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A conversation with Carol J. Pierce Colfer (CIFOR/Cornell University), with contributions from Seema Arora-Jonsson (Swedish University of Life Sciences), Markus Ihalainen and Anne Larson (CIFOR)

In the lead-up to the 25th IUFRO World Congress being held in Curitiba, Brazil from 29 Sept. to 6 Oct., a group of scientists from around the world conducted an assessment of the impact of addressing the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on people and forests.

As part of the assessment, CIFOR researchers Anne Larson and Carol J. Pierce Colfer contributed to a chapter, led by Seema Arora-Jonsson, focusing  on the relationship between forestry and SDG5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. We took the opportunity to interview lead author Carol, to which contributors Seema and Anne added insights, to reflect on some of the key insights and messages coming out of the assessment.

Q: In contrast to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the SDGs framework recognizes gender equality and women’s empowerment as a standalone goal. Do you think this marks a significant departure from the way in which gender equality has conventionally been approached in international development?

A: In theory, all of the SDGs are intimately interconnected, to be taken as a ‘whole cloth,’ so technically none of the SDGs are intended to stand alone.  However, it is true that many governments are indeed approaching them as stand alone concerns.  Given my own skepticism about the effectiveness of international agreements, I wonder how much better the SDGs are than the MDGs, though having more specific goals and targets that can be seen as involving women really does represent an improvement over the MDGs. They also provide an opportunity, in language stronger than the MDGs, to promote gender equality – and research on gender – at multiple levels of governance. But the MDGs and SDGs aside, I do see a much more serious concern about addressing gender disparities in recent years than I did earlier on.  I think there’s been something of a sea change in attitudes, globally.

Q: Target 5.1. refers to the elimination of discrimination against women and girls. This ambition was however already formulated some 40 years ago in the Convention on Eliminating all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Reflecting on the past decades, what are some of the key axes of discrimination in the forestry sector, and what progress has been made in addressing them?

A: To me, the most obvious axis of discrimination derives simply from the longstanding assumption in high level national and international circles, as well as in forest management units, that women are irrelevant to formal forest management and decision-making.  It’s taken a long time to begin to make clear the active involvement of women in many parts of the world in forest management generally.  As the field of forestry itself has moved beyond simply addressing timber production and conservation, there has been a growing recognition that women also collect forest products, that many foods that women are likely to harvest, cook and everyone eats come from forests, that women may be the local healers using medicinal plants and other products from the forest, and that women sell forest products in many areas.

As this kind of awareness has increased, the fact that women may not have secure access to forest resources has emerged (in the consciousness of managers).  Related to this is the fact that even where women do have formal rights to forest resources, these may not be respected in practice.  The international love affair with private property and land certification has in many cases further disadvantaged women, as they have removed or narrowed the informal land sharing practices that had been common in many areas.

With greater formalization of rights to collective forestlands in recent years, we have seen increasing attention, though more among researchers than in practice, to challenges for women in communal lands; this includes recognizing that collective rules and norms may add another layer of discrimination against women and that demarcation processes need to include women. 

There is greater recognition as well that women and groups marginalized by their ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and/or gender identity are often excluded from formal decision-making bodies, either by explicit rules or by informal norms. Assumptions that men’s conventional ways of behaving are the ‘normal’ ways to behave thereby ignore how these normal ways marginalize women and other groups. These people are typically disadvantaged by unequal access to resources and decision-making fora and may have different ideas, preferences and needs relating to forest management (see Seema Arora-Jonsson’s work on Sweden and India, e.g., (Arora‐Jonsson 2009).

Finally technology and extension services have been heavily weighted in favor of men—both as providers and as potential users.  In many parts of the world, men have great difficulty gaining access to women in communities, which further reduces women’s access to the knowledge and devices that would help them keep up or catch up in this fast-changing world.

   Beatrice Ananga cooking a mix of Gnetum (okok) and Peanuts in the village of Minwoho, Lekié, Center Region, Cameroon. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR.

Q: SDG 5 gives a lot of weight to protecting women’s rights to their own bodies. You argue that “forests are particularly linked to violence or the equally debilitating fear of violence”. Why is that?

A: There are a number of factors.  One is that wars are underway in a number of forested areas (such as Central and West Africa).  There is considerable evidence that women and children suffer greatly under wartime conditions, through poverty and more direct violence, like rape and other sexual attacks.  The level of conflict among different groups in forested areas may be high, again posing dangers for women.  In East Kalimantan, for instance, where many outsiders have come into previously forested areas to establish oil palm and mining concerns, I recently encountered an increased concern about the likelihood of women being kidnapped by members of other ethnic groups (March 2019).  Moreover, logging companies build roads, and set up timber camps.  In many areas, these camps include the provision of prostitutes for the many unaccompanied men who arrive to log.  In some areas, the roads serve as channels through which HIV/AIDS can make inroads (such as east and southern Africa), infecting the women whom truck drivers and other itinerants visit. Even more important, for both women and the forest, is to ensure that women have the right to control their own fertility. Such control has important implications for the environment and for family health, as well as vastly enlarging women’s time to pursue other activities of benefit to themselves, their families and their communities. 

