Gender and Forests

New reader compiles 30 years of research conducted on this perennially relevant topic
Women are vital tenants of both livelihoods and landscapes. Photo credit: CIFOR

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To celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8),  Forests News sits down with gender researchers Dr. Bimbika Sijapati-Basnett and Carol J. Pierce Colfer from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR); Marlène Elias from Bioversity International; and Susan Stevens Hummel, a forest scientist with the U.S. Forest Service.

The four are co-editors of the forthcoming Reader on Gender and Forests. Due to be released next month, the Reader brings together a collection of key papers that have been published on the topic over the past 30 years from around the globe. The intended audience of the Reader includes students, researchers, policymakers and practitioners.

Here, the co-editors discuss why it was important to put together a book on gender and forests; what they hope practitioners will get out of reading this book; and why some of the older papers featured in the Reader still hold currency for researchers and practitioners alike.

Leona Liu, Forests News Editor, CIFOR:

What is the value of compiling these papers in one volume?

Dr. Bimbika Sijapati-Basnett, Scientist & Gender Researcher, CIFOR:

With women’s rights being at the forefront of contemporary political struggles in many countries, both in the global South as well as in the North, we felt there was a need and interest among a wide group of people for more information on gender and forests.

So much effort these days in research is focused on journal articles, which are more accessible online in the global North.  However, many older articles are generally not in open access format, and are thus not available at all to students and researchers living in developing countries. At the same time, not everyone who is interested in this topic has knowledge of, access to, and time available to search information on the topic.

So we felt that putting them together in one volume, which we would make available initially in a print book and later on for free through the website of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), would provide a real service.

We also thought that providing some kind of historical trajectory of interest and analysis would be beneficial to researchers interested in gender and forests. A lot of work has been done on gender and forests, but there is no compilation that really takes a historical view of where we’ve been and how thinking in this area has developed.

The papers in this book cover a range of relevant issues that can be considered individually or ideally together for a fuller understanding of gender and forest issues, as a course reader, or as a ‘must have’ for those working in the field.

   A woman holds a sapling to be planted in a designated reforestation area in Tigray, Ethiopia. CIFOR/Mokhamad Edliadi

Leona Liu, Forests News Editor, CIFOR:

Why should practitioners read this book?

Carol J. Pierce Colfer, Senior Associate, CIFOR:

Practitioners are seeking practical guidance on how to integrate gender into their programs and projects on forests. But those who read this book will come to understand that including gender in forestry is not easy, that there is no formula for doing it.  Otherwise, it would have already been done and the methods would be simple and straightforward! Nevertheless, gender is a global aspect of sustainable forestry and environmental justice that is being addressed in both hemispheres.

The chapters provide a deeper consideration and understanding of how gender relations shape forest management, which is important for understanding options and how these may vary across different contexts. Addressing complex challenges such as sustainable and equitable forest management requires an understanding of the systems within which we work. The chapters in the book demonstrate that there is often more than meets the eye in terms of how and why men and women adopt the management strategies they do. They reveal that norms and relations play a central role in defining people’s options, decisions, and the constraints under which they operate.

While some of the chapters (such as Schroeder’s chapter on the Gambia) focus on how and why gender relations were ignored in agroforestry interventions and what impact this had on gender dynamics, others scrutinize the ways in which gender is approached in current policy and practice too.

For instance, Melissa Leach questions the fundamental basis from which development practitioners have sought to draw or maintain attention to gender issues in environmental programs and projects. Many approaches assume women’s victimhood and/or women’s close affinity to forests and environment that may not only be baseless, but can lead to more harm than good when used to inform policy or practice. They can perpetuate harmful gendered stereotypes and/or inadvertently increase women’s burden by enlisting them in projects and programs that might not be beneficial to them.

Leach calls for a more relational approach to gender, which recognizes that gender only makes sense when viewed in specific contexts and in relation to other social relations. She also advocates a rights-based approach to gender equality, which recognizes that gender equality is a value in and of itself and does not have to be justified on the grounds that it will ‘save’ women and/or ‘save’ the environment.

