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Promoting nature-based solutions for gender equality

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Bamboo charcoal can be a lucrative source of income. Photo by INBAR

As a clean-burning source of energy in the home, and a lucrative means of income, bamboo is helping to bring income and social standing to women across the world.

For Gloria Adu, bamboo has brought big changes to her family. “Bamboo has done so much in my life. It has changed me completely. I’m so happy we now have women in the industry in my country.”

Gloria is from Ghana, a country where demand for fuelwood and charcoal accounts for around 70% of annual forest loss. During a training course facilitated by the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR) in 2001, which she described as an “eye opener”, Gloria learned about several diverse types and uses of bamboo, and was taken on tours to see bamboo plantations, arts and crafts in different parts of China. The training course inspired Gloria to set up her own company. Global Bamboo Products Ltd. makes custom items on demand, and is now beginning to focus on the production of bamboo briquettes and charcoal.

In recent years, the company has gone from strength to strength. It now boasts a 300-hectare bamboo plantation and has won several local and international awards. Gloria has used Global Bamboo Products to teach other people: she estimates the company has trained some 400 people in alternative livelihood activities, and over 10,000 farmers in the cultivation, management, and primary processing of bamboo and bamboo charcoal. Gloria’s company is an example of what women can do with bamboo.

According to Gloria, “Bamboo charcoal is crucial for women.” The grass plant grows locally to many rural communities across the tropics and subtropics, and is often excluded from local forest protection laws. This means it can be harvested legally, within close proximity to a community. Converting bamboo to charcoal requires few set-up costs – some technologies even use converted oil barrels as kilns – and the resulting charcoal burns with little smoke, and has a similar calorific density to other commonly used forms of biomass.

These are not bamboo’s only benefits. Fast-growing, light and easy to process, cultures around the world have used bamboo for millennia as a source of housing, fodder, furniture and tools. Integrating bamboo into farming systems has been shown to improve yields and restore soil health. And products made from bamboo can fetch quite a price: rural households in parts of Africa can earn over US$1,000 a year from cultivating and converting bamboo into charcoal and other products.

Mira and her employees are now the primary breadwinners in their households, thanks to working in the lucrative bamboo incense stick sector. Photo by INBAR

Gloria is one of the many women who know that bamboo changes lives. Mira Das, a bamboo incense stick maker from West Tripura, India, describes a complete transformation in her family’s lifestyle: “Before training in the bamboo sticks business, our family income was meagre, and I had no rest or leave from my domestic support job.”

Following a training course in bamboo incense stick production by INBAR and the Centre for Indian Bamboo Resource and Technology (CIBART), Mira’s family has experienced “a huge increase in household income”, which has given them a sense of financial security. “Now, I have some savings in my account, and we use the additional amount to buy household assets: good clothes, a mobile phone, a gas stove.”

Earning an income from bamboo – often, for the first time – has other, less tangible benefits. According to Mira, running a small enterprise has developed her qualities as a leader – “it’s definitely helped me gain both a sustainable livelihood and more self-confidence.” In 2017, she gave a speech at a Kolkata summit on ‘Transforming Women’s Lives’.

And for Giraben, a bamboo furniture maker in Gujarat, India, the success of her bamboo company has given her “not just income, and but also respect. Now, members from our community and other communities have approached me for my advice on social matters, and my husband and I get invitations to social functions, festivals, cultural events and marriages.”

Encouraging women to use bamboo can go a long way to realising the UN’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal: achieving gender equality. Using bamboo gives women access to a potentially lucrative economic resource, and can help secure women a place in decision-making in political, economic and public life. Involving women in decisions about land use, forests and tree resources can also help create more sustainable development solutions, which makes it a key part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), in which INBAR is a partner.

At its most successful, the bamboo industry has produced some inspiring international women leaders. Cynthia Villar, another beneficiary of INBAR training, is now a senator in the Philippines and vocal supporter of bamboo’s potential; meanwhile Bernice Dapaah, executive director of Ghana Bamboo Bikes, has been recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader; and in China, the founder and CEO of bamboo tissue manufacturer Vanov, Shen Genlian, has shown how successful a women-led bamboo enterprise can become.

