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Woman on a mission: Pushing for rights and a seat at the decision-making table

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A woman plants gnetum in Lekié, Cameroon. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR
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A woman plants gnetum in Lekié, Cameroon. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Rural women face a range of challenges across the environmental sector, including in forestry and agriculture. This has motivated the African Women’s Network for Community Management of Forests (REFACOF) to improve the situation by securing women’s tenure rights to land and forests.

Ahead of International Women’s Day, the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry’s (FTA) Gender Research Coordinator Marlène Elias sat down with REFACOF President Cécile Ndjebet to discuss the network’s successes and challenges, as well as her views on the role of FTA research in supporting transformative change for REFACOF members, their communities, and their environments.

Elias and Ndjebet spoke on the sidelines of the recent ‘Working across Sectors to Halt Deforestation and Increase Forest Area – from Aspiration to Action’ conference, organized by the Collaborative Partnership on Forests on Feb. 20-22, 2018. FTA supported the coordination of 10 of the total 16 thematic sessions at the conference, including leading the organization of a session on stakeholders, for which Ndjebet was a panelist, and co-organizing a session on science and research.

Cameroon-based Ndjebet is an agronomist and social forester who has been involved for many years in gender mainstreaming and advocating for women’s rights. She coordinates REFACOF – which was created in 2009 with 10 countries, and now covers 17 across Central Africa, West Africa and Madagascar – in the push for greater consideration of women’s activities and in aiming to influence policies and practices for greater gender equality.

Read more: FTA at CPF international conference

Watch: Cecile Ndjebet mobilizes mangrove restoration project on Cameroon coast

What does your network aim to achieve for the environment and for women’s lives?

Women’s lives and humanity depend on the quality of our environment. In our network, we aim to improve the environment as a whole, but we also think we should contribute to climate change mitigation, so we address climate change issues and try to improve the livelihoods of communities.

We want to improve the quality of the environment through activities in the field, on the ground, through the enabling environment, policies and legal arrangements, and with the development of livelihood activities. If we aim at improving the environment so we can address climate change, we need to contribute to decreasing deforestation and forest degradation but we also need to improve our agricultural practices and techniques. Of course, we also need to work with other actors to combine our efforts and tools.

A rural landscape is pictured on the outskirts of Yaounde, Cameroon. Photo by Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR

For example, women in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana or the Gambia are very much engaged in tree planting. They are working to improve the forest area, the forest surface, mangroves; they are involved in sustainable agricultural practices; they are also involved in education, information sharing and training among themselves.

Those who have more expertise in particular areas or issues train others. They also mobilize communities in general (men, women and youth) to increase consideration and awareness of the issues of climate change.

Read more: Women left on sidelines of decisions about forest management

What challenges have you confronted and what have been your successes?

Let me start with successes. The first one is having women on board – making sure women participate physically where decision-making occurs. We have started in a few countries, especially in REDD+ processes, to understand that if women are absent, things will fall on them. So we organize women at the very local level, subnational and national level to take part in REDD+ processes in some countries. We have realized that when women are part of decision-making processes they can really have a voice. They can voice their issues, and advocate and lobby to have their issues taken into account.

We have succeeded in influencing the way things are done. Now in the countries where we are, even the government knows that REFACOF said: “we need at least 30 percent women – please make sure women are on board”. You can see it in REDD+ documents like Readiness Preparation Proposals, national strategy documents, emission reduction documents. This is something we are really proud of and have to encourage: having women on board during decisions, planning, and implementation.

A market gardener is pictured near Lake Bam in Burkina Faso. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

I would also like to share what we are doing with traditional chiefs and parliamentarians. To contribute to reforms in some countries, we needed to build strategic alliances. We understood that the challenges women are facing are not always because of a lack of policies or bad policies. Sometimes policies are neutral: they do not themselves exclude women. We do need more specific women-oriented policies, but the problem also lies in the practices, and these are linked to our cultural behavior.

So we understood this and realized that it was very important for us to work with traditional chiefs. We have started showing them where problems lie with customary law and where it is important for them to bring changes, because if women have secure access to land and to forests and forest resources, this will bring more value to all they are doing, and it is families and society that will benefit from that.

Then, we participated in forest and land reform processes. Of course, nothing is completely done, but at least we have succeeded in working with parliamentarians. When we submitted our advocacy document, we asked them to support it because the parliament is a key body in our country – drafting laws and making sure the law has a meaning for us. We have succeeded in doing that. Building on strategic alliances is key for women to achieve the change we are aiming at.

