startles them as they are used to producing and harvesting only enough for their needs. It is what differentiates them from the consumer culture prevalent outside these communities.  The villagers don’t see a particular value in acquiring more than they need. As one of them points out:  “First you own the land, but later, you become the land.”  Trying to instill these creeds in a younger generation is more challenging they say, because development paradigms from the west are impacting their ancient belief systems. As the youth leader says, “In the west you protect forests with fences, here we protect them with love.”

Reducing the Gender Gap

A workshop held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 29 June, 2012, reflected on the results of increased participation of women in community forestry management in the Prakas II project being carried out in Cambodia.

Participants engaging in group work.

Workshop participants engaging in group work.

Harnessing the skills and contributions of women working at the grassroots level – something which often goes unsung and escapes formal income assessments – is essential for any sustained success in community forestry. RECOFTC’s effort to mainstream gender concerns across its programs was the subject of a workshop organized together with Cives Mundi, a Spanish NGO, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 29 June, 2012.

The workshop on Gender Mainstreaming in Community Forestry Management Planning reflected on lessons learned and experiences from the Prakas II Project on “Community Forestry in Northeast Cambodia,” which is funded by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development (AECID) and is carried out in the provinces of Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Strung Treng and Kratie. While the project seeks to strengthen the institutional and technical capacities of local NGO partners and forestry administration staff in community forestry management, it has also mainstreamed gender in the community forestry management planning of 16 community forest (CF) sites with the specific objective of improving women’s participation in CF development.

The workshop was attended by 56 participants including the gender focal persons from the 16 CFs in the target provinces.

Impressive Result

It was clear from the presentations that the field trainings on gender inclusion carried out in the 16 target CF communities by the forestry administration staff, local NGO partners and RECOFTC, had clarified concepts and helped identify existing gender gaps in the development of community forestry. RECOFTC and local NGO partners – the Non-Timber Forest Product Organization (NTFP)Culture and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA), and Kasekor Thmey (KT) – had established coordination links between community forestry  gender focal persons and women members of commune councils responsible for gender, to ensure that gender issues were integrated into commune development plans and mainstreamed into the community forestry management planning process. In each CF site, two gender focal persons (32 in total) were selected by the community members themselves to lead the process of mainstreaming gender in community forestry development.

As a result of these efforts, the participation of women in community forestry activities increased significantly. For instance, more women than is usual were involved in forest management planning activities – i.e. preparations for community forestry management planning (44% women), managing development funds (24%), dividing management blocks and field verification (34%), participatory resource assessment/forest inventory (20%), and drafting community forestry management plans (31%). These results have encouraged even more women to become active in  a range of activities including capacity building trainings, workshops and study tours. Some are already engaged as members of the community forest management committees (CFMCs) and are actively involved in the decision making process.

Challenges Remain

Though gender is integrated into community forestry management plans (CFMPs), traditional norms, culture and social constructs proscribe the role of women in Khmer society, particularly at household and community levels. Some women are still not allowed to travel far to attend relevant meetings and others can barely read and write.

Besides mobility restrictions, women’s low confidence, poor literacy and limited capacity, hinder their active participation in community forestry related activities. They are usually shy and barely speak about their concerns and problems.

However, there also has been a growing realization among forest users, community and local authorities in the project sites that facilitating and encouraging women through the process of gender mainstreaming would be an effective way to increase their participation and to change the attitude towards them in Khmer society. It was learned that women often discuss, find solutions to their own problems and define their roles and responsibilities keeping cultural norms and their rights in mind, but mainly in the women’s working groups.

Encouraging women through these groups to participate in capacity building training programs, with allocation of adequate funds for applying this knowledge and skills in the field, is a proven strategy for success. RECOFTC’s training-for-action approach, adopted by the Prakas II project to support women’s involvement in the process of community forestry management planning, has been very effective.

Institutionalizing Change

The results encouraged participants to suggest adequate funds be made available to continuously build the capacity of commune and community gender focal persons through various training programs that RECOFTC offers. They also stressed the need to reactivate the National Community Forestry Coordination Committee and establish the Cantonment Community Forestry Coordination Committee where gender-related issues could be raised and discussed. Ms. Bhawana Upadhyay, RECOFTC Program Officer for Gender and Rights, noted that any efforts at mainstreaming gender participation in community forestry had to include men, particularly when working with societies where women’s roles and expectations are traditionally defined.

In closing, Mr. Edwin Payuan, RECOFTC’s Cambodia Country Program Coordinator, said he hoped that the impressive response from the 16 target CF communities would encourage other local organizations, including the Forestry Administration, to further mainstream women’s participation in the country’s Community Forestry Program.

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For more information on the Prakas II project being carried out in Cambodia, please click here.

To learn more about RECOFTC’s additional efforts to integrate gender as a cross-cutting issue in all of our programs, please click here.

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:

(more…)

Moving Gender Forward: RECOFTC signs Memorandum of Understanding with WOCAN

Signing the WOCAN-RECOFTC MoU

WOCAN Executive Director Dr. Jeannette Gurung (left) and RECOFTC Executive Director Dr. Tint L. Thaung (right) sign the MoU with Program Coordination, Monitoring, and Evaluation Manager James Bampton (far left) and Strategic Communications Manager Prabha Chandran (far right)

On Friday, September 23, 2011, RECOFTC hosted a formal ceremony for the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resources Management (WOCAN).

This MoU represents an important step in taking a direct approach to mainstreaming gender in our program with WOCAN’s Executive Director, Dr Jeannette Gurung, appointed as RECOFTC’s new Gender Advisor based in our headquarters in Bangkok.

The partnership will help integrate gender mainstreaming in RECOFTC’s strategic program and promote the voice of rural women through WOCAN’s participation in regional community forestry networks. Among the first joint activities is “Innovations for Gender in REDD+: A Strategic Planning workshop” in Bangkok to identify innovative approaches for gender in REDD+ from October 31 – November 1, 2011.

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