That tricky gender thing: Lessons from Amazonia

Researchers need to ask better questions - and then listen better.

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There are enormous gaps in our knowledge about how gender relations shape the lives of people living in the forests of the Amazon, a new study has found – but on the ground, remarkable changes are happening across the region as women begin to organise and empower themselves.

In the Brazilian state of Pará women have dramatically increased their participation in rural workers unions over the past 30 years, from just three percent membership in the 1970s to more than half in 2006.

In Ecuador, Huaorani women formed their own indigenous women’s association to promote their interests.

And women from nine states in Brazil created a network of collective microenterprises to sell, and fight for access to, non-timber forest products like babassu nuts.

These stories are highlighted in the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) study that analyses the literature on gender and forests in Amazonia.

And they are not isolated examples. Marianne Schmink, Professor of Latin American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Florida and the other authors of the study, identified many local associations and unions where women continue gradually to gain a greater voice and influence through collective mobilization.

“In all cases it started with women developing their own groups that were subsets of these grassroots organisations where they didn’t have a voice before and then through that, learning how to be leaders,” Schmink says.

“Giving each other support, learning about their rights and about policies, how to speak in public, and how to make their points and persist until they were listened to in the community. There was a real empowerment process going on.

“That to me was the most exciting part of the research.”

Yet despite the wealth of case studies, this ‘remarkable trajectory’ occurring on the ground is yet to be systematically analysed by researchers, Schmink says.

And that is the case for all issues to do with gender relations in forest communities in the Amazon in general, “despite the importance of this topic for forest management, community food security, sustainable livelihoods and the capacity of Amazonian people to respond to external pressures and changing climates,” as the paper finds.

“There is a real lack of attention to what I consider to be a fundamentally important topic,” Schmink says.


This matters because policies and programs that ignore gender, risk creating or exacerbating inequalities, while neglecting women’s half of Amazonian livelihood systems.

What policy-makers need to understand, Schmink says, is that paying attention to gender doesn’t just mean creating women’s groups.

It’s very frustrating. We’ve literally been having the same conversation for decades

Marianne Schmink

And it’s not only about improving women’s rights and access to decision-making, as well as control over property rights and assets, which are all essential.

“It’s also about understanding how gender differences and relationships and roles are an integral part of every natural resource management system,” she says.

Many forest policies and programs are directed at smallholder families, who derive their livelihoods from diversified farming and forest systems, where tasks are different depending on gender – men may be more involved in timber harvesting and commercial crops, while women harvest smaller forest products and grow food.

“So when you propose to change that system, or provide support or incentives, it’s going to affect the whole system – and not just the more visible male commercial interests or the male as the head of the family,” Schmink says.

“If you don’t consider gender when designing these interventions, it’s even worse than denying women their rights – it’s leaving out their whole part of the picture, which in these diversified systems is very important.”

Schmink – who has been working on gender in the Amazon for nearly forty years, since she was a graduate student in Brazil in the 1970s – says she and her colleagues have been arguing for decades that gender should be a consideration in every project.

But she says that’s still not happening systematically.

“Project managers often are oblivious for the most part. It’s not that they don’t care – it’s just that they don’t see it.”

“It’s very frustrating,” she says. “We’ve literally been having the same conversation for decades.”

So what needs to change?

“It’s really not rocket science,” Schmink says.

“The most important thing is to think beyond the limited definition of who the project is focussing on. To look at different groups, and not leave out women because it’s assumed the activity doesn’t involve them.”

Schmink gives an example from BOLFOR – a major government forest management program in Bolivia that initially focussed only on training male loggers.

“Once they began explicitly inviting women to participate, started scheduling meetings at a time that women could go to them, and then followed up with women, it really changed the project,” she said.

This led to the insight that the long-term viability of the community forest management program depended not just on male skills but on the technical capacity of the whole community to support the enterprise.

“So part of it is doing these really simple things and not assuming the men represent everyone in the family and therefore you only need to talk to them,” Schmink said.

Listen to the stories. Listen to what people are talking about and how they’re talking about it

Kiran Asher


Researchers, too, need to do more than just pay attention to gender.

Senior CIFOR scientist Kiran Asher, who was involved in reviewing the paper, says researchers need to be aware that issues of gender and forests are embedded in broader socio-political contexts.

“When you’re paying attention to issues of gender it’s an entry point for paying attention to issues of power – and not just power at the local level,” she said.

“This is not just a technical issue, it’s a political issue – changing the status quo anywhere is a political issue. These are sticky, long-term complex problems.”

The study opens up a series of questions on gender and forestry, Asher says, and shows researchers need to rethink the way they ask those questions – and listen closely to the answers.

Asher has also conducted field research in the Brazilian Amazon, among other Latin American sites.

“I was living with fishing communities, and everybody insisted that women don’t fish. Yet every single day, my adopted field mother and her daughter would go fishing,” she said.

When she asked them about it, they insisted what they were doing didn’t count as fishing.

Researchers need to pay attention to contradictions like this, Asher says.

“Listen to the stories. Listen to what people are talking about and how they’re talking about it. Pay attention to who they’re talking to and who they’re not talking to.”

“And if we really pay attention to and learn from what’s happening on the ground, could it be that we – scientists, policy makers and students – will learn to see better?”

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