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Women’s hidden harvest: the AmaXhosa women and traditional culture survival practices 

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Imifino expert Mama Nonethile Fosanda examines a leaf in Cwebe Forest, South Africa. Photo by R. Vernooy

On the occasion of International Day of Rural Women, Dr. Katie Tavenner takes us on a visual journey to Hobeni village with the photobook Women’s hidden harvest: Indigenous vegetables and amaXhosa cultural survival in Hobeni Village, South Africa.

Published by Bioversity International, the book is based on Tavenner’s research on rural women’s struggles to protect their traditional knowledge and harvesting, culinary and spiritual practices attached to imifino, known locally as “women’s vegetables”, in a protected area near the Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Reserve.

Could you tell us how the idea for a photobook was born?

Ever since publishing my dissertation in 2016, I’ve wanted to tell the story of the AmaXhosa women’s struggle for cultural survival in a creative way, so that their experiences in protecting imifino could be more accessible. My research used a participatory photography approach, so telling the story through photographs that could bring the people and places of Hobeni to life seemed like a natural fit.

Read more: Women’s hidden harvest: Indigenous vegetables and amaXhosa cultural survival in Hobeni Village, South Africa

What is imifino, and what does it mean for the women you met?

Imifino is the IsiXhosa word used to describe green leafy vegetables that grow wild in forests, and in fallowed and cultivated fields. Considered weeds in many parts of the world, in Hobeni village imifino play an important nutritional role as a free and healthy food source. Imifino are special to women, who guard the traditional knowledge on plant identification, harvesting, and use in culinary traditions.

These plants also have importance in female cultural rites of passage. When young girls can independently collect imifino from the forest, they become women. Imifino knowledge and traditions came under threat when colonial and then apartheid authorities imposed a ban on harvesting natural resources from the nearby forest. Anyone caught harvesting inside the forest under the ban could be charged fines, taken to jail, and abused and harassed by park rangers. Remarkably, traditional imifino knowledge has endured through the stories, actions, and resistance of local women. 

You mention comanagement. Is it possible to protect these forest areas while acknowledging women’s traditions?

For more than a century, colonial and apartheid-era governments forcibly removed Hobeni residents from the forest in the name of ‘environmental protection’. The communities won a land claim battle over the forest in 2001 and a comanagement forestry agreement was signed. It has, however, not been implemented and recent attempts by the parks board and local community to enter into a comanagement agreement have not been successful due to disagreements and delays. A wire fence still surrounds the forest, and local people do not have secure access rights to resources, including a variety of forest foods. 

To protect the sociocultural heritage around imifino, there needs to be a shift in the conservationist thinking of authorities and equitable relations between them and the communities who use local natural resources must be established. Management should respect the AmaXhosa system of resource use and integrate women’s indigenous knowledge into forest management plans, because allowing forest harvesting can restore the full cycle of plant knowledge and use. The park rangers and local management I spoke with are ready and helpful, but leadership is needed at the national-level management system to legally uphold the prioritization of sociocultural traditions in environmental protection.  

What would you like for the readers of this book to be the most important take-away message?

Two imifino experts and lifelong friends, Nonethile Fosanda and Nothintsile Nyalambisa, walk alongside the Mbashe River in Hobeni village. Photo by K. Tavenner

Imifino are an important forest food resource for the Hobeni community that provides special connections between young and old women and their traditional AmaXhosa culture – connections that are in grave danger of being broken forever if access rights are not secured long-term.

Denied access to natural resources at the Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Reserve means grave cultural, economic, and spiritual losses for the Hobeni community. The erosion of women’s local ecological knowledge of forest foods has resulted in lower rates of consumption and availability for rituals and cultural practices.

As a cultural symbol of a girl’s journey to womanhood, a traditional culinary dish, and a nutritional resource, the continued use of imifino is critical to maintaining the system of indigenous knowledge bound to the resource. Now is the time to recognize women’s knowledge in the management of plant biodiversity to ensure this cycle endures. 

Read also: Restoration initiatives must consider how gender relations shape control over land

Are you hopeful for positive change for the women and girls in Hobeni village?

