Gender inequality and forest restoration
Forest restoration is big in the news. Interest in it is overwhelmingly driven by concern about climate change. Hardly a day seems to go by without a new initiative to enable citizens, companies and governments to offset their carbon emissions by supporting tree-planting and sustainable forest management activities in the global South. More often than not, we are enticed by pictures of women, babies on their backs, laughing and singing as they carry seedlings to planting sites. Yet the stories behind these pictures can hide the complex and often unequal reality of women’s lives.
The fact that women are frequently shown in a group is no coincidence – in many places statutory law and/or customary rules mean that women have no individual access to land. Globally, the UN says that women make up just 13% of agricultural landholders. Often women are only entitled to land through marriage, and risk losing their land if they become widowed or their marriages fail. Yet trees are a long-term investment. Therefore, the only way for women to obtain land for tree-planting may be to negotiate as a group with community leaders and landowners to gain access to a group plot.
“Properly done, forest restoration can play a significant role in advancing gender justice.”
What about the babies? These reflect the reality that women’s responsibilities for household chores and caring for children mean that they typically work longer hours than men. Tree-planting is hard work. Not only do trees have to be grown in nurseries, they need to be transported to planting sites and then watered and weeded for many months and even years if they are to survive. A real danger with externally initiated tree-planting projects is that they impose this extra work on women in the name of climate change mitigation.
So why are the women singing and laughing? Because, despite the challenges, working in a group is empowering and trees are undoubtedly very important to women. They provide fruits and oils for subsistence and sale, medicinal products, handicraft materials, firewood, a home for honey-bees, and shade to sit and rest. Yet the trees women like may be very different from those preferred by men who typically favour trees that produce good timber and poles, as well as those that improve soils.
All this means that forest restoration, if badly implemented, can undermine women’s livelihoods by imposing new labour burdens on them to plant and care for tree species that do not meet their needs on land that is not theirs.
We see trees as women see them
Our work at ITF shows that it doesn’t have to be like this. Properly done, forest restoration can play a significant role in advancing gender justice. Over the many years that ITF has championed community tree-planting activities, we have supported women in taking decisions on which trees they want to plant, where and how. We see trees as women see them – not as stocks of carbon but as important landscape components that provide multiple benefits which, over time, can outweigh the start-up costs and make a positive contribution to women’s livelihoods. Through our tree-planting work we are also challenging gender inequality by addressing some of the systemic obstacles faced by women. For example, our Kenya Programme Manager, Teresa Gitonga, is rolling out a series of workshops with our community partners to talk about women’s empowerment. Engaging both men and women, these emphasise the benefits of women being fully involved in all decisions related to forest restoration. This means women taking the lead in initiating, designing, implementing, and ultimately benefiting from tree-planting and protection activities.
Implemented like this, forest restoration can make an important contribution to achieving gender justice and give women a real reason to smile.
Author: Kate Schreckenberg
Professor in Environment and Development
Department of Geography, King’s College London