Decision-making mechanisms solely based on externally determined rules could make meaningful involvement of women and marginalized groups difficult.
Paving the way for increased and more meaningful participation of women and marginalized groups in managing forests is a requisite investment in achieving more cohesive and efficient resources governance in the Republic of the Congo. The way that forests are successfully managed depends on the capacity of men and women to come together and collaborate.
Furthermore, both men and women have a right to engage in the public arena, either directly or through legitimate representatives. This is a fundamental aspect of good governance.
Another aspect is the right to be fully informed and organized, including the right to voice their concerns for the best interests of their society in any process that will eventually affect them, their clans and communities. The capacity for men and women to actively take part in the public affairs of their communities is thus essential to achieve cohesion and successful resources management outcomes.
What sparked my interest to examine the level of inclusiveness in decision-making mechanisms in a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified and a non-certified forest management unit (UFA) in the north of the Republic of the Congo — research that was supported by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) — was to understand if externally induced rules of forest governance like the FSC standard had led to meaningful and effective participation of women and marginalized groups at the village level.
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However, at the time of the study, requirements for gender equality and equity did not exist in the FSC standards. Therefore, it is important to note that this study is not simply a box-ticking exercise. Instead, our research focused on examining forest management decision-making mechanisms in four villages, and the perceived barriers to women’s participation in decision-making.
For several weeks, we conducted field focus group discussions and interviews in four villages within the two distinct UFAs of Pokola and Tala-Tala, in Sangha department, in the north of the Republic of the Congo.
WHAT DID WE FIND?
Our first finding was that women and the Baka people are underrepresented in forest-related decision-making processes.
This has a significant impact on their capacity to voice their concerns and preferences, as well as to develop self-confidence and public speaking skills. Secondly, even when they are represented through a representative or a leader, their voices don’t always count. It counts when there are internally driven participation mechanisms in which women and the Baka people hold a critical or strategic role within their community.
Also, findings revealed that women and men of the villages in the non-certified UFA are actively engaged in local groups and internal decision-making mechanisms.
“Women are often too busy with domestic chores to attend our meetings, and even when they attend, they do not speak up,” said the Council President of Ouésso.
By contrast, the villages of the certified UFA are characterized by externally-induced processes monopolized by Bantu men, social and ethnic conflict, lack of collective action and cultural norms that are difficult to challenge.
Our research suggested that an internally driven community group system, with members who share a common goal of sustainable development, forest management or another interest, can be a successful engine for cohesion and collective action that is necessary for certification.
Increasing women’s representation in forest management committees alone may not be sufficient to encourage full and influential female participation, since such a positive discriminatory instrument does not directly address deeply entrenched circumstances, attitudes or psychological barriers to participation.
Also, quotas do not guarantee that elected women will effectively promote other women’s interests, and it is unclear what the common benefit might be without a strong women’s movement as witnessed in the villages of the non-certified UFA.
SCALING-UP INITIATIVES VIA A MULTI-LEVEL APPROACH
If equity and inclusiveness can be improved through the way that forests are managed, it is important to understand that men, women, boys and girls experience forests and resources differently depending on their background.
Ask yourself about your own identity. No individual can be defined by his or her gender alone — one must also consider his or her ethnic background, education, age, marital status, social status, job, etc. All these diverse factors of one’s identity affect who one is and his or her relationships with others. This is why the best approach to capture the unique experience of men, women, boys and girls in forest societies should be multidimensional.
At the policy level, this means addressing the internal and external barriers faced by women and marginalized groups, as well as their capacity for agency. This would require a multi-level approach, encouraging the development of internally driven initiatives to challenge the established barriers to meet the needs of externally driven forest management processes.
This way, endogeneity is maximized to meet the exogenous needs of the FSC mechanisms. Such initiatives could enhance the collective and individual capacity for participation, cooperation and eventually leadership by providing a safe interface for women to gain experience before taking on more active roles in externally driven mixed-gender groups like the Local Development Fund and other committees.
Additionally, creating or reinforcing the establishment of collaborative initiatives, such as women’s associations, self-help groups or cooperatives that value women’s skills and experiences (i.e. handicrafts, backyard poultry, local forest products, etc.), could be an effective way to foster a sense of ownership and collective efforts as demonstrated by our recent study.
Investing in participation is a necessary step to achieving global gender equality and the democratic governance of forests.
Further research is required to consider the evolution of the status of women and marginalized groups prior to and after certification. Questions regarding the need for endogenous approaches to increase participation are likely to arise in the future.
Powerful standards like the FSC, which have already achieved great social advancement, will need a robust and enhanced approach toward learning about the gender and diversity aspects and needs of forest certification.
Such developments imply a potentially important role for gender-related commitments across the FSC policies, standards and criteria, as well as in the Congolese forest sector, particularly since the national government has pledged its commitment to international gender-related standards and regulations.
By Eulalie Guillaume, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News.
For more information on this topic, please contact Eulalie Guillaume at firstname.lastname@example.org or Esther Mwangi at email@example.com.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. We would like to thank all donors who supported this work through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.
This research was supported by the Department for International Development (DFID).