Diversity wins: Why involving women in decision-making matters

If you give women a voice in the management of forests and fisheries, you get better outcomes for both people and nature.
A woman participating in reforestation efforts around Rupa Lake, Nepal. Photo by: Neil Palmer/CIFOR A woman participating in reforestation efforts around Rupa Lake, Nepal. Neil Palmer/IWMI

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That’s the finding of a new study that examined all the existing literature on the topic, in a collaborative effort by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the International Institute for Environment and Development, The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, University of Manchester, University of Minnesota, ICF International and USAID.

Lead author and senior scientist at The Nature Conservancy Craig Leisher spoke to Forests News about the findings.

Forests News: What sparked this study?

Craig Leisher: I read a 2009 paper by Bina Agarwal that looked at what happens when women have a say in community forest management in India and Nepal. It compared forest cover over time in community forests managed only by men, with those managed by both men and women.

It turned out if you had both men and women on the forest management committee, there was a 12 percent gain in forest cover.

That was a pretty impressive number for me. I thought, wow, with just a tweak in who’s helping to manage the forest, we could potentially see some big gains in forest cover. That was the genesis of the idea — let’s see if there are other studies out there that have similar kinds of findings.

And were there many other studies?

We screened 11,000 English-language publications, and 17 fit our criteria. All of them identified governance improvements when women were involved in the management of the resources, and three showed conservation improvements.

The majority of them were from India and Nepal. But there were a few from Latin America, East Asia, and the Asia-Pacific — enough to suggest that what we see with the benefits of mixed-gender resource management is not unique to the sub-continent.

It’s only suggestive, but I think it’s likely we’re going to find that natural resource management works better when you have both men and women in decision-making. That’s what you find in other areas like business for example — it’s already been established that companies that have both men and women on their boards do better financially.

Why did the studies come from predominantly India and Nepal?

This is the part of the world where community forestry really has found fertile ground, and at last count in India I think there were over 100,000 community forests. So there’s a lot of experimentation going on at the local level. Some groups are only men, some have both men and women, and some are only women. So there’s a lot that’s being learned on the ground and it’s attractive to researchers because you can get large sample sizes relatively easily.

You only found a small number of studies that examined gender in the management of community fisheries — just three of the 17. With those did you see the same pattern?

Yes. In coastal areas, women are the ones who tend to do the reef gleaning — picking up the invertebrates along the shore. The men tend to fish offshore, so they use different parts of the coastal ecosystem. It’s likely for a coastal Marine Protected Area, for example, that if you have both men and women deciding what the management priorities are, use and protection are going to be more balanced, and you’re going to have more diversity and probably more productivity.

There’s a good prospect of better outcomes for both people and nature when women are given a voice along with men in the management of their community natural resources.

Craig Leisher

That’s a really good way to understand why both men’s and women’s participation is important. Do you have a similar example for forest management?

Yes. What you find in many parts of Africa and Asia is that men and women use the forest quite differently. Men tend to be primarily interested in hunting and generating income by selling timber, while the women are more interested in collecting firewood, fodder for their animals, and edible or medicinal plants. If you wanted to manage a forest in a way that would benefit both men and women in many parts of Asia and Africa, it would not favor just the tall trees that could be harvested and sold for timber, but it would have lots of small shrubs in there as well that could provide fodder for the animals, and smaller fast-growing trees that would be great for firewood.

What does it look like when women are given a voice in management, then?

Extrapolating from the studies we found, one element that is likely to be different is you get better enforcement. So whatever the rules are, almost everybody complies, because the women are there to see that their friends are not cutting these trees that the men are trying to grow for timber. And the men are telling their friends they can’t just go out and clear all the brush in the hopes of making these trees grow faster. So you end up with a multi-storey forest that is not just for timber production and is not just small trees for firewood and animals.

So is that where better conservation outcomes come in as well — you have a more diverse forest for wildlife?

Yes. And when you get better enforcement you get fewer illegal logging activities, and that’s where we see the increase in forest cover.

A really broad range of organizations worked on this paper — should we read something into this?

We should! Well, this may just be my hopeful view of the bigger weather patterns in conservation and development, but I think there is a growing recognition that it’s not enough to just focus on the poor and ensure that the resources they need to survive are there for the long term. When you look at who those poor are, you find that many of them are women, and so there’s recently been a greater emphasis on empowering women.

It’s a topic that a lot of people are starting to coalesce around. If there’s a single leverage point in international development, it’s almost certainly educating girls.

If your mom is empowered to better manage her local forest, for example, she doesn’t have to go as far to get her firewood, and she’s got a steadier supply, so she’s more likely to let you, as a girl, stay in school. And we know that if you can stay in school you’re going to have a better life.  So this paper is multifaceted, and should resonate not just with the conservation community but also with the development side of the equation.

What’s the take-home message from this study?

That there’s a good prospect of better outcomes for both people and nature when women are given a voice along with men in the management of their community natural resources.

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