There are considerable obstacles to upscaling INBAR’s work to empower women to use bamboo. Aside from technology transfer and training, there are often systemic problems and socially entrenched marginalization which make it harder to sustain women-run enterprises. But this has not stopped many of the thousands of women who INBAR has trained.

A woman in a bamboo grove in Madagascar. Photo by Lou Yiping/INBAR

Approaches seeded by INBAR and a range of development partners include a collective of women’s self-help groups in India, which produce higher value-added incense stick products and have created 150,000 jobs, and an initiative in Tanzania that has created 100 bamboo nurseries, the creation of micro-enterprises, and training opportunities for some 1000 people in a specially-created Bamboo Training Center.

INBAR’s training programs also prioritize approaches that play to women’s strengths and skills in the production process – emphasizing design, for instance, which in many traditional societies is the responsibility of female producers, and focusing on technologies and techniques which can be used in the home. And INBAR has conducted research which focuses on structural barriers and drivers of gender change in tree-based and forested landscapes, as part of its partnership with FTA.

With more training, greater awareness, and the development of a vibrant bamboo and rattan economy, INBAR believes these plants can continue to create jobs, and independence, for women across our 44 Member states.


Originally published by INBAR. This article is based on a seminar on ‘Women, bamboo and rattan’ held at the Global Bamboo and Rattan Congress in June 2018, as well as interviews conducted by The Centre for Indian Bamboo Resource and Technology (CIBART) in India.

INBAR is a strategic partner of FTA, the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development and food security and to address climate change. FTA’s gender research contributes to the development of tools, approaches, and measures that can support young men and women’s capacities, interests, and opportunities in natural resource management. FTA’s work is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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  • Improving livelihoods, equity and forests through sustainable management of NTFPs

Improving livelihoods, equity and forests through sustainable management of NTFPs

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Drying the rinds of Garcinia indica, an NTFP prized in the pharmaceutical industry for its weight loss properties. Photo by E. Hermanowicz/Bioversity International

An estimated 1.6 billion people worldwide live in and around forests, and depend on them for their livelihoods. However, forest degradation and deforestation are accelerating, and endangering local livelihoods.

The careful management and conservation of biodiversity are fundamental for sustaining ecosystems and livelihoods but are increasingly difficult to achieve in contexts of persistent poverty, a growing international demand for timber and non-timber forest products (NTFP), and climate change.

Moreover, at the local level, decision-making power on management of forests and forest products, and the sharing of related costs and benefits are often inequitably distributed across groups, marginalizing people based on gender, caste, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other factors of social differentiation.

A new publication, Guidelines for Equitable and Sustainable Non-timber Forest Product Management, offers field-tested strategies and good practices on how to pursue the multiple goals of gender equality and social inclusion, environmental integrity, and livelihoods improvement through the sustainable use and management of non-timber forest products.

To address some of these challenges, many countries have adopted community-based or joint forest management approaches. It is increasingly recognized that gender equity and social inclusion are key components of effective and efficient forest management approaches, as well as a goal. Yet, they are also a complex challenge with deep-seated causes and effects, including poor governance, corruption, and lack of tangible and equally distributed benefits, all of which hinder sound forest management.

In their new publication, Guidelines for Equitable and Sustainable Non-timber Forest Product Management, Bioversity International scientists Riina Jalonen, Hugo Lamers, and Marlène Elias draw from their experience in two Indian districts – Mandla, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, and Uttara Kannada, in the state of Karnataka – to provide guidance on how to pursue the triple goals of gender equality and social inclusion, environmental integrity, and improved livelihoods through the sustainable use and management of NTFPs.

NTFPs are of foremost importance for rural communities living in or near forests. For example, the flower of the mahua tree (Madhuca longifolia), which is used to make a local alcohol or as an alternative to coffee in the Mandla district, or the rind of the kokum fruit (Garcinia gummi-guta) found in Uttara Kannada district, which is valued for its weight loss properties in the international pharmaceutical industry, bring important income to local households. Other NTFPs, like mangoes in the Uttara Kannada district, also play an integral role for home consumption and are important for the local food culture.

