Adaptive collaborative forest management spurs greater gender equity
A research program in Uganda and Nicaragua is using collaborative forest management to better address the social structures that inhibit women’s equal access to forest resources and decision making – and to drive changes that are promoting greater gender equity.
“Women are critical actors in forest management in Uganda and Nicaragua, but their participation in forestry decision making has not kept pace with reforms in broader political and economic systems to increase gender equity,” explains Esther Mwangi, Senior Scientist at CIFOR, who has spent over 15 years analyzing policies and practices affecting rights and access to natural resources and benefits.
With CIFOR’s Anne Larson and partners from Makerere University (Uganda), Nitlapan Institute of the Central American University (Nicaragua), the Association of Uganda Professional Women in Agriculture and Environment (Uganda), and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (USA), Mwangi is conducting research using a technique called Adaptive Collaborative Management to give women greater voice and create a more gender-inclusive environment for forest use and management.
“Recent approaches to forest management in many developing countries have been moving towards greater community participation and decision-making power. But the evidence shows that women – who are among the poorest of the poor and often depend on forest resources for income, subsistence, and a safety net – continue to be marginalized in rule making processes and in the distribution of forest resource benefits,” says Anne Larson, Principal Scientist at CIFOR.
Numerous countries, such as Uganda and Nicaragua, have signed international conventions for gender equity and enacted constitutional guarantees for women’s rights. But they have not created priorities, plans, or mandates that can translate such policies into action. And as Mwangi explains, high-level policies may not address the social and cultural mores dictating what happens on the ground.
“While there is recognition that local governance of natural resources is key to the autonomy and inclusive development of local communities and indigenous territories, less attention has been paid to local dynamics—especially around gender—that determine who governs what,” she says.
In previous research work, Mwangi and others have found that social and behavioral norms, gendered divisions of labor, and cultural practices constrain women’s visibility, mobility, and participation. In addition, even where laws encourage gender equity, in practice women have far less access than men to land, rights, and resources.
This current study is focused on strengthening women’s inclusion and access to forest and tree resources through methods of negotiation facilitated by trusted intermediaries. The application of Adaptive Collaborative Management encourages collaborative problem-solving and learning among stakeholders and creates linkages between participants and external actors, such as NGOs and district officials. It is brokered by an objective and trusted third-party entity (e.g., NGO, university) that helps to equalize the discussion and to resolve or pre-empt conflicts.
“Property rights are embedded in socio-cultural systems and hence subject to negotiation. However, not everyone has the leverage or capability to negotiate—hence the usefulness of trusted third parties, who can level the playing field and provide a ‘safe’ platform for discussion and negotiation,” says Concepta Mukasa of the Association of Uganda Professional Women in Agriculture and Environment.
The method was implemented for two years in 15 sites chosen randomly from 36 research sites across both Uganda and Nicaragua. The purpose was to identify and implement actions that would strengthen women’s rights, participation, and influence over forest resources and management decisions, while building the community management of forest resources.
The results, based on evaluations of the processes, content, and outcomes from the perspectives of both participants and facilitators, revealed some considerable gains and achievements. Women’s leadership, confidence, and participation improved substantially, with increasing acceptance by men.
“Results were particularly impressive in Uganda, where women now occupy about half of the leadership roles in the six sites, compared to only about 16% previously. And four of the six sites now have women chairpersons. They are more assertive and likely to seek out external actors for advice and support, unlike before,” says Mukasa.
The large increases are significant, as previous research has identified the need for a critical mass of women in leadership positions before gender issues can be successfully incorporated and addressed. Moreover, it is important that they represent women in the local communities and not the urban elite women, whose lives are very much removed from those of the rural poor.
In both countries, the communities have benefited in ways that reflect both women’s and men’s preferences. They have experienced improved coordination with forestry agencies, research organizations, and NGOs involved in forestry. And they have become better at leveraging resources to obtain donations of seedlings for reforestation, receive community training to establish tree nurseries or bee-keeping operations, obtain portions of forest reserves to use and manage, and more.
The process has increased joint learning and gender responsiveness, not only among male and female participants but also with officials and NGOs. As Mwangi notes, the inclusion of men, as opposed to focusing on women exclusively, is critical.
“If women’s rights are acquired through their relationships to men, it would be foolhardy not to include men in processes of women’s empowerment,” she explains.
“Rights to resources are heavily patriarchal, and women’s rights are dependent on their relationships with their fathers, brothers, husbands, etc. It is similar to any reform process, where we have to get the elites on board. If not, they have the resources and better organization to resist, undermine, or even sabotage, the reform process. Inclusion of those who have control and make the decisions is at the heart of this kind of transformation—we need to bring men to the side of strengthening women’s rights,” adds Mwangi.
The research project which falls under the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry is moving into a second phase currently, and one of the questions of interest is to understand what kind of dynamics within groups of men and women can lead to favorable outcomes. Mwangi notes that data suggest that the outcomes for forest governance are better when user groups are gender balanced rather than dominated by either men or women. Moving forward, she and her co-researchers are hoping to get a better sense of which interactions, such as conflict management or giving women more voice, seem to produce more positive and effective results.
Another focus of the new phase is to scale up and scale out the project within both Uganda and Nicaragua, and to build sustainability for lasting gains beyond the project. Part of the work will involve collaborating with government officials to identify strategies for implementing policies meant to increase gender equity, such as those guaranteeing secure forest tenure laws for women.
Mwangi points out that any impacts and long-lasting advances from the research are highly dependent on partnerships, particularly at the grass-roots as well as at the policy level.
“I am struck by how much we work with partners at CIFOR and the importance of partnerships within the CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs),” says Mwangi.
“We are being held accountable for outcomes that we cannot meet alone, but rather require the added capabilities of our partners. Having gender-focused partners is critical for any program intended to transform gender relations,’ she concludes.
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