Additionally, the book provides a range of topics and disciplines to show the various lenses through which gender can be addressed.  We believe this compilation can widen people’s ideas and understandings about the many realms in which gender plays a part.

   Woman collecting firewood in Indonesia. Photo by: Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

Leona Liu, Forests News Editor, CIFOR:

Which aspects of the book would be most useful for practitioners?

Marlène Elias, Gender Specialist, Bioversity International:

Practitioners may find particular chapters useful that focus on the specific themes on which they work (such as tenure, migration, forest farming, and others). Readers interested in particular geographic or topical areas can go to those sections directly (North America, Europe, South and South East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa). But the entire compilation is also useful, as it contextualizes the importance of each of the chapters towards our current understanding of gender and forests, and points out the key aspects each chapter has contributed towards our current way of thinking.

Some of the papers are more approach-oriented, which can help scholars and practitioners think through the use and appropriateness of these methods and of how their own position influences their research and practice.

The contributions encourage researchers and practitioners alike to understand that the tools they use to uncover the ‘truth’ about women and gender inequality are always ‘partial’ (such as Andrea Nightingale’s chapter on research methods), and to be constantly reflective while attempting to change social realities for women and men. For some, this might be very unsettling, but for others, it will encourage them to constantly question what they do and be sensitive and innovative in their approaches.

Short regional introductions highlight some themes of particular relevance for those living and working in those regions. Each introduction provides an overview and the conclusion is forward looking to the global trends we need to consider to adequately plan for more equitable and sustainable forest management.

   Nigna Latifa (26), Dadjan Wassinatou (34) and Nacro Rainatou (31) separate the seeds from the fiber of freshly harvested cotton in Burkina Faso. Photo by: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Leona Liu, Forests News Editor, CIFOR:

How and why are the ‘old’ papers still relevant? How have they contributed to current approaches to gender and environment?

Susan Stevens Hummel, Forest Scientist, U.S. Forest Service:

These classic papers offer a foundation for current thinking around gender and forests. In some instances, a lot of work has been done subsequently on the ideas and themes presented in the book. Even if the original thinking has changed, the processes described by these chapters remain relevant. Looking back helps us to understand where we are today and where we may be headed.

For example, Bina Agarwal points out that women’s lack of participation in forest management is an outcome of interlocking inequalities at the household, community and government levels in India and Nepal. She shows that increasing women’s participation in management will be beneficial for forests and women alike. Her groundbreaking work inspired a new generation of programs and policies aimed at involving women in social forestry programs and in REDD+ initiatives.

In other cases, sadly, some key issues raised in these articles remain unaddressed or unacknowledged, either because gender is ignored altogether or it is viewed in a narrow way. Chapters by Rocheleau and Ross and by Elias and Carney highlight how local land tenure practices can mean women and men have rights to different parcels of land, or different trees within the same plot.

And yet current policies and programs aimed at transferring rights to ‘local communities’ frequently focus on men and assume that the benefits will eventually trickle down to all household members. Such a practice fails to take into account the complex arrangement of rights and responsibilities within the same community and household.

There is greater commitment now to promoting gender equality in the forestry/agriculture/rural development sectors than when these papers were first published. Yet people often still shy away from discussing gender issues. Perhaps they don’t feel equipped to do so, or they are constrained from doing so.

With this Reader, we hope to stimulate wider conversations about how and why gender is intimately connected with forests and their management. It is a connection that all people concerned with reconciling human equality and planetary sustainability should recognize and address.

   Ugwono Pauline planting Gnetum (okok) in the village of Minwoho, Cameroon. Photo by: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR
For more information on this topic, please contact Dr. Bimbika Sijapati-Basnett at or Carol J. Pierce Colfer at
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Topic(s) :   Community forestry Landscapes Rights Gender