Read more: Bioversity International’s research on the sustainable use of forest diversity

A woman uses a stick to harvest an NTFP in Karnataka, India. Photo by E. Hermanowicz/Bioversity International

The set of six good practice guidelines address some of these issues through a focus on:

  1. Promoting collective sales of NTFPs
  2. Fostering gender equity and inclusion in joint forest management
  3. Achieving income generation and forest regeneration through the collection of ripe fruit
  4. Avoiding tree damage as a result of the collection of NTFPs
  5. Effective monitoring of forests to improve management
  6. Restoring degraded forest landscapes through planting of valuable trees.

For example, the guideline on gender equity and social inclusion in joint forest management (JFM) details how women’s participation can improve the efficiency of JFM and lead to more gender-equal outcomes. Yet, women face time, mobility, and information constraints, as well as norms that discriminate against them in public decision-making spaces. These have to be addressed to allow them to participate meaningfully in JFM, and to make their voices heard in decision-making.

Additional constraints can be found at the intersection of gender, age, and ethnicity or caste. In the study districts, participating in JFM meetings is considered a “man’s role”, and women often feel out of place there. They are not encouraged to express their opinions, despite the fact that they have a rich knowledge of the forest. This is especially the case for women from marginalized castes or tribes, who are most dependent on, and knowledgeable about, the forest, but also most discriminated against.

The guidelines propose strategies to promote women’s participation in JFM, such as scheduling meetings at times and in places convenient for women, creating women-only spaces where women can speak their minds freely to then have their opinions brought to the JFM table, improving the flows of information towards local women.

The practical strategies proposed in the guidelines can be used by facilitators working with communities to improve their livelihoods through the sustainable and equitable use and management of NTFPs. Practitioners can use the guidelines to design and conduct community meetings that can help participants identify practices that are fitting for their context. Questions are presented in the guidelines as the basis for group discussions, which can foster participants to find and implement collective solutions to improve the state of their forests and their livelihoods.

Read also: Guidelines for Equitable and Sustainable Non-timber Forest Product Management

By Giulia Micheletti and Marlène Elias, originally published by Bioversity International

For more information, contact [email protected]


The Guidelines for Equitable and Sustainable Non-Timber Forest Product Management were developed as part of the project ‘Innovations in Ecosystem Management and Conservation (IEMaC)’, supported by USAID India Mission, and are part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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  • Guidelines for equitable and sustainable non-timber forest product management

Guidelines for equitable and sustainable non-timber forest product management

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How can we improve local livelihoods while maintaining forest biodiversity and strengthening sustainable forest management in a socially inclusive and just manner? These guidelines present practical strategies and field examples for the inclusive and sustainable extraction, sale and management of forest products, particularly NTFPs. They build upon the framework of the Community Biodiversity Management approach in which three outcomes are sought; (1) community empowerment and social equity, (2) biodiversity conservation and (3) livelihood development (Sthapit et al. 2016). The guidelines draw upon data from the project: ‘Innovations in Ecosystem Management and Conservation’ carried out between 2014 and 2017 in districts of two Indian states: Mandla District in Madhya Pradesh and Uttara Kannada District in Karnataka.

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  • Approaches and tools for assessing mountain forest ecosystem services

Approaches and tools for assessing mountain forest ecosystem services

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Mountain forest ecosystems provide a wide range of direct and indirect contributions to the people who live in the mountains and surrounding areas. Occupying steep slopes at high elevation, these ecosystems provide services such as stabilizing slopes, regulating hydrological cycles, maintaining rich biodiversity and supporting the livelihoods of those who are diverse in culture but vulnerable to poverty and food security. This paper (i) reviews several tools for assessing the sociocultural, economic and ecological values of mountain forest ecosystem services, (ii) demonstrates case studies of tool applications from several countries namely, Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Iran and Nepal, and (iii) discusses assessment challenges that should be considered in the application of these tools.

In Bhutan, an application of benefit transfer showed that the average total value of forest ecosystem services was over USD 14.5 billion per year. In India, an application of stakeholder and household analyses indicated that a total of 29 different ecosystem services are available and sustain livelihoods of local communities near the Maguri Mottapung wetland. In Indonesia, an application of Q methodology identified anticipated benefits and concerns of forest watershed stakeholders related to certification applications for a payment for ecosystem services. In Iran, an application of the Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs Tool showed that the regulation of ecosystem services has been declining in Hyrcanian forests despite the forests’ critical roles in the region. In Nepal, an application of a spatial analytical approach and participatory assessment techniques identified key mountain ecosystem services for community forests at the Charnawolti sub-watershed of Dolakha, and demonstrated forest restoration on degraded lands over the last two decades. Several challenges exist for the assessment of mountain forest ecosystem services and these must be reflected in assessment design. These challenges include the complexity of defining and classifying ecosystem services; limited availability of data on ecosystem services; uncertainties associated with climate change; complex relationships among services including trade-offs and synergies; and limitation of assessments to build successful payments for ecosystem services.

