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Esther Mwangi, researcher on gender and forest property rights, dies at 53

She studied how equity and inclusion influence livelihoods and conservation in forests
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Dra. Esther Mwangi, 1965-2019.

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Kenya - Esther Mwangi, an environmentalist, public policy expert, scholar and mentor whose research explored gender and land-rights inequities in relation to natural resources, died on Saturday in a hospital in Nairobi. She was 53.

Her family confirmed her death on a commemorative website. A colleague said the cause was complications from cancer.

She attracted international attention for a 2006 study of the division and privatization of common lands held by the Maasai people in Kenya, a process which she said exposed how less powerful, more vulnerable groups were subjected to inequitable treatment.

“Her work on the Maasai shows how politics were important for property decisions, and how understanding politics is necessary to understand why people make choices that don’t always seem to make sense to outsiders,” said Anne Larson, team leader of Equal Opportunities, Gender, Justice and Tenure at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), who worked with her closely on various research projects.

The research revealed how property rights and traditional livelihoods can come into conflict, creating disparity and often producing a negative impact on ecosystems.

“Esther’s dissertation research on the dissolution of Maasai group ranches showed that policies of individualization had negative consequences on women and youth and that, in semi-arid ecological settings, individualization results in unstable land holdings, necessitating re-contracting, and re-aggregation by individual parcel owners,” said Ruth Meinzen-Dick, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, where in 2007 Esther completed a postdoctoral fellowship with the CGIAR program on Collective Action and Property Rights.

Esther began a 10-year sojourn at CIFOR in 2009, fresh from two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment, where she completed research focused on the interactions between property rights transformation, rangeland management and livelihoods in semi-arid pastoral systems in East Africa.

We knew we had attracted someone special, and when Esther arrived at CIFOR, and we saw her output, our convictions were confirmed, not only because of the quality of the work she produced, but because of her incisive mind and analytical skills,” said Robert Nasi, director general of CIFOR, who was at the time director of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). “She really drove home the importance of gender in forestry. We shared the same dry sense of humor and love of elephants. Esther left us far too early.”

She was a wonderful member of the former Forests and Governance Programme team, said Andrew Wardell, who served as research director.

“Esther laid the foundations for CIFOR and FTA’s research on gender which she led from FTA Phase 1 in 2010, and for which the FTA CGIAR Research Program was singularly praised by the Independent Science and Partnership Council,” said Wardell, who is now principal scientist with the CIFOR Value Chains, Finance and Investment team and continues his involvement with the FTA research program.

She also contributed greatly to CIFOR’s tenure-related research, he added.

“I enjoyed working and writing with her – for example, the special issue we edited together on Multi-Level Governance of Forest Resources in the International Journal of the Commons (in 2012 and 2013), in honor of Lin (Elinor) Ostrom after a workshop we co-organized in the sidelines of IASC (International Association of the Commons) in Hyderabad in 2011.”

Work on the commons

Esther earned a doctoral degree in public policy at Indiana University Bloomington six years earlier, studying under Ostrom (1933-2012), who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009 (shared with Oliver E. Williamson) “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.”

A friend and mentor, Ostrom delivered a keynote speech at the Forest Day 3 summit in Copenhagen as a favor to Esther on her return journey to the United States after accepting the Nobel Prize, said John Colmey, CIFOR’s director of Communications, Outreach and Engagement.

“Esther was passionate on the inclusion of gender research into forestry and the role of gender in managing and governing forests,” he said. “We lose one of the great African women scientists who spoke out forcefully on the imperative to listen to voices of women and local communities in the successful management of our dwindling forests.”

Among many other initiatives at CIFOR, where she had served since 2014 as both team leader for the Nairobi Hub and as principal scientist with Forests and Governance, Esther led the development of a survey for a comparative study on gender and tenure in Uganda demonstrating the comprehensive and systematic approach to research for which she became known.

The study involved a similar exercise on tenure in Nicaragua, which she conducted with Larson.

“Esther was always really ambitious about what she wanted to accomplish with each project and the tenure study was no exception,” Larson said. “We ended up developing a really comprehensive approach that covered everything from the history of reforms to their outcomes, participatory analysis workshops, government interviews, gender, designing manuals and capacity-building videos.”

While undertaking the work in Uganda, Esther heard women express concerns about their exclusion from decisions on forest management. She identified the finding as a key limitation on their rights and wrote about the potential for adaptive co-management interventions for women to address disparities, work which her colleagues said contributed to a strengthening of land tenure security and investment in forest areas.

“Esther had a very strong sense of justice of what is right and what was not right,” said her sister Christina Mwangi. ” She had an intolerance for discrimination on any grounds — gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic power, marital status — amongst others.  As she was exposed and as she experienced the workplace, Esther realized that women were disadvantaged at the very basic level of survival and access to resources that were nearest them — especially to natural resources that they could use to empower themselves economically and hence this interest in gender and access to and tenure for land and resources.”

Esther also researched forest communities, demonstrating that clean water supplies in mountainous areas are dependent on healthy forests and vice versa. She coordinated a “Voices of the Landscape” discussion forum attended by local representatives who spoke about ways they have successfully resolved ecosystem challenges in their communities at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) at U.N. headquarters in Nairobi in 2018.  It was the first time local community representatives had attended GLF, which is jointly coordinated by CIFOR, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Bank, since it began in 2013.

“Esther was a passionate advocate for protecting forests and the communities who live in them,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP.  “Through her work she highlighted the importance of secure land tenure rights as vital for good land governance. She will be greatly missed.”

Gender recognition

During her time at CIFOR, she also established gender integration throughout all research divisions and teams at the organization.

“She profoundly touched many individuals, but it’s also a story about how she shaped and empowered an entire organization to take gender seriously,” said Bimbika Basnett, who worked as a post-doctoral student on the program with Esther.

Esther singlehandedly designed and wrote an organizational integration strategy for CIFOR, in such a way as to bring everybody together – she sought support from all of the teams, encouraging them to identify areas where they could contribute gender integration, said Basnett, who took over the position after Esther moved to the CIFOR Forests and Governance role.

“Now, when I look back at where CIFOR stands, there’s a lot of work that’s underway – there’s a reputation that she built – both within the larger CGIAR community but also in the larger forestry and development space – and she will be missed a lot by everybody, but I think she’s equipped everyone to keep her legacy forward,” she said, adding that she has carried much of what Esther taught her to a new role at a different organization, where as senior gender and social inclusion advisor, she has implemented a similar approach.

Esther’s research also included benefit-sharing arrangements in REDD+ (Reducing Emissions caused by Deforestation and forest Degradation) schemes.

In addition to Kenya – where she was born – and Uganda, she worked in Indonesia, Peru, Nicaragua and Tanzania.

She earned undergraduate degrees in Kenya, a Bachelor of Arts in education with a specialization in botany and zoology from Kenyatta University and a Master of Philosophy in environmental studies from Moi University.

“When Esther and I started working together, I felt that the way we thought and wrote connected in a way that made it really fun,” Larson said. “I hadn’t had that kind of synergy with another scientist before, and it was really inspiring.”

Condolences may be left on the commemorative website set up by Esther’s family, by clicking here

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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