Make researchers aware of local knowledge: Bioversity project on gender-sensitive forest management

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Shea fruit growing on shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa), which shea butter is produced, in the savanna of Burkina Faso.Photo: Daniel Tiveau/CIFOR

Bioversity International‘s project Innovation in ecosystem management and conservation (IEMaC) takes place in two sites in India: the Uttara Kannada district (Sirsi) in Karnataka and in the Mandla district in Madya Pradesh. The project runs over three years and consists of three areas of work:

  • Innovations in fuel wood management
  • sustainable Non-Timber Forest Product (NTFP) extraction and gender-sensitive forest management
  • sustainable NTFP value chains.

In this interview, researcher Marlène Elias, explains the benefits and the challenges of the project – and talks about her passion for the shea tree.


What can this project achieve?

I hope it can achieve quite a lot in terms of involving women of different backgrounds more in making decisions on the management of forests and forest resources. By engaging directly with those actors, among others, we are building on their existing ecological knowledge while exposing them to other local knowledge that exists in their communities. And they also have to take in the information that comes from the interaction with the researchers.

We will also have outreach activities to discuss sustainable forest management, based on the research results, in the different villages where we are working. By making sure that a diverse range of local actors participate in those events, we hope to strengthen local capacities and also motivations to sustainably manage forests.

When people are involved in this kind of initiative and feel that their voices are heard and respected, it can enhance their motivation to adopt what those initiatives are promoting, in this case sustainable forest management. They feel like their role as important stakeholders on that issue is validated.

How has this project emerged from previous research?

Bioversity has been working with our partners in one of the two sites for five years, and most recently through the Gender Research Fellowship Programme we organized with the support of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. We worked with one Gender Fellow, Narasimha Hegde, in that site (Sirsi, in the State of Karnataka) to introduce the approach that we are also applying in the current project: the use of a number of participatory tools, working with gender- and age-segregated groups.

The Gender Fellowship work in that site demonstrated that different age and gender groups have different priorities and different forms of knowledge on the forest and its resources. We are building on those findings and on our past experience using a set of participatory tools to inform and fine-tune our research methodology.

From the first project we were also able to identify key value chains that hold potential for enhancing women’s income. So, for example, one women’s group that was formed as a result of the project is now marketing kokum (Garcinia indica), an NTFP. And we are still working with Narasimha, the Gender Fellow, who will now have the opportunity to scale up the approach to the 25 villages in that site.

What challenges have you faced, and how have you overcome them?

As we’re scaling up and working with new partners, we realize that facilitation can be a big challenge, especially for researchers who don’t have a lot of experience with participatory tools. Facilitators sometimes have a tendency to either steer participants towards a specific response or to not dig deep enough because they assume that they already know the answer, rather than really explore an issue with participants.

So I would say one challenge is to help the research teams gain capacity in using those participatory tools and working with groups thy are not used to. They have to recognize that those tools are meant to elicit people’s perceptions of reality, their local knowledge, and to support a process of social learning. This means that researchers need to give participants their full attention and listen to them as experts in the issue they want to explore from a local perspective. Researchers often don’t realize how much knowledge local men and women hold.

What is your background? How did you get to be where you are today?

I studied Biology and Environmental Sciences as an undergraduate, with a focus on forest ecology, but at the end of my Bsc I realized that conservation is first and foremost a political issue, and that I was actually most interested in the interaction between humans and their environment. So for my Master’s degree, I searched for supervisors whose work was interesting to me, without a fixed idea of what department I wanted to be in. It just so happened that all of those supervisors were in Geography departments, so I was naturally oriented towards Geography, and I started my graduate studies in that discipline.

I studied women’s shea butter production in Burkina Faso and agroforestry systems. I was interested in livelihoods rather than gender per se, but I understood rapidly that gender is a critical aspect, shaping how people organize their livelihoods and the opportunities that women and men have in life, so gender took on an important role in my study.

After my Masters, I took a few years off and worked for the Environmental Department of the city of Laval in Canada. I then decided to do my PhD and found myself back in West Africa working again on gender, agroforestry, fair trade and shea butter. I considered myself a geographer rather than a gender expert, but gender issues were central to everything I wrote about. You really can’t study livelihoods and socio-ecological systems in Burkina Faso without considering the relevance of gender.

When I later worked for the Division for Gender Equality at UNESCO, I recognized both that some gender issues are global and others depend on a specific context. This experience for me reinforced the global relevance of gender in nearly every aspect of people’s life, really, including in forest management.

If you were a tree, which tree would you be? Why?

I have a soft spot for the shea tree, partly because I’ve developed a close relationship with it over the years. I would be a shea tree because it’s so multi-purpose. Women and men and children respect the tree because it provides so much for them. It’s an essential part of their livelihoods and ecosystems; it provides shade, its roots preserve the soil, its fruits are eaten, its leaves, bark and latex are used for medicinal purposes, and its butter is used for income and consumption and cultural purposes. A lot of trees are multi-purpose, but because the climate where the shea tree grows is relatively dry, people rely a lot on this one species as compared to in the humid tropics, where there’s a lot more diversity and people can rely on many more species.

Plus shea has a close association with women, since they are mainly the ones to collect, process and sell its nuts, fruit and butter. It’s one of the few sources of income under their control in Burkina Faso so shea butter is sometimes called ‘women’s gold’. It’s a very cool tree.




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