A Planet Under Pressure, and Why Gender Matters

Thumbnail image for Raindrops on leaf.jpg “I believe we want a world that is pro-poor, pro-development, and pro-environment.” So said Bina Agarwal, Director and Professor of Economics at the Institute of Economic Growth at Delhi University, India, at the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference in London – an international conference focusing on solutions to the global sustainability challenge. At the conference, Bina expressed her concern for food security and forest protection in light of global climatic changes, calling for “participation at all levels, at both the global and the local, between countries and within communities…” This quote by Bina from Planet Under Pressure 2012 says it all: “Even without climate change, we will need extraordinary efforts to feed 9 billion [people] by 2050. With climate change, the task is mammoth.”

Bina has written extensively on environmental action and agriculture issues from a gender perspective, writing about gender differences and why they matter when it comes to conserving the environment and organizing sustainable collective action initiatives. For example, women in many developing countries have a large stake in local forests, and would benefit from community forest management. Forest decline is currently undermining biodiversity and aggravating our planet’s ability to cope with global warming. Forest decline also critically affects nutrition supplements for the poor in developing countries, leading to Bina’s call for ‘collectivity’ – collective economic and community-driven initiatives to manage forests and promote sustainable technologies – lead by women in developing countries.

Why does Bina emphasize women’s role in collective environmental action? Rural women tend to be more resource constrained, dependent on social networks, and compelled to resolve conflicts. These tendencies, along with the fact that rural women stand to gain tremendously from joint economic ventures, make women potential key players in collective sustainable action.

In response to a question posed by Bina to village woman about conflict resolution due to women’s interdependence, one village woman told Bina:

Women reflect more. They say: even if I am fighting with her now, I have to go together with her for weeding or water, or if I don’t have flour in the house, I will have to borrow from her. This is always at the back of our minds. (Agarwal, 2010, p. 74)

Intrigued by Bina’s talk at Planet Under Pressure 2012, I e-mailed her to ask a few questions of my own:

What stakes do women have in forest management?

Women in developing countries, especially in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa depend on forests for many items of daily use, particularly firewood. This constitutes the single most important source of cooking fuel in rural regions of developing countries. In 2001, an estimated 65-75% of rural households in India and over 90% of rural households in Nepal depended on firewood for a part or most of their domestic energy. Almost all of this is gathered (and not purchased) and the gathering is done mainly by women and children. Globally in 2005, 2.4 billion households were using conventional biofuels, especially firewood, for cooking and heating. In addition, depending on availability, women collect fodder, wild vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs and many other items from local forests. We tend to forget how important locally gathered food items are as dietary supplements and hence food security, especially for the poor. Women’s dependence on forests is thus daily, while men’s subsistence use of forests is occasional since they mainly use them for timber, agricultural tools, home repair, etc.

Hence, women have a strong stake in forest management, both because they need the forest to improve and regenerate and because they would enjoy rules that allow them to extract firewood and other items when the forest does regenerate.

Why does including women in forest governance improve protection and increase the ecological knowledge pool?

When women are included in forest governance, information about forest protection rules is more likely to reach other women, since communication channels tend to be gendered. Women who are part of forest governance are also more motivated to follow the rules themselves and induct other women into informal patrolling groups and keeping a lookout for intruders. Including women thus vastly increases the number of people committed to protection. Including landless women can make even more of a difference, since they have the highest stake in forest conservation outcomes, but are also most likely to resent forest closure if they are not included in forest management.
Moreover, women bring to forest governance additional knowledge about the local ecology. This knowledge tends to be gendered since men and women use different components of the ecosystem. Women tend to know a great deal about the products they extract and how to extract them without causing harm to forest regeneration. They also make many useful suggestions on what to plant and where. All this can enhance biodiversity in community managed forests. – Bina

What role do women play in sustainability and climate change mitigation?

Women’s role in community forest management can enhance the sustainability of local resources in many ways. I found in my research on community forest management in India and Nepal that groups that had a higher proportion of women (say 25-33% or more) were substantially more likely to have positive conservation outcomes. In Nepal, all women groups were 51% more likely than other groups to show improved forest canopy in the forest plots they were protecting, even though they were given more degraded and younger forests to manage (see Gender and Green Governance, OUP, 2010). Since forests serve as carbon sinks, this gender impact has positive implications for climate change mitigation. – Bina

What types of local and community “collective action” innovation do you believe could significantly help the future of food security and climate change mitigation/adaptation?

In many parts of the world women play a very important role in food security as farmers and food producers. They are also the main food managers in the home. Increasingly too, as more men than women move to non-farm jobs, women are a growing proportion of the farmers in Asia and Africa. However, most women face serious constraints in their access to land, credit, inputs and markets. A potential institutional innovation would be for them to cooperate by forming what I term a “collectivity”. T_hey could pool their limited funds to lease land, buy inputs, plan crops and undertake soil conservation measures._ In addition, as a group they would have greater bargaining power with governments and in markets to obtain what they need for increasing their productivity. They would also be able to invest in local irrigation systems, crop insurance, and other measures needed to help them adapt to climate change.

Look for me to cover more of Bina’s work on agricultural production collectives and sustainable action scenarios in the future!

Bina Agarwal (2000). Conceptualizing Environmental Collective Action: Why Gender Matters Cambridge Journal of Economics