Men, women, dry forests and the power of food

CIFOR scientists reviewed studies looking at gender dynamics in communities living in and near dry forests – an important but under-researched ecosystem.
Gardening around Lake Bam, Burkina Faso
Women and agriculture: sometimes more work means higher status. Photo: CIFOR

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When aid groups began encouraging women in the Gambia to plant gardens in the 1980s, the nutritional quality of household meals wasn’t the only thing that improved.

The status of the women was also enhanced in their male-dominated communities.

Slowly, women earned rights to land and economic benefits, and began to negotiate more with their husbands, reducing conflict within the household.

Several years later, new groups came in and asked the residents of the community to plant trees. They worked mostly with the men, says Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) senior associate Carol Colfer, referring to 1999 research.

As a result, women lost the rights and status they had previously gained, and household conflicts increased again.

“Gender dynamics can be really affected by outside actors coming in,” Colfer says. “That kind of thing happens a lot with forestry projects.”

How gender dynamics are at play in communities living in and near dry forests – defined as forests that get less than 1 meter (3.3 feet) of rain each year – was the subject of a recent article published in a special edition of International Forestry Review.

For the study, which was a review of existing literature, Colfer and her colleagues examined 130 academic studies, as well as book chapters and other resources, looking at the ways men and women live in dry forests.

You can mobilize the energy and the intelligence and the motivation of women as opposed to just men

Carol Colfer

Dry forests present unique challenges to the people who rely on them.

Because there’s little water, the land is difficult to cultivate. Dry forest communities also deal with high population density – sparser tree coverage means more open land than in humid forests.

Even though populations are higher in dry forests, Colfer found that there is far more literature on gender in humid forests.

Still, studies on dry forests revealed several trends that can help inform forestry efforts in these areas.

Small-scale conflict was much more prevalent in dry forests than in humid forests, where clashes tend to center more on major players like timber companies or national governments.

One study in Tanzania documented community-level conflicts over cattle theft or witchcraft.

Conflict in households erupted after aid workers gave food to Ethiopian women, according to another study. Because the women then became providers for the household, power dynamics within the home changed, and men viewed this as a threat to their roles.

Many studies described violence against women.


Colfer found that migration to find better livelihood opportunities had a larger effect on gender dynamics in dry forests than it did in humid forests.

In Kenya, for example, when men left their homes looking for job opportunities, the women stayed behind and took on more of the farm work. This placed an extra burden on the women, but it also increased their status within the community.

The phenomenon of women taking over agricultural work when men leave due to a lack of work or an environmental crisis, known to some scholars as the “feminization of agriculture”, has been occurring for decades and has been increasing in recent years, Colfer says.

Yet, even with these important new roles, women are often ignored when forestry projects are designed and implemented.

Foresters still tend to gravitate toward working with men, Colfer says, in part because women’s many domestic duties tend constrain their time, and women are often not used to traveling far from the home. Also, while many men speak the national language, women often don’t.

But engaging women can be crucial for a project’s success.

“You can mobilize the energy and the intelligence and the motivation of women as opposed to just men,” Colfer says. “You’ve doubled your population of collaborators and people who can be proactive.”

“We’re just wasting half of the human resources by not involving women and not paying attention to what they need,” she points out.

Understanding dry forests in particular may be crucial as climate change dries out currently humid areas. More people may find themselves living around or near dry forests than ever before.

But foresters can’t assume that communities in dry forests are the same everywhere, says Colfer. Each area has unique dynamics and needs that foresters must understand before they attempt new projects.

“One of the ways forward is to try to work more collaboratively with communities,” she says. “It’s not a magic bullet that works fast, but then neither is anything else. And this ‘bullet,’ I think, has more chance of actually succeeding in the long run.”

For further information about CIFOR’s work in dry forests and gender please contact Carol Colfer – c.colfer@cgiar.org

CIFOR’s research on dry forests is supported by USAID and the UK Department for International Development and forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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