World Rainforest Movement

Seeing the forests through women’s eyes

Forests are very important for people who live in or close to forest areas and use forests for their livelihood. However, people’s use of forests for daily subsistence, provision of food, medicines, shelter and agricultural production and for their social, cultural and spiritual well- being, are commonly undervalued or ignored. The dominant view often reflected in forestry decision-making and policies is to see forests as a physical resource with an economic and commercial value which can contribute to income for the state, private companies and individuals, rather than as being a social resource.

The “state control of land and forests resources” was a concept introduced and imposed during the colonial period, when other traditional resource use and customary ownership management systems already existed. This conflict between people and the state over these different views of land and forests is increasing, especially because it is affecting people or groups whose livelihoods depends on forests. Among them, women have experienced serious impacts due to changes in forest management, loss of forest resources and changes in livelihoods brought about by those state policies.

These impacts are analyzed in detail in the handbook on Gender, Forestry and Rural Livelihoods, recently published by Vanessa Griffen from APDC (Asian and Pacific Development Centre) “Seeing the Forest for the People”. The studies show major changes in livelihood and gender relations when women lose access to or control over forests resources. Women are “becoming even more marginalised and invisible as their traditional rights, knowledge and use of land and forest areas are changed by land legislation and forest policies which reduce women’s access to productive resources”.

The studies document that changes “have affected women the most, as women have fewer economic options than men in all countries.” Women are also losing their traditional status and their decision-making power in the household and community, while their physical and economic dependence on men is increasing. “Women’s traditional knowledge and use of forest resources, are being lost as traditional production systems change due to the loss of resources and also through forestry projects in which only men participate, and therefore have access to new knowledge, skills and income”.

Globalisation is also impacting on forest communities and men are forced to migrate to find work, “while women are left with productive and reproductive responsibilities for maintaining households. Women have to respond to problems of supply of food, water and fuel; as well as be responsible for childcare and care for the elderly.”

As part of the globalisation process, forests are being converted into monoculture plantations aimed at the global market, leading to loss of biodiversity. For women, loss of ecosystems they are familiar with implies the disappearance of productive resources used by them for food, fuel, water and other needs.

The book’s concluding remarks are of utmost importance for being addressed within the international debate on forests: “forestry is not just about trees and physical resources. Forests are a social and cultural environment as well as being vital for rural livelihoods, cultural identity and sustainability of peoples. Economic, social and cultural inequities as a result of loss of forest resources and rural livelihoods are felt most by women. New forms of gender inequality and male dominance and patriarchy will become more entrenched if this view of forests continues unchanged in the forestry sector.”

Article based on: “Seeing the Forest for the People, a Handbook on Gender, Forestry and Rural Livelihoods”, Vanessa Griffen, APDC (Asian and Pacific Development Centre), 2001.