The cultural survival of the traditions surrounding imifino is now in the hands of a few dedicated and resilient elderly experts. However, there is not much time left: Immediate interventions supported by national-level conservation bodies and local NGOs are needed to ensure these cultural traditions and the associated knowledge system will not disappear forever. This book is a testament to Hobeni women’s and girls’ strength in keeping their traditions alive despite considerable challenges. These women will continue to actively protest and resist current management policies at great personal risk and fight laws that deny their cultural rights and responsibilities. It is my hope that this book spreads their message to a wider audience, and that their message is received and heeded by those in power. 

By Giulia Micheletti, Bioversity International.

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

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  • Restoration initiatives must consider how gender relations shape control over land

Restoration initiatives must consider how gender relations shape control over land

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A woman applies manure to a field to restore soil fertility in Nepal. Photo by M. Elias/Bioversity International

Marking International Day of Rural Women, Giulia Micheletti and Marlène Elias of Bioversity International discuss a framework for understanding how forest landscape restoration can promote gender equality.

It does so by safeguarding and advancing women’s land rights, encouraging their meaningful participation, and recognizing their expertise and priorities in restoration activities.

For many rural women, fulfilling everyday responsibilities such as agricultural production and home gardening, as well as collection of fodder, fuelwood, water and forest products have become more difficult due to environmental degradation. This adds to women’s heavy labor burdens, for example as they have to venture farther from home to gather these products.

Read more: Gender matters in Forest Landscape Restoration: A framework for design and evaluation

Yet, while the need to restore degraded lands and landscapes is pressing and gaining global attention, restoration initiatives often overlook rural women. As rural men typically have more public authority than women and are considered heads of their households, interventions that work with rural communities tend to favor them when it comes to choosing the areas and species to restore. In fact, gender inequality is an important but under-appreciated factor hindering restoration and the fair distribution of benefits from the process.   

A new framework to promote socially just and equitable interventions in forest landscape restoration has been published by gender researchers from Bioversity International, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), and the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF). Developed within the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), the framework explains that restoration initiatives must consider how gender relations shape access to and control over land and its use, and how changes in land use that may result from restoration can disadvantage women if their rights to resources, priorities, and contributions of labour and knowledge are overlooked. 

Read also: What do gender norms, innovation and trees have to do with each other?

Forest landscape restoration

Forest landscape restoration aims to regain the ecological integrity of deforested and degraded lands while simultaneously improving the wellbeing of forest-dependent communities. A critical issue in forest landscape restoration is safeguarding communities’ rights and access to their lands. On the one hand, community members with informal or insecure land rights can lose access to lands claimed under restoration initiatives. Adequate safeguards, grievance mechanisms and fair compensation must be in place to mitigate against such risks. 

On the other hand, if carried out in an inclusive way, forest landscape restoration can be a vehicle for strengthening the rights of marginalized groups. In this way, it can help reduce inequalities based on gender or other factors of social differentiation.

A woman walks toward the village of Gangarampur, Khulna, Bangladesh. Photo by D. Chandrabalan/Bioversity International

Everyone’s needs count

Different members of communities inhabiting the areas to be restored often have different views on degradation, priorities for the type of vegetation or density to be restored, approaches used to restore them and the kinds of benefits they want to gain from the restored lands. For example, women and men from different socioeconomic, generational and ethnic groups may have distinct preferences for plants with medicinal or nutritional properties, or for those that provide mulch, food, fodder or income.

The local ecological knowledge and expertise of these different community members needs to be recognized, and their active participation in decisions fostered to ensure that they benefit equally from restoration initiatives.

Read also: Improving livelihoods, equity and forests through sustainable management of NTFPs

As women and men have different capacities (assets, time, knowledge and so on) to participate in these initiatives, different measures are needed to encourage their participation. For example, community meetings should be scheduled at times and in places that are easy for women to reach and allow them to complete their chores and take care of the children, and participate. Strengthening women’s capacities to voice their interests in public forums and challenging norms that limit their influence in community affairs are also required to foster their active participation.

Benefits from forest landscape restoration can range from income-generating opportunities, improved ecosystem services, enhanced knowledge and skills on farming or resource management techniques to security of tenure. Forest landscape restoration initiatives must recognize how gender differences affect the capacities of both women and men to access these benefits and place both genders on an equal playing field to improve the livelihoods of all. 

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


Basnett, B.S., Elias, M., Ihalainen, M. and Paez Valencia, A.M. 2017. Gender matters in Forest Landscape Restoration: A framework for design and evaluation, CIFOR Report, Center for International Forestry Research, Bogor.

