COP26 delegates should address gender gap in inequitable land policies, scientists say

Craft tenure policies to protect women’s right to gather harvests
A néré tree (Parkia biglobosa) and fruit, Sorobouly village near Boromo, Burkina Faso. CIFOR/Ollivier Girard

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Women’s access and ownership rights to land and trees are key to addressing global warming, biodiversity loss and the inequity crisis, the authors of a study said in the run-up to the U.N. COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.

The two-week summit is an opportunity for countries to scale up their climate commitments through action on gender inequality. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the parent treaty of the 2015 Paris Agreement – recognizes that women play a vital role in achieving its goals due in part to their local knowledge and leadership in sustainable resource management at household and community level.

Women are overwhelmingly the poorest farmers in the world, responsible for feeding their families, and remaining at home as sole household managers when men migrate for work.

“We don’t have much time left to address the climate crisis,” says Houria Djoudi, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) and co-author of the study. “COP 26 should be the COP of Urgent Action to address the root causes of vulnerabilities. Without major shifts in rights and land tenure to secure access to land and trees, women’s adaptive capacity is jeopardized. This can be improved if trees and forests are better integrated in adaptation policies at the national and global levels.”

The study, which was conducted by CIFOR and Bioversity International, found that oversimplified land policies fail to address complex tree-tenure systems in Burkina Faso, where women’s access to land and income-generating néré trees is restricted, based on their respective positions in the social hierarchy. This is complicated by the overlapping of tenure systems between national regulations and customary rights.

Gender, ethnicity, marital status and other factors define such rights in this West African country, forcing vulnerable women to develop strategies to overcome these social and legal obstacles. This may involve premature harvesting at night, the collection of leftover pods from the first harvest, or the provision of labor in exchange for a percentage of the reaped produce.

The African locust bean tree (Parkia biglobosa) – known as néré in Burkina Faso – plays a key role in the diets of rural and urban populations across West Africa. The tree’s most valuable part is its pod, whose pulp and seeds are used to prepare soumbala, a nutritious condiment that helps flavor grain-based recipes and provides sustenance for children, according to the study, which was conducted in three villages in the center-west region of the country.

In Burkina Faso, the sale of néré products annually generates $270 for a rural household – representing the price of seeds from 20 trees – while the soumbala business accounts for about $8.3 million in the national economy, according to 2005 data.

Women are the main harvesters of néré pods, which provide them with income through the sale of soumbala, and with a nutritious ingredient to feed their families. Rural women derive one third of their income from the sale of néré products, according to the study.

However, the regeneration of néré – which also enhances soil fertility and provides shade for cereal crops – is under threat due to increased demand pressures, the use of machines for cash crops, its desirability from growing market value, as well as disincentives created by shifts in land tenure systems.

Therefore, changes at a local or national level can simultaneously help reduce gender inequality, promote the planting of néré trees and support Burkina Faso’s Nationally Determined Contributions on climate change.

“It is necessary to align customary rights with law,” says Catherine Pehou, a CIFOR-ICRAF researcher who led the study. “Right now, the only rules and regulations applied at the community level are traditional and customary rights. Some of them allow women to have access, but very few women have control over resources. Leaders at COP26 can help remedy this inconsistency by strengthening gender rights in their climate policies.”

In villages, local land charters are good opportunities to take into account all stakeholders, especially women and youth. This can be enhanced by promoting activities that change attitudes and raise awareness in rural areas to improve access for vulnerable groups, Pehou adds.

While women’s rights were enshrined in national land laws in 2007 and 2009, they have received little recognition and largely rely on scarce funding from international development programs. For example, only 11 rural land ownership certificates were issued to women from a total of 202 in one experimental pilot program, according to a World Bank study.

“Given the patrilineal structure of the rural communities in this region and elsewhere, traditional authorities still don’t allow women control over resources and/or land,” Djoudi says. “Control over land remains male, and women are excluded from decision-making processes. This shows the complexity of the local context and cultural norms, and the necessity to adopt solutions at scale as there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when addressing land tenure inequities.”

Conceptualizing women as a single homogeneous group risks neglecting the specific constraints that they face in accessing and using tree resources. This social division can be seen along ethnic lines, for example, with the Nouni (also known as Gurunsi) recognized as the original inhabitants of the region, while the Mossé and Fulani are viewed as migrants who moved into the area in stages over the past four decades.

“Social re-organization redistributes the cards and excludes women from the game,” Djoudi says. “In the context of multicultural diversity, as seen in Burkina Faso, the needs of each women’s group might be different and should be addressed accordingly.”

The study was funded by the Austrian Development Agency and received additional support from the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry as well as the CGIAR Trust Fund Donors.

For more information on this topic, please contact Houria Djoudi at
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