It is also important to note that killings of environmental defenders is on the rise, many of whom are defending rights to land and forests; Global Witness reports 201 murders of indigenous peoples, community activists and environmentalists in 2017. Though more men were killed than women, women suffer from multiple kinds of violence such as rape and threats of rape

Q: Target 5.4. calls for the recognition of women’s unpaid care and domestic work. Looking specifically at the forestry sector, what are some of the key issues policy makers should recognize and why?

A: This question of unpaid care and domestic work is actually much broader than the forestry sector.  Real solution to gender inequity globally will require attention to the fact that in most areas, men do not do their share of these tasks, even when the women in their families may be as active earning money as they are. 

Within forestry per se, if men were to shoulder a fairer share of these burdens, women ideally could have the same amount of ‘free’ time as men to seek further forest-related education, to participate in marketing of forest products and other forest-related income generation, and to participate in community efforts to manage forests more sustainably.  Men would also benefit by being able to spend more time with their children, teaching them the valuable skills men have, perhaps better than the women currently are able to do.  And the pressure on men as primary wage-earners in many areas would be reduced; household incomes could be pooled, or at least such provision could be recognized as a shared responsibility, relieving some of the pressure men are reported to feel in some places (like East Africa, South America)—pressures which, when thwarted, sometimes result in intra-household violence. The role of men and masculinities in achieving transformative change towards gender equality is an area that merits more attention in research. This topic will be explored in my forthcoming book Masculinities and Forests Representations of Diversity (Earthscan/Routledge) planned for publication next year.

Q: As it stands, SDG15 on forests does not include any references to the people inhabiting them or depending on them for their livelihoods – let alone gender. You argue in your text that “not actively addressing discrimination in [the forestry] sector is not only a setback for an equitable society but also a huge obstacle for sustainable forest management”. Why is this?

A: We have gradually begun to realize over the past couple of decades that the only way we are going to get truly sustainable forest management will be through the involvement and commitment of local people.  The variation, both cultural and ecological, from one forest management unit or community to another is too great to continue with the traditional model of standardized solutions for whole countries or other wide geographical areas.  We now know that local people’s cultures, preferences, skills, and goals vary enormously, as do the forests in which they live.  The people, both men and women, represent an under-recognized and under-utilized treasure trove of indigenous knowledge, motivation to protect, human energy, and hopes for the future of their children and grandchildren. 

So far, even though we have begun to try to work collaboratively with forest peoples in some areas, we still lag behind in our efforts to involve women (including in the US (Colfer, Cerveny, and Hummel 2019).  It is true that dealing with women has required some additional effort (due, e.g., to women’s lower access to education, less knowledge of national languages, norms discouraging interaction with outsiders and men)—but the goal of a more equitable society requires that this effort be made and the options for fairer and more informed management of forest resources requires their involvement.  Women’s forest use is now recognized as common, which means that good forest management will acknowledge that and take it into account.

Q: Finally, you present a compelling case for taking SDG 5 seriously in the forestry sector. For those passionate about gender equality but less familiar with the forestry context, what are the key points you hope they take with them having read your paper?

A: I word these as suggestions for those involved in managing forests—and therefore actions that the general public can encourage and support: 

  • Recognize that women also use and need forests. Indeed, while women’s work in the forests and in the home often remains invisible in mainstream forestry, it is absolutely critical to sustaining the forests as well as the communities who live in and around them.
  • Understand how different groups of women and men use forests.
  • Investigate what knowledge women may have that differs from that of men, and areas of overlap.
  • Explore alternative management mechanisms that are as comfortable for women as for men, or adapt existing mechanisms to make them more hospitable for women.
  • Examine women’s security of access to forest resources and, where needed, work to strengthen women’s security both legally and in practice.
  • Take measures to reduce levels of violence against women, as needed (related, to varying degrees, to excessive breadwinning pressures on men and men’s perceptions of their own roles as ‘controller’ of the household).
  • Make technology and ‘modern’ knowledge more available to women than is currently the case, while recognizing the local knowledge that women and men hold.
  • Support efforts to increase women’s access to the birth control they may desire and the right to control their own fertility, encouraging the involvement of whole communities in such efforts.
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Further reading

  • Arora‐Jonsson, Seema. 2009. "Discordant Connections: Discourses on Gender and Grassroots Activism in Two Forest Communities in India and Sweden: Winner of the 2009 Catharine Stimpson Prize."  Signs 35 (1):213-240.
  • Colfer, Carol J. Pierce, Lee Cerveny, and Susan Stevens Hummel. 2019. "Using Rapid Rural Appraisal Tools to Explore Gender and Forests in the Global North "  Human Organization 78 (1):12-27.
  • Context of the blog is a chapter on SDG5 (gender equality) in the upcoming publication: Katila, P., Colfer, C.J.P., de Jong, W., Galloway, G., Pacheco, P. and Winkel, G. (eds.) 2019. Sustainable Development Goals: Their Impact on Forests and People. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. In press. The publication will be launched at the IUFRO world congress in Curitiba, Sept 2019.
  • Authors to the SDG5-chapter are Seema Arora-Jonsson (lead author), Shruti Agarwal, Carol J. Pierce Colfer, Stephanie Keene, Priya Kurian, Anne M. Larson