In the early years of her career, ethnographer Carol J. Pierce Colfer observed the various cultures she studied from the perspective of a second-wave feminist.
At a time when women throughout the western world were pushing to gain equal rights with men, Colfer and her first husband sought freedom from traditional binary male-female gender roles. They shared a job, divided cooking and housekeeping duties, took turns at childcare and even dabbled in extra-marital sexual relationships.
“I was really a radical feminist at the time,” she said.
Through that prism, during lengthy sojourns as a researcher in the temperate rainforests of the United States and in the tropical rainforests of Indonesia, she observed the habits and relationships of forest dwellers.
In a candid new memoir, Colfer, now a senior associate at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and a visiting scholar in the Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, shares her personal perspective to better elaborate reflections on 50 years of research into gender and forests.
In the process, she overturns some of the generally accepted parameters which have largely defined gender studies, suggesting that the habits and practices of men warrant greater consideration than they have received to date.
“It’s since changed, but in the 1970s, the forest research literature said that all men are violent, domineering and controlling — there was nothing good about them at all,” she said.
“Understanding men as individuals — their knowledge, capabilities, needs and goals – within their overall social context is fundamental if we seek styles of forest management that benefit both environments and their inhabitants.”
In Masculinities in Forests: Representations of Diversity (Earthscan from Routledge 2020), Colfer examines the various forms of masculinity she has encountered from the 1970s through to the present.
She describes what it was like to live alongside loggers in the community of Bushler Bay in the United States, and shares insider analyses on studies she undertook in the Indonesian communities of Long Segar in Indonesian Borneo and Sitiung in rural Sumatra.
“From these cases, analyzed in depth, I’ve demonstrated some of the variety that exists globally in forest masculinities, and some of the varying choices and preferences that men in these forests have made regarding their own identities,” she said, explaining that her 360 degree approach also includes an analysis of forestry researchers.
To better elucidate her findings, she uses a harp as an analogous framework to offer a comparative analysis of masculinities in different cultures.
The triangular frame of the stringed instrument represents the stability and constraints that are put on men in different cultures, and the strings represent the elements of their individual freedoms and choices. Some chords are dominant – or more highly valued — within a given culture.
The harp offers a way to gain perspective on masculinities to understand gender dynamics.
“Although the harp is associated with femininity in the Global North, which is perhaps an unusual choice for a study of masculinities, this concept, slightly jarring to westerners, can help to remind the reader that we are looking at masculinity through a woman’s eyes,” said Colfer, who revisited two of the sites she studied many years ago to fully formulate her analysis.
“I demonstrate some of the variety that exists globally in forest masculinities and some of the varying choices and preferences that men in these forests have made regarding their own identities,” she added.
The book overturns some previously held assumptions that men are mainly dominant oppressors who control resources and monopolize power over women. It recognizes that some forest-dwelling men are shaped by racial, occupational or other identities that put them at a disadvantage in comparison to some other men and women.
In the logging community of Bushler Bay and the Dayak community of Long Segar, livelihoods are very intimately connected with the forests, which means that if changes are made in forest management, the impact can be very strong, Colfer said.
Bushler Bay was formerly a source of food, firewood and income, but is now largely a recreational area. Women’s forest knowledge was cast aside due to an emphasis on timber and assumptions by formal forest managers that forests were masculine places. Eventually, policies developed without any understanding of their cultural implications transformed the area.
In Long Segar, the forest has now been replaced by oil palm plantations. Only slight remnants of the original forest exist along the rivers, where local communities continue to produce crops in swiddens, an agricultural practice now unsustainable due to curtailed access to traditional lands.
Yet, in Sumatra, three different ethnic groups lived in, but were not intimately connected with the forest, they all had other interests.
“They didn’t have the kind of gut-level connection found in the other two locations,” Colfer said. “For those people who were intimately connected with the forest, it was very important to take into account what they wanted and how they used it and what their goals were. For those who weren’t, governments could come up with an alternative to forest use unlikely to be as terribly damaging to the communities.”
All people in forests tend to be oppressed, but most of the gender literature has focused on the oppression of women typically by men including by outsiders who also happen to be men, she added.
“Masculinity varies enormously from place to place, and in gender studies on forests, we’ve focused on what women do for a couple of decades,” Colfer said. “This book is an attempt to also start telling about what men are doing, not to discount the importance of telling about what women are doing.”
Overall, she proposes an adaptive collaborative management approach – exchanges between cosmopolitan and Indigenous knowledge that can be replicated around the world.
“Not that there’s a cookie cutter way to do it, but we need to be working collaboratively with communities to find out about what they want and need and to find out what they know that can be useful,” she said.
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Colfer, Carol J. Pierce. 2018. "Before and After the ‘Timber Wars’: Context, Change and Potential Collaboration on the Olympic Peninsula." Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 40:137-162.
Colfer, Carol J. Pierce. 1991. Toward Sustainable Agriculture in the Humid Tropics: Building on the Tropsoils Experience in Indonesia. Vol. No. 91/02, Tropsoils Technical Bulletin. Raleigh, North Carolina: North Carolina State University.