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Aristocrats are like the enduring ironwoods, and commoners are like the strangling fig that kills. And yet, when Center for International Forestry Research Senior Associate Carol J. Pierce Colfer lived for a year in the Indonesian Dayak community from which this tenet arose, it was a commoner – a very clever, sharp-tongued commoner who could argue down all of his upper-class rivals – who was elected Head Man.

“This was important because decisions the Head Man made could be undercut by this factional antagonism,” she says. And this class divide was only one element in the community’s narrative, at different times sharing the stage with age, gender, and underlying animist belief systems mixed with religious differences between Catholics and Protestants; at other times, hidden behind the curtain while others came to the fore in different sub-plots. “But you wouldn’t know all that unless you spent time there.”

The word “intersectionality” is the focus of a new occasional paper by Colfer and two other CIFOR scientists, Bimbika Sijapati Basnett and Markus Ihalainen, which defines it as “the interacting influences of multiple identities in a given person as they interact with marginalizing or empowering structures, norms and narratives.” Yet, it is not in the Merriam Webster dictionary. Neither is it in Microsoft Word spellcheck. It does yield 19 results in Al Jazeera’s online search engine, 35 results in The Economist’s and 64 in The New York Times’ – the latter’s lead presumably due to the term’s rise in the American vernacular following the #MeToo and other post-Trump movements.

“Seven syllables. It’s really unnecessary to make words that long,” says Colfer, with a smile. “But sometimes a crazy thing will take off, and that seems to be what’s happening with intersectionality.” The paper’s purpose, in keeping with this, is to suggest how it can best be used in the forestry sector.

   Topista Lumama, a community farmer trainer in Uganda’s Mpigi district, where the confluence of age and gender issues has affected tree planting on farms. CIFOR Photo/John Baptist Wandera


Contrary to its recent surge in popularity, captioning photos with a single hashtag and little else, intersectionality is neither a new nor aphoristic idea.

It’s been a buzz word in the gender community since the 1980s, says Ihalainen, and the rise of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) gave it more room to grow, useful for achieving Goals 5 (gender equality) and 10 (reduced inequalities). But discussions around the term have seemed largely stalled in theory mode, explaining it in ways as multifaceted as the people and communities it seeks to describe – a prism, rather than a mirror, to reflect other prisms.

The paper, in the works for three years, begins by summarizing the primary existing literature before moving into a more grounded offering of its own to the conversation: a quintet of lenses through which researchers can look at communities to better see and understand the important points of identity intersections therein.

“Everybody says interserctionality is so important and interesting and should be the new mantra, but actually people have so many different understandings of it,” says Sijapati Basnett. “The theoretical literature is really complex. Lenses might make it easier to understand.”

In brief, the five lenses are:

  • The cognitive lens: How individuals see the world, and how social norms affect their vantage points;
  • The emotional lens: How marginalization (or elitism) affects one’s sense of self and capabilities;
  • The social lens: The perceptions, narratives and norms that others use to define the marginalized;
  • The economic lens: How employment, tenure, rules of inheritance and the like affect individuals; and
  • The political lens: The distribution of power and resources within a society.

Sometimes a crazy thing will take off, and that seems to be what’s happening with intersectionality

Carol J. Pierce Colfer, CIFOR Senior Associate

The scientists developed the lenses based on their understanding of the theoretical literature on the topic and on their personal experiences in the field, as well as with a hope that with new gear, so to speak, they’ll be able to capture more holistic understandings of communities – or, at least move beyond the solely economic lens, which has inadvertently gotten the most mileage in forest research so far.

“Economics is quantitative, and there’s a love affair with that, especially in the West,” says Colfer. “And the history of forestry has been very much oriented toward timber trees, period. Only in the 1970s did people begin to talk about foods, and more recently, expand into biodiversity and people.”