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  • Gender equity and social inclusion in joint forest management: Lessons from two Indian states

Gender equity and social inclusion in joint forest management: Lessons from two Indian states

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This brief focuses on gender equity and social inclusion in India’s Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme; one of the first and largest initiatives for collaborative forest governance worldwide.

In JFM, the state, represented by the Forest Department (FD), and the village community share responsibilities and benefits of jointly protecting and managing forests adjoining villages. The agreement is operationalized through JFM Committees (JFMCs) – referred to as Village Forest Committees (VFCs) in some states – where elected community representatives and a FD official make forest-related decisions in a supposedly collaborative manner. In an effort to promote gender equity and social inclusion, seats are reserved on these committees for women and marginalized groups, such as Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Schedule Tribes (STs). Yet, despite reservations, the ability of these groups to actively engage in JFM processes remains limited.

The brief addresses two primary questions: 1) Do local people perceive JFM, as implemented in two Indian landscapes, as equitable and inclusive?; 2) How can gender equity and social inclusion be improved in India’s JFM Program? The research shows continued social exclusions from JFM processes on the basis of gender and ethnicity. Gender and ethnicity do not operate independently of each other to influence active participation in JFM. Participation is shaped at the intersection of gender and ethnicity, such that women and men from different ethnic groups have distinct experiences with JFM. These findings underscore the need to reframe the issue of ‘women’s participation’ to capture inequalities among women from different ethnic groups. Recommendations for enhancing gender equality and social inclusion in JFM are provided.

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  • Unpacking 'gender' in India's Joint Forest Management Program: lessons from two Indian states

Unpacking ‘gender’ in India’s Joint Forest Management Program: lessons from two Indian states

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India’s Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme is among the first and largest initiatives for collaborative forest governance worldwide. In JFM, the state, represented by the Forest Department (FD), and the village community share responsibilities and benefits of jointly protecting and managing forests adjoining villages. The agreement is operationalized through JFM Committees (JFMCs) – referred to as Village Forest Committees (VFCs) in some states – where elected community representatives and a FD official make forest-related decisions in a supposedly collaborative manner. In an effort to promote gender equity and social inclusion, seats are reserved on these committees for women and marginalized groups, such as Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Schedule Tribes (STs). Yet, despite reservations, the ability of these groups to actively engage in JFM processes remains limited.

This study addresses two primary questions: 1) Do local people perceive JFM, as implemented in two Indian landscapes, as equitable and inclusive?; 2) How can gender equity and social inclusion be improved in India’s JFM Program? Our research shows continued social exclusions from JFM processes on the basis of gender and ethnicity. Gender and ethnicity do not operate independently of each other to influence active participation in JFM. Participation is shaped at the intersection of gender and ethnicity, such that women and men from different ethnic groups have distinct experiences with JFM. Our findings underscore the need to reframe the issue of ‘women’s participation’ to capture inequalities among women from different ethnic groups. We conclude with recommendations for enhancing gender equality and social inclusion in JFM.

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  • Gender-responsive methodology for value chain development

Gender-responsive methodology for value chain development

Testing the 5Capitals-G methodology in India. Photo by Shrinivas Hegde
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Testing the 5Capitals-G methodology in India. Photo by Shrinivas Hegde

Over the past decade, value chain development has been widely promoted as a catalyst for rural economic growth.

As smallholder farmers become increasingly integrated into value chains, how can scholars and development practitioners ensure that the benefits of participation accrue equitably to both women and men? This was the topic of a workshop hosted by Bioversity International and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) at the recent Tropentag 2017 conference.

The workshop centered around insights resulting from the testing of 5Capitals-G, a gender-responsive methodology building on the 5Capitals toolkit for assessing the poverty impacts of value chain development. It addresses the principal gaps identified in existing guides for gender-equitable value chain development. These gaps include limited coverage of the way norms influence gender relations, gender-equitable opportunities in collective enterprises, and how value chain development can effectively transform inequitable gender relations.