Vira, B., Wildburger, C. and Mansourian, S. (Eds.) 2015. Forests, Trees and Landscapes for Food Security and Nutrition. A Global Assessment Report, IUFRO World Series 33, IUFRO, Vienna.

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

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  • Rural women across the globe: Linking livelihoods and landscapes

Rural women across the globe: Linking livelihoods and landscapes

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FTA communications

By Leona Liu, originally published at Forests News

To celebrate the UN International Day of Rural Women, CIFOR's Gender Coordinator Dr. Bimbika Sijapati Basnett shares her views on the progress and the challenges for women living and working in rural areas.
To celebrate the UN International Day of Rural Women, CIFOR’s Gender Coordinator Dr. Bimbika Sijapati Basnett shares her views on the progress and the challenges for women living and working in rural areas.

We need to care about rural women.

For one, they comprise a quarter of the world’s population. In developing countries, they make up almost half of the agricultural labor force, and are responsible for producing and preparing food for their families. They are the lynchpin of global food security.

With 76 per cent of the world’s extreme poor living in rural areas, ensuring rural women’s access to productive agricultural resources is vital for mitigating hunger and poverty.

But rural women are not just conduits critical to the success of the new Sustainable Development agenda for 2030, says Dr. Bimbika Sijapati Basnett, Gender Coordinator at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Gender equality is a goal in its own right.

CIFOR promotes a rights-based approach to gender equality, which is based on the premise that assuring the well being of all humanity is a moral and ethical imperative. This framework differs from the instrumentalist argument, which asserts that women’s empowerment will lead to better economic, environmental or social outcomes. A rights-based argument does not ignore women’s contributions to promoting development and conservation, however, it does not make the granting of rights contingent on how effectively women contribute to the latter.

“Rural women contribute immensely to their households, to their communities and to their landscapes,” says Sijapati Basnett. “But this day goes beyond acknowledging their contributions. It’s a day to simply celebrate them.”


Drawing upon her research for CIFOR, Sijapati Basnett describes the transformation of gender dynamics she has observed in rural areas.

The gender shift in labor roles is particularly visible along the charcoal value chain in rural Zambia. The country’s largely undocumented charcoal trade is huge. Estimated to contribute three percent to the national GDP, the sector informally employs half a million people- including women.

Charcoal production is an energy-sapping, rigorous process. Its production requires a slew of labor-intensive tasks from tree cutting to moving logs across long distances to the building of kilns. For this reason, charcoal production has traditionally been a male-dominated trade. However, in Zambia’s eastern province of Nyimba, new players are entering the game.

27-year-old Mabvuto Zulu (pictured above left and heard speaking) is a charcoal producer in Zuwalinyenga village. A mother of two, she has been in the charcoal business for four years now. Mabvuto and the women of Zuwalinyenga village are no longer restricted to carrying out the lighter tasks that they have done for years like selling bags of charcoal by the roadside; instead they are performing physically-demanding tasks previously only undertaken by men like transporting heavy logs to build the kilns.

(Audio translation in English from Nsenga): “It is very tough. This job is supposed to be for men because of the physical labor involved. But women are now supporting the men to earn a living.”


A major concern for gender scientists and researchers is that rural women are not always compensated for the extra labor they put in.

Rural women are often concentrated in informal, unregulated sectors like charcoal production in Zambia and oil palm in Indonesia. Because of this, they are not entitled to the formal benefits and higher wages that come with regulated jobs.

In Ecuador’s Amazon provinces of Orellana and Napo, recent CIFOR research has turned an old gender stereotype on its head. The study found that the indigenous Kichwa women don’t just work in the home and the orchard – instead, they go to the forest with their husbands to help harvest timber.

Maricela Tapuy (pictured above left and heard speaking) is one of these women. Because of the high cost of labor in Ecuador, she helps her husband with the logging, rather than hiring outside help. Even though this increases her family’s income, Marciela still needs to tend to her domestic duties as a wife and mother, which leaves her exhausted.

(Audio translation in English from Spanish): “I follow my husband to the forest to save on the work. When I’m busy, I stay at home. But if I’m free, I always go and help. The way we help is to paint [guiding lines on the logs], to gather logs, anything we can do to help. If we hire a worker, we will have to pay them. And if we pay, we can’t make a profit. That’s why we women help out. This way we make money for ourselves. As women here, we work in the home, washing clothes, looking after the children, we women have quite a lot of work. It’s not small thing! Double the work! We cook as well, and it just continues like that.”


