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The global pledge to restore almost 125 million hectares of degraded forests and landscapes in response to the Bonn Challenge represents an opportunity to advance the triple goals of environmental conservation, poverty alleviation and gender equality. Many of these restoration effort concentrate on the small land patches managed by the world’s 1.6 billion smallholders — both women and men — who play a critical role in maintaining healthy ecosystems (Marjokorpi and Otsamo 2006). Yet, meaningfully engaging local people in restoration efforts in a way that safeguards their rights and advances their needs and interests remains a pressing challenge. What is more, women and marginalized groups are particularly susceptible to exclusion from decision-making and benefit sharing processes, as even in well-intentioned restoration initiatives, participation tends to be dominated by better resourced, educated, land-owning men from privileged socio cultural groups (Nederlof and Dangbegnon 2007). Initiatives that do not actively seek to protect the rights and promote the voices of marginalized groups may in fact reinforce social cleavages (McDermott 2008) and ultimately undermine the legitimacy and efficacy of restoration efforts.

There are many reasons for actively engaging with local women and men who contribute to, and are affected by, restoration initiatives. First and foremost, restoration initiatives often take place on lands claimed or utilized by communities, which may be considered ‘vacant’ or ‘underutilized’ by external actors and/or which may not be formally titled. If men are susceptible to losing their lands to restoration initiatives, rural women are all the more so, as their rights are especially tenuous due to legal and cultural barriers to women’s land rights and ownership (FAO 2005 and Elmhirst et al. 2017). Women’s (and poor men’s) insecure access to land and trees can also limit their ability and interest to plant or manage trees over which they may not have decision-making authority or long term access (Fortmann et al. 1997; Buyinza and Nabalegwa ). Hence, restoration efforts must begin with a careful understanding of local tenure regimes, seek to ensure the prior informed consent of all affected stakeholders (women and men alike), and offer compensation that local people consider as ‘fair’ and ‘just’ if and when restoration activities result in dispossession of land and livelihoods.

Second, engaging women and men across different social groups in restoration initiatives is important for gaining an understanding of local needs and interests, and to capitalize on the opportunity to learn about local knowledge of ecosystems and resource management institutions (Blay et al. 2007). Due to their socially constructed gender roles, women and men’s environmental knowledge and priorities for restoration often differ (Elias and Carney 2017). Ignoring women in restoration initiatives means overlooking the priorities and knowledge of half of the population. In contrast, publically recognizing women as land managers and ecological knowledge holders can enhance the recognition and social standing they hold within their communities.

Third, many restoration initiatives seek to promote both conservation and local livelihoods. If women are not involved in restoration decision-making processes, their ability to secure new livelihood opportunities through restoration will be curtailed. At the same time, lessons from past experiences suggest that restoration efforts that rely on women’s paid and unpaid contributions without due recognition inadvertently exacerbate women’s work burden and augment gender asymmetries.

Finally, equitable participation in restoration initiatives generates broader local buy-in and enhanced capacities, with improved prospects for both human and socioeconomic development and environmental outcomes (Covelli-Metcalf et al. 2015; Horlings 2015; Lescourret 2015). At the same time, easy win-wins cannot be assumed as restoration efforts that promote gender equality and/or address women’s interests may not always be the most ecologically sustainable option. Hence, harnessing synergies between gender equality and forest restoration requires careful analysis and planning, and empowering local women and men to leverage opportunities and negotiate change at multiple levels (see Mwangi et al. 2016).

Although gender issues are central to restoration, and there exist potential synergies between restoration and gender equality outcomes, gender remains poorly addressed in restoration research and practice (Clewell and Aronson 2013; Broeckhoeven and Cliquet 2015).

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