For this reason, 5Capitals-G examines gender-differentiated asset endowments at the level of both smallholder households and the collective enterprises they are often linked with, and by identifying gender-based constraints shaped by cultural norms and values.

Read more: Piloting gender-responsive research tool 5Capitals-G in three countries

“We started with an overview of strengths and weaknesses of common guides for gender-equitable value chain development designed by international organizations” said Dietmar Stoian, Senior Scientist for Value Chains and Private Sector Engagement at Bioversity, and a coorganizer of the workshop.

“With these in mind, we presented findings from our recent validation of 5Capitals-G as to how women and men have access to, control, and build assets at household and collective enterprise level. Based on this, we can determine the extent to which asset endowments and asset building are gender equitable and adjust value chain interventions accordingly.”

Assessing the poverty impacts of value chain development

Addressing the principal gaps identified in existing guides for gender-equitable value chain development, Bioversity International and ICRAF have joined forces to strengthen the gender dimension of 5Capitals. This new version of the methodology allows for the establishment of gender-responsive baselines and the assessment of gender-differentiated impacts of value chain development among smallholders and other resource-poor groups involved in value chains.

“Two interrelated ideas underpin the design of 5Capitals-G: the poor’s access to assets is a critical entry point for their effective participation in value chains, and the poor’s capacity to build assets through value chain engagement can provide a viable pathway out of poverty,” explained Jason Donovan, Leader for Value Chains and Transformational Change at ICRAF.

5Capitals-G provides insight into what assets are available in households and collective enterprises, which of these are more controlled by men or women, and which are managed jointly. We are particularly interested in understanding positive feedback loops between asset building at household and asset building at enterprise level.”

Insights from Asia and Latin America

5Capitals-G has been tested across diverse settings in Guatemala, India and Peru, providing valuable insights for improving the design of the tool and guidance for the interpretation of results. These adjustments ensure that practioners will be able to count on a validated methodology for enhancing the design, implementation and assessment of gender-equitable value chain development initiatives.

Panelists at the workshop on gender equitable value chains held at Tropentag 2017 included Ana Maria Paez-Valencia (left to right), Trent Blare, Jason Donovan, Dietmar Stoian, Gennifer Meldrum and Hugo Lamers. Photo by Susan Onyango/ICRAF

Hugo Lamers, Associate Scientist in Socioeconomics and Marketing at Bioversity International, used the methodology in the value chains of non-timber forest products such as mango, murugulu (Garcinia indica) and uppage (Garcinia gummigatta) in Karnataka, India.

“Besides taking care of domestic activities, women contributed substantially to income generation through wage labour, farming and collection of forest products,” said Lamers. “We learned that the major bottleneck for women’s participation in local cooperatives is the rule of ‘one member per household’, resulting in a largely male-dominated member base of most cooperatives.”

Gennifer Meldrum, Research Fellow in Nutrition, Marketing and Diversity at Bioversity International, tested the methodology with local partners in millet value chains in Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh, India.

“The collective enterprise we studied has contributed to asset building across all the five capitals. Women’s participation in cooperative leadership and millet value chain activities are strongly encouraged by the Federation,” she said. “However, a male bias remains due to women’s limitations in terms of time and mobility. Physical assets households have acquired through value chain participation are very rarely controlled by women alone, but often benefit the household as a whole.”

Read more: Gender and forestry gain increasing attention worldwide

Further testing of 5Capitals-G was done in the cocoa value chain in Peru. “In addition to the important role women play in the production of cocoa, we were surprised to discover the strong influence they had in production and marketing decisions,” said Trent Blair, Markets and Value Chain Specialist at ICRAF.

“We realized that a stronger role of women in cocoa and other value chains in Peru is hampered by their limited access to information, technical assistance and training. This requires specific efforts for targeted value chain development interventions to ensure equitable capacity development.”

Interviewing smallholder households in Peru. Photo by Trent Blare/ICRAF

Stoian, together with local partners in Petén, Guatemala, tested 5Capitals-G in value chains of valuable woods including mahogany and tropical walnut, and non-timber forest products such as Chamaedorea palm and Maya nut (Brosimum alicastrum).