Besides contributing economically, women also play an important role in protecting their environment. CIFOR research has shown that when women are included in conservation efforts, the outcomes are more favorable.

However, policymakers and development agencies need to take into account the increased workload necessary to implement conservation projects and make sure that women share the benefits.

Ilah (pictured lower left and heard speaking) is a rice farmer in West Java. She farms on the slopes of the volcano Gunung Salak in Indonesia, where women traditionally practice swidden agriculture- growing rice, maize and cassava in the rich volcanic soil. Swidden is a farming system in which land is cleared for agriculture (normally through fire) and then left to regenerate after a few years. Increases in population, commodification of land and expansion of large-scale agriculture are all putting pressure on traditional swidden agricultural practices. With the help of CIFOR researchers, Ilah is now practicing agroforestry- a practice that integrates trees into agricultural landscapes. Ilah is keen to do anything she can to protect the land that feeds her family.

(Audio translation to English from Bahasa): “The most important thing is to take care of the forest. Because besides protecting us, it also provides us with water.”

Rural women are the trusted tenants of our land- planting the seeds that shape our collective future.  

For more information on this topic, please contact Bimbika Sijapati-Basnett at b.basnett@cgiar.org.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
This article was produced with the financial assistance of DFID KNOW-FOR
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Shedding light on opportunities and challenges for rural women

In Nepal, women are participating more in decisions related to changes in the landscapes that they live in. Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT
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imgresOn the occasion of the International Day of Rural Women, Bimbika Sijapati Basnett, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) reflects on her research and the situation of rural women in times of climate change and sustainable development.

Rural women across forest and tree landscapes make critical contributions to their households, communities and the landscapes in which they live. But often their contributions are not really recognized because they are confined to informal sectors, concentrated in low-value areas, and are unpaid.

The day of rural women is important because it is an opportunity to draw attention to women’s contributions, celebrate them. And to shed light on the advances that have been made in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment (Sustainable Development Goal 5), and highlight the work that remains.

Rural landscapes across the countries where we’re working are changing rapidly due to wide range of factors such as

  • expansion of markets,
  • migration and mobility,
  • expansion of agriculture in forested landscapes,
  • introduction of a wide range of interventions in the name of conservation or development.

These changes present both opportunities and challenges for rural women and girls in various contexts in which we locate our research.

A woman unloading charcoal from river boats in Africa. Photo by Jolien Schure for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
A woman unloading charcoal from river boats in Africa. Photo by Jolien Schure for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

For instance, our research on charcoal value chains in Zambia is finding that women are challenging pre-existing gender restrictions to where they can go, what they can sell, and what they can do with their earnings. These women are participating in more lucrative areas that were previously reserved for men; earning more than they did previously. Their contributions are being recognized at the household level and this in turn, is influencing their position and bargaining power at the home.

Our research on women’s participation in forest governance in Uganda, Nicaragua and Nepal, for instance, shows that women are participating more in decisions related to changes in the landscapes that they live in and depend on to earn their livelihood. And this is impacting on how benefits are distributed and whether forest and tree resources are sustainably managed.

A combination of factors are playing a role in these changes for women, for example relaxing of traditionally fixed gender relations at the household and community levels, policy interventions aimed at promoting women, and favorable market conditions for women’s enterprise.

In Nepal, women are participating more in decisions related to changes in the landscapes that they live in. Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT
In Nepal, women are participating more in decisions related to changes in the landscapes that they live in. Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT

But we are also finding that many of these interventions are designed and implemented at levels that are beyond women’s reach. Women often have little voice and influence on negotiations over conversion of land. The risks posed by a changing climate are unknown and still unfolding. And it is questionable whether and how women’s collective and individual capabilities can respond to these risks and adapt to these changes.

As a consequence, existing gender inequalities are being exacerbated, women’s voices are getting further restricted, women’s burden in caring for others is increasing, and their capabilities are diminishing.

Our research is aimed at documenting how these changes are impacting on different categories of women and girls in rural areas, and how different alternatives can be realized by fostering greater gender equality and empowering women. We are leveraging our research findings to inform governments, donors, non-governmental organization and women’s movements on the role they can play in carving transformative pathways.

In this process, we are partnering with a wide range of influential organizations at the local, national and global levels to undertake research on pressing gender issues as they unfold, and to ensure that the findings of our research translate into action and bring about change that advances the goals of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

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