While research around the ‘people’ aspect of forests has increased in the last 40 years, it often comes with a distorting binary view of gender (male versus female), with ‘women’ seen as voiceless and uniformly marginalized by social structures. Another intent of this paper is to push the social side of forestry research to habitually go beyond such a rigid gender framework – taking into account intersecting issues of age, wealth, ethnicity, etc. – if ensuing changes are to avoid discrimination and be truly productive.

Ihalainen raises, for instance, a case of agroforestry farms in Uganda, where gender inequalities in land tenure are critical. As parents hand down land to sons, not daughters, women have few prospects of future benefits from trees they plant on their parents’ land. But pressing further, one finds that all income from harvesting trees goes to older men, giving youth of both genders little incentive to plant trees on their farms. The landscape is increasingly less fecund, due to the intersection of age and gender inequities.

Or in Nepal, Sijapati Basnett’s home country where she has conducted extensive research, women’s experiences vary widely depending on who – and where – they are. In some villages, low-caste, ethnically marginalized women are able to make strategic life choices (who to marry, how many children to have) and influence household decisions, while others elsewhere are denied such autonomy. Stepping higher into community forest user groups, some villages similarly allow low-caste women to have a say in forest use, while others reserve such rights for older and more powerful men, despite the high stakes for forest-dependent women.

At the national level, she says discourses around inclusion and marginalization are more advanced in Nepal than in many other countries. “It is not just about rich versus poor, but which poor group are you talking about, and why are they poor? Is it a spatial issue? Ethnic issue? Caste? Income? While this means marginalization is accepted as a multi-dimensional phenomena, there are all these social groups at intersection points that aren’t being covered.” She uses her pointer fingers and thumbs to make joined loops, like chain links, to explain.

This matters, she says, because these groups continue to be left beyond the sight of social movements, policymakers and general inclusion, and the economic and societal repercussions are strong.

   A Dayak elder in Malinau, East Kalimantan, not far from the area where Colfer worked for decades. CIFOR Photo/Eko Prianto
   A portrait of a Dayak couple in East Kalimantan. CIFOR Photo/Moses Ceasar


In the U.S. in 1976, five African American women sued General Motors under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for race- and gender-based discrimination. However, the company claimed that because they hired white women and black men, allegations didn’t hold in either category. “The legal framework was unable to deal with the issue of multiple inequalities,” says Ihalainen.

It was this case, Degraffenreid v. General Motors, that sparked civil rights advocate and now preeminent intersectionality scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to begin writing on the idea – and the urgency for it to be applied to policy.

Ultimately, the goal of this paper, too, is to help research shape itself in a way that can in turn shape policies to look at marginalization in a more nuanced fashion and avoid situations like the GM case, in developing and developed countries alike.

Sijapati Basnett says that in addition to using the lenses, research should be approached in three parts. One, establish the conceptual framework, the specific intersections to examine. Two, choose a unit of inquiry – individual, group or macro-level society – and determine if available data is reliable or field research is necessary. Three, tailor your project to its practical use, such as drawing attention to marginalized groups and individuals or advocating for social justice by supporting such people and their needed environments.

One existing method that achieves this, Colfer says, is ‘adaptive collaborative management’, seeing multi-disciplinary teams of researchers work in tandem with forest-dependent communities. She and her team developed this anthropologically informed approach at CIFOR in the early 2000s, developing relationships and arrangements with marginalized women and men in forest communities, ultimately building them up to implement solutions to societal discrepancies before – or without, even – policy coming into play.

“Then, the [research] team can also serve as a communication channel with outsiders like the government, NGOs and other people with more power to influence policy and practice,” she adds, stressing the importance of marginalized voices in policymaking processes and the ability for outsiders, such as researchers, to help get them there.

“For now, it’s really up to us,” says Ihalainen.

For more information on this topic, please contact Carol Colfer at or Bimbika Sijapati Basnett at or Markus Ihalainen at
This research was supported by the CGIAR research program on Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and Cornell University.
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