Forests – a feminist issue

18 Aug

This is cross-posted from the Call4 blog

I have been to the last two COPs (climate change conferences) – in Poznan and Copenhagen. They were both incredibly draining and frustrating, watching our negotiators move ever-so-slowly to a not-quite-conclusion. It is enough to make you swear off climate policy for good. But (sigh) I keep on coming back for more. Why? Because there are vital issues at stake.

We cannot forget about the UNFCCC process (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). If we dismiss it, it will dismiss us. So many of the decisions being made this year in Bonn, China and Mexico, are by old, rich, white men – not the same group of people who are going to be most impacted by the affects of climate change – women, indigenous communities, the young, the poor.

One text within the UNFCCC process that looks near completion is REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) which, as it stands, threatens the livelihoods of women across the world.  Irrespective of whether the principles of REDD are sound, the host city for COP16 this November (that’s the 16th climate change conference to you and me) is Mexico, who would like nothing better than to say that they had helped seal the deal on REDD, and so will push countries to agree.

Of course we could say that this is exactly what we are working towards – for countries to pull their fingers out and agree on something that can contribute to keeping us under 2 degrees global warming. But rushing an agreement through that does not take into account the particular needs of disadvantaged and minority groups, particularly women within indigenous communities, could end up making everything a whole lot worse.

The link between gender and climate change (and believe me, there is one) is in danger of being seriously overlooked by the REDD text – unforgivable considering that women are so involved in forest management and dependent on forest resources.

According to WOCAN (Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and NRM), there are three major issues concerning the involvement of women in REDD:

1) Deforestation often severely increases women’s labour and time for fuelwood collection for cooking and heating. At the same time, conservation measures that bar entrance into protected forests (as part of a nation’s REDD program, for example) also increase women’s labour and time demands as they go further afield, sometimes forcing parents to remove their children from school to help with collection tasks. Monoculture tree plantations (as included in REDD programs) generally have negative impacts on women’s livelihoods as they cannot provide the multiple benefits of fuelwood, fodder, medicine, water and soil nutrient retention, etc.

2) Women are commonly without any formal rights to land or forests. Under statutory or customary laws, most tropical forests are owned by indigenous peoples or forest dependent communities but it cannot be assumed that women have equal rights with men to these lands. Land claims may be affected by privatization as corporations, international conservation agencies and governments scurry to acquire land for REDD.

3) There are many cases of women’s groups successfully managing forestry and agroforestry projects, nurseries and woodlots, yet women continue to be nominal stakeholders in decision-making and planning. If decision-making processes of REDD fail to acknowledge the roles, skills and knowledge of women, the sustainable use and management of forests for climate change mitigation will be severely constrained.

Having said all this, REDD does provide opportunities to make significant, immediate and direct contributions to the lives of rural women. REDD can reward women for their biodiversity stewardship (especially regarding saving seeds and nurturing trees) through targeted and effective public