Nicaragua study offers hard lessons for inclusion of women in forest decision-making

Those working for gender equality face tough decisions when working with communities.
CIFOR scientist Anne Larson on gender in Nicaragua: “changes have to happen slowly, and they have to happen in a very sensitive fashion.”

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BOGOR, Indonesia—For climate change mitigation initiatives such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+), which aim to work directly with local communities, increasing the participation of women in adaptive collaborative management (ACM) methods is a central goal.

But integrating women into forest management and climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies requires more than just simple on-site training. A slew of challenges—governmental, economic, and social—await researchers and scientists attempting to push their goals too far and too fast, according to one expert.

“You can’t start having women try to take on larger public roles without addressing how men and women interact in those communities, in their households, and in more fundamental ways,” said Anne Larson, CIFOR scientist, co-author of Gender, Tenure, and Community Forests in Nicaragua, and speaker at the upcoming Global Landscapes Forum.

Ahead of her participation in a discussion forum on gender and resilience across the landscape, Larson met with CIFOR’s Forests News to reflect on lessons learned from conducting gender and tenure research using ACM methods in forest-dependent communities. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.

Question: What was the aim of your project in Nicaragua?

Answer: We wanted to understand what the obstacles are to women’s participation in making decisions about forests, mainly in collective lands—in Nicaragua it’s mostly collective forests—and try to overcome some of those obstacles.

We were looking specifically in Nicaragua in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region, which is a predominantly indigenous area where most of the tropical forests, and a large portion of all forests in the country, are located. So this area is under a specific, regional autonomy regime that has a lot of issues and complications in itself in terms of how it’s been implemented.

At least on paper, they have collective territories with multiple communities within them. There are communal governments and there are also, now, elected territory governments. So what we were interested in was how women are participating in these spaces, in these areas that have some of the most important forests in the country.

Q: Did you find any pre-existing national or sub-national policies already in place to help protect women’s roles in forest decision-making?

A: One of the things that we found right away, which was something that we kind of knew at the beginning, was that there were legal structures around forests and forestry, and the environment, and there are legal structures around women, gender, and participation, but there’s not a whole lot that brings the two together.

The environment law in Nicaragua does actually specifically say something about women’s participation, but the forestry sector itself tends to be managed in a different way, in a different place, under a different institution. As in many places these issues are kind of segregated. Whether it’s forests and forestry for production, or environmental issues for protection and conservation, gender is often addressed separately through ministries that deal more with social issues.

So we then looked at the legal situation. We looked at the regional government, as well as NGOs working there and the government itself, to see how different projects were addressing the issue of women and forests. Again we found pretty much the same division—forests were seen as one thing, and women were looked at through a social lens rather than economic or cultural history lens.

Q: What cultural or psychological barriers do you think prevent the integration of gender issues into forest management?

A: From my past experience in Nicaragua, the sense was that the forests were seen as sources of timber, and that was seen as men’s arena. Women simply were not really given much say about the forest, or what should be done with it.

As long as you frame the problem in that way, as you might the problem of timber and how much we should log, you are by default excluding women from those spaces, because it is so much seen as the men’s arena.

Q: How did the project attempt to respond to this on the ground?

A: The main part of the work for the second year was implementing this adaptive collaborative methodology (ACM) inside the communities themselves. ACM is a method that was developed by CIFOR researchers and spearheaded by Carol Colfer. We had one of her colleagues come and train our local facilitators in the ACM methodology.

The method is focused on social learning. You go into the community, and you facilitate discussions about the problems in the community, identify solutions, establish a set of activities to address the problems you have selected, and then set up a monitoring system, so that people are actually analyzing and monitoring on a regular basis the extent to which they are on the path they should be on, and how it’s working.

It’s a very interesting process that really helps people learn how to analyze what’s going on around them. Teaching people what monitoring is is very interesting. I found it the most exciting part of the work because people monitor all the time but they don’t think about it.

Q: How did women in these communities respond to the social learning methods?

A: Initially, when we started doing the workshop around it, women sort of had an ‘ah-ha!’ moment, where they said, ‘Oh, well we monitor our pregnancies. We go and we check with the midwife, and we make sure the baby’s doing okay, and we check what we’re eating, and we check our weight. That’s monitoring, right? And if something is wrong, if something sets off an alert signal you know you need to do something about it.’

Thinking about all the ways people already monitor without necessarily using that technical terminology in order to monitor other kinds of things that people are doing. It’s teaching people in a sense something that we already do in our daily lives, but in a way that helps people learn how to analyze what’s going on around them.

In the second phase of the project we also tried to incorporate a lot more research and training around gender, and I think something that we realized pretty quickly is that you can’t address these issues around gender and decision-making in the community or in more of a public sphere if you aren’t also addressing them in the private sphere.

That, I think, was something that to an extent we hadn’t really wanted to get into, but it’s part of the reality. You can’t start having women try to take on larger public roles without addressing how men and women interact in those communities, in their households, and in more fundamental ways. Because what you can end up with is a backlash, where women who speak out and start getting harassed or ostracized by the community.

Q: Were there any instances of backlash in the communities where you were working?

A: Not where we were, but there was another community where we weren’t working that experienced backlash.

The women banded together to elect one of the most important officials in the community—it was a judge. And they elected a woman. And the men all got together and agreed that they were going to beat their wives for having made that decision. These are real things that happen.

Q: What do you think that instance demonstrates? What can be done to prevent backlash in the future?

I think it shows that you can’t just push these things. And that’s one of the reasons that we like the ACM methodology, because it’s really about facilitating processes in communities.

What became very clear to us was that we need to be working on these bigger projects, and then think about how to incorporate gender issues and discussions about women’s roles, and some of these more sensitive topics as we go.

These changes have to happen slowly, and they have to happen in a very sensitive fashion.

For more information about this research, contact Anne Larson at

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Topic(s) :   REDD+ Community forestry Rights Gender