But we have challenges. The first one is insecure tenure, and the second one is funding. Women are doing a lot with so little and even that little is difficult to have and to mobilize. Women need resources to get more engaged, to improve our environment, to address climate change – and that is really lacking.

Also, when policies are neutral, most of the time women are left out at the time of implementation. So we have to work for gender-responsive policies and legal regulations to have ‘men and women’ clearly stated in the policy. If we only say ‘all Cameroonians, all citizens’, with our traditional way of doing things the women will be left behind. But if the policy says men and women, we only have to sensitize our male partners to this – and ask where the women are. It makes it less complex.

Read more: ACM levels the playing field for women and men in forest-adjacent communities

What role can FTA research play in supporting REFACOF and efforts to improve women’s lives and the environment?

Children collect bananas in Cameroon. Photo by Terry Sunderland/CIFOR

I have a lot of expectations from researchers. Research should work to document what women are doing and share it worldwide. Our actions are local, but the impact is very high. If we put all the actions together, the impact is huge. If I have 200 women’s associations and each one restores 1 hectare of forest, we are at 200 hectares.

We need research to look at the social aspects of reforestation and the role of rural women: How can we document and value that role and what are the rewards? I would be very happy to see rural women recognized very openly at this type of conference, and that their role in addressing climate change in a specific area is recognized.

I went to Guatemala and met members of women’s associations and networks there. When I was talking with those rural women, I realized that whether African, Asian or Latin American, women are the same. They are facing the same challenges, the same problems. So how can we make it possible for them to share what they are experiencing across countries, across regions? Research can document, value and promote these experiences — and share worldwide. We need research to understand the why and the how of women’s involvement in environmental protection activities.

We also need research to help women technically, to succeed with what they are doing. When they plant trees, sometimes the survival rate is very low because of the techniques and tree species they are using. Research could look at how to improve the techniques and materials to ease women’s work.

Something very important is linking women at local, national, regional and global levels. Women’s situations are improving because we have networks like REFACOF and others in our regions. REFACOF is aiming at having a rural women’s platform that can take the lead on activities or concerns or issues at this type of forum. Not only talking on their behalf, but REFACOF can build women’s capacities in leadership, negotiation and advocacy so they can bring their issues to the highest level possible, at global level debates.

We are looking forward to the implementation of the newly adopted UN Strategic Plan for Forests (2017-2030), and hoping that rural women will have a place and a share in the implementation of the work program that will be developed.

Read more: Gender equality and social inclusion

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.


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Gender relations in forestry: beyond a headcount

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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.


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.


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.


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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  • An integrative research framework for enabling transformative adaptation

An integrative research framework for enabling transformative adaptation

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Authors: Colloff, M.J.; Martín-López, B.; Lavorel, S.; Locatelli, B.; Gorddard, R.; Longaretti, P-Y.; Walters, G.; van Kerkhoff, L.; Wyborn, C.; Coreau, A.; Wise, R.M.; Dunlop, M.; Degeorges, P.; Grantham, H.; Overton, I.C.; Williams, R.D.; Doherty, M.D.; Capon, T.; Sanderson, T.; Murphy, H.T.

Transformative adaptation will be increasingly important to effectively address the impacts of climate change and other global drivers on social-ecological systems. Enabling transformative adaptation requires new ways to evaluate and adaptively manage trade-offs between maintaining desirable aspects of current social-ecological systems and adapting to major biophysical changes to those systems. We outline such an approach, based on three elements developed by the Transformative Adaptation Research Alliance (TARA): (1) the benefits of adaptation services; that sub-set of ecosystem services that help people adapt to environmental change; (2) The values-rules-knowledge perspective (vrk) for identifying those aspects of societal decision-making contexts that enable or constrain adaptation and (3) the adaptation pathways approach for implementing adaptation, that builds on and integrates adaptation services and the vrk perspective. Together, these elements provide a future-oriented approach to evaluation and use of ecosystem services, a dynamic, grounded understanding of governance and decision-making and a logical, sequential approach that connects decisions over time. The TARA approach represents a means for achieving changes in institutions and governance needed to support transformative adaptation.

Pages: 10p.

Publication Year: 2016

ISSN: 1462-9011

Source: Environmental Science and Policy

DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2016.11.007

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