Recognizing gender bias, restoring forests

Gender considerations should be incorporated from the start in forests and landscapes restoration planning

First published on Forests News.

BONN, Germany (CIFOR) — One woman described the centuries-old, female-centered production of argan oil in Morocco and the recent degradation of the country’s forests. Another spoke of the gender disparities in experiences at REDD+ sites. And yet another talked of women in eastern India who cultivate up to 60 different crops in one shifting cultivation cycle, working from a base of rich traditional wisdom.

At the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) session “Gender equality, rights and ancestral knowledge in the context of forest landscape restoration” on the sidelines of the U.N. Conference of the Parties (COP23) climate talks, a diverse set of panelists stood at a frontier – bringing gender equality and women’s rights to the forest landscape restoration (FLR) conversation.

With international commitments to restoring forests and landscapes now almost de rigueur, there is a need to ensure gender considerations are incorporated from the start, lest inequalities be perpetuated, women excluded or rights wrested away.

On a gray morning in Bonn, a majority-female set of speakers – refreshing amid the number of all-male panels at COP23 – proffered insights ranging from the importance of community forests for women’s rights to the need for active and informed female participation in decision-making and the necessity that all of us confront our unseen biases.

Forest rights advocate Madhu Sarin talked of her experiences with forests and communities in India, and the trial-and-error process of reconciling top-down processes with moves toward equality for women in some forested areas, all while interrogating assumptions about rights.

“It’s only movements that can lead to transformative change. Community people working on the ground. The problem is that grassroots movements are like a drop in the ocean. We don’t have so many movements and we don’t have widespread movements – they are in certain pockets, but not all over. And not all movements are gender sensitive,” she said.


But clearly lack of gender sensitivity is not only a developing world problem.

Panelist Nigel Crawhall of UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, talked of the need to harmonize forms of knowledge, bringing local, indigenous, Western and other kinds of understandings together when thinking about forests and restoration, and the need to bring real interactions to the table amid issues of race, power, gender and identity. And, that table may already be steeped in a bias we may not recognize.

“[You] have to ask questions about the cultural framework in which you’re working … If there’s already a gender bias in the Western science framework, that’s what you’re bringing indigenous people into … You must shape the platform so you create a safer, more inclusive space so different paradigms can be in that space together,” he said.

For panelist Lorena Aguilar of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), participation in FLR needs to be inclusive and built on a strong knowledge base with everyone, including indigenous women, informed and aware. “It’s not about applying a standard, like saying indigenous people need to participate. REDD is not a color, and FLR is not a powder you put in the water.”

Many of the panelists addressed this concern – that international commitments just may neglect the perspectives of communities who will then live in the midst of land others demarcate for restoration.

Moderator Markus Ihalainen of CIFOR said in a later interview, “A key aspect of FLR is bringing stakeholders together to voice issues or concerns and to negotiate compromises, but not all stakeholders are equally powerful and not all voices are equally heard.” 


A number of panelists drilled down to specific geographies and restoration experiences.

Jamila Idbourrous, Union des Cooperatives Féminines de l’Argan (UCFA) Director, spoke of Morocco’s forests and the practice of producing argan oil, traditionally dominated by women.

“The women of the Berber indigenous people of south Morocco have customarily supported themselves through the production of argan oil. Women’s cooperatives protect their rights and preserve their knowledge, but there is desertification now in the argan forests and that is a big challenge,” she said.

“With argan oil, there is no frontier between protecting forests and protecting ancestral knowledge; it is important to recognize the connection is there,” she added.

Looking at gender and restoration from the policy-in-practice side, CIFOR’s Anne Larson presented the results of a series of studies of women and men’s experiences of REDD+ (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). In the early phase of the global emissions reduction mechanism, interviews in intervention villages found that only 38 percent of women’s focus groups had heard of REDD+, in comparison to 60 percent of village focus groups, which were about 70 percent male.

More recent preliminary analysis of results three years later in phase two of the research was even starker, with 18 percent of women’s focus groups demonstrating a decline in women’s well-being relative to the first phase. In comparison, control sites showed no change over the same period. A regression analysis suggests that REDD+ is a significant factor in these differences.

Larson said, “The combination of these two sets of data suggests that the failure to address gender early on may have something to do with poor performance for women’s well-being under REDD+ initiatives, although more analysis is required. That said, it is not particularly surprising: research by IUCN and others has shown that gender is still far too rarely addressed in forest-related projects.

“One of my concerns with FLR is that its advocates are trying to move faster than REDD+, but we need to move better, not faster.”

In her presentation, Aguilar offered one example of positive gender incorporation in the government of Malawi’s work on restoration, which was supported by IUCN, saying “Gender has been embroidered [into it], you cannot de-link it, it’s not an annex, it’s not an add-in component, it is an integral part.”


For panelist Eva Müller of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, “FLR is not a simple process of putting trees into the ground … FLR is all about balance at different scales.”

Striking that balance amid the intersecting issues of gender, rights, conservation and livelihoods will help forge the path to success, if all are on board.

Anne Barre of Women Engage for a Common Future works to connect on-the-ground processes and the experiences of communities and indigenous groups to the larger discussions at COP.

In an interview after the panel, she said, “We are starting to understand how important these knowledges passed down from generation to generation are to protecting our environment, biodiversity and climate. So for us working as observers in the UNFCC process we are trying to make the link between people who work at the local level and the different international processes, or even national processes … These knowledges not only need to be recognized and protected but also these knowledges can be used to make responsible and relevant climate adaptation or climate mitigation actions.”

Referring to the pathbreaking Forests Rights Act in India, which ensures women’s and community forestry rights, Sarin said, “You have the law now that provides the facilitative framework, but in practice how do you deal with age-old systems that are biased against women? No matter how good manuals and procedures and methodologies are, we need to ask, ‘Who is going to put this all into practice?’” 

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.




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