“We found evidence that under given conditions income derived from forest products can help people move out of poverty. In terms of reinvestment of forest-based income we learned that decision making at household level was rather equitable with regard to building human and social capitals, while investment decisions on natural, physical and financial capitals were more skewed toward men,” he shared.

“At the level of community forest enterprises, women have recently assumed stronger roles in production and decision making, particularly as regards non-timber forest products, but timber activities and related decisions continue to be largely a male domain.”

Implications for gender-equitable value chain development

“Gender dimensions of access to and control over assets and other resources have an important impact on the opportunities and constraints that women and men face when participating in value chain development initiatives,” said Ana María Paez Valencia, Gender Social Scientist at ICRAF, who moderated the workshop.

In synthesizing the discussion, she pointed out that differential access and control over assets has implications on women’s bargaining position within households to make strategic household and life decisions, as well as their ability to assume new roles or opportunities resulting from value chain initiatives.

“Looking forward, it would be interesting to use 5Capitals-G for insights into the impact of the gender asset gap on household livelihood outcomes in the context of value chain development; and to better understand the trade-offs between increased value chain engagement of women and the time they invest in other activities including those related to household care,” she added.

Outlook 

Participants at the workshop expressed interest in 5Capitals-G, which will be available in early 2018, along with the documented findings of the case studies. As Stoian and Donovan summarized at the end of the workshop: “5Capitals-G will be a key methodology for all practitioners interested in asset-based approaches to value chain development with a gender lens.”

By Susan Onyango, originally published at ICRAF’s Agroforestry World


This work was supported by the CGIAR Research Programs on Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM) and CGIAR Research Programs Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which are supported by CGIAR Fund Donors

Bioversity International and ICRAF thank Lutheran World Relief, Rainforest Alliance and USAID for funding this work. 

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  • Impact of biogas interventions on forest biomass and regeneration in southern India

Impact of biogas interventions on forest biomass and regeneration in southern India

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Abstract

Programs to provide alternative energy sources such as biogas improve indoor air quality and potentially reduce pressure on forests from fuelwood collection. This study tests whether biogas intervention is associated with higher forest biomass and forest regeneration in degraded forests in Chikkaballapur district in Southern India. Using propensity score matching, we find that forest plots in proximity to villages with biogas interventions (treatment) had greater forest biomass than comparable plots around villages without biogas (control). We also found significantly higher sapling abundance and diversity in treatment than control plots despite no significant difference in seedling abundances and diversity in treatment forests, suggesting that plants have a higher probability of reaching sapling stage. These results indicate the potential for alternative energy sources that reduce dependence on fuelwood to promote regeneration of degraded forests. However, forest regrowth is not uniform across treatments and is limited by soil nutrients and biased towards species that are light demanding, fire-resistant and can thrive in poor soil conditions.

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  • Gender responsive value chain development and the conservation of native fruit trees through an inclusive learning process: a case study in Western Ghats, India

Gender responsive value chain development and the conservation of native fruit trees through an inclusive learning process: a case study in Western Ghats, India

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Author: Lamers, H.; Hegde, N.; Hermanowicz, E.; Elias, M.

Bioversity International and LIFE Trust (a local NGO) conducted a sequence of participatory research activities in Kalagadde-Kanchigadde to improve incomes earned from forest resources and make in situ conservation activities more gender and socially inclusive.

Publisher: Bioversity International

Publication Year: 2017

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  • Gender relations in forestry: beyond a headcount

Gender relations in forestry: beyond a headcount

Photo by Tri Saputro/CIFOR.
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By Kate Evans, originally published on CIFOR’s Forest News

A Kichwa woman takes a rest from cutting down the forest. They are clearing an area to sow corn to feed their livestock near the Napo River in Orellana, Ecuador (Photo by Tomas Munita/CIFOR).
A Kichwa woman takes a rest from cutting down the forest. They are clearing an area to sow corn to feed their livestock near the Napo River in Orellana, Ecuador (Photo by Tomas Munita/CIFOR).

The land boundary dispute with the neighboring village had gone on for years.

But Aditi*, the 60-something female president of her local Forest Rights Committee, used skillful negotiation to convince the neighboring chief that both communities, including members of different indigenous groups, could work together to protect the forest, and continue to collect forest products there – resulting in a positive outcome for all.

This recent story, from the Indian state of Odisha, highlights the role women can play as ‘critical actors’ in defending and managing their forests, says Ph.D. candidate and gender researcher Priyanka Bhalla from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

“A lot of times when people talk about success stories they focus on the numbers – one third of the committee were women, etc. – but they forget about women as agents,” she says.

“I wanted to get away from the numbers, to change the language and say, women are positive agents, they are implementing positive processes and they have been doing so for a long period of time at many different scales.”

In a chapter of a new book on Gender and Forests published by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bhalla examines women’s participation in India’s forest tenure reform process in the state of Odisha, and the ways critical events and processes have influenced their involvement.

In 2006, following a nationwide mobilization demanding local rights over forests, India passed its Forest Rights Act. The new law legitimized the rights of tribal groups (and some other forest dwellers) to access and use ancestral forest lands, providing a framework for communities to govern these territories through village-based Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) and assemblies known as gram sabhas.

The Act came into force in 2008, and required that a third of FRC members be women, and that women make up at least half of assembly attendees.

BEYOND THE NUMBERS

Bhalla volunteered her time with an Odisha-based NGO called Vasundhara, and visited villages in four different districts, investigating how the FRA is being implemented on the ground.

The quota system isn’t enough to ensure women’s participation in decision-making, she discovered.

“Even though the committee is supposed to be comprised of a third women, most of the time there are one or two token female members, and they’re often individuals that don’t know anything about forest rights or indigenous rights.”

Higher caste women and wives of local authority figures tend to be over-represented, she says.

“You can’t assume that just by putting a woman on the committee that she is going to speak for all women – in fact, normally she doesn’t. If she’s a landowner, she’s not going to take into consideration the issues of landless women, for example.”

And in India’s predominantly patriarchal society, “there’s a community culture of women’s exclusion that’s been there for a really long time,” Bhalla says.

“Sometimes women aren’t informed about meeting times, they won’t know about the agenda of the meeting, or they’ll arrive and the meeting is already over, and the men just want their signature in the registration book.”

So in looking beyond the numbers, Bhalla focused her attention on “critical actors” and “critical acts” – that is, individual women like Aditi who had made an impact, and influential events that provide an opportunity for change to benefit women.

Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR.
Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR.

One of those acts occurred in 2012, when the FRA was amended to introduce specific guidelines for its implementation: how to properly constitute the Forest Rights Committees, how to do the process of land verification, and how to actually distribute the titles.

This amendment made a huge difference, Bhalla says, with many FRCs re-constituted, thereby increasing participation by women and indigenous groups.

“I went to a couple of different villages where people said again and again, ‘We had a committee from 2008, but we weren’t really sure what it was supposed to do – but then in 2012 it was explained to us how [the FRA] works and why it was done, and since then things have been better,’” Bhalla says.

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

The Vedanta Case was another ‘critical act’ in Odisha, according to Bhalla. Mining company Vedanta Resources wanted to develop an open-cast bauxite mine in the upper reaches of the Niyamgiri hills – an important wildlife habitat and sacred place for the Dongria Kondh indigenous group.

In 2010 the Ministry of Environment and Forests refused to approve the project. The company contested it in India’s Supreme Court – which in 2013 ordered that, under the Forests Rights Act, the decision had to be made by the Niyamgiri villagers themselves.

A series of gram sabhas (village assemblies) in 12 villages in 2013 made it clear that the people did not want the mine to go ahead – and the Supreme Court backed them.

“That was another turning point because it showed that this whole issue of consent can actually be taken seriously,” Bhalla says.

HANGING IN THE BALANCE

However, she’s concerned a new piece of Indian legislation threatens to undermine the recent gains for women and indigenous people.

The Compensatory Afforestation, Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) Bill, introduced in July 2016, could shift power back to the central government, Bhalla says.

“It’s basically in direct conflict with some of the content in the Forest Rights Act, in particular getting consent from local people through the forest committees,” she says.

“So it’s really problematic – let’s say a group has community rights in their village, but under this new bill, the Forests Department can waltz in and undertake planting projects wherever they want.”

“I’m worried about what is going to happen. Nobody knows yet what the scale of its consequences will be.”

* Disclaimer: To protect the identity of individuals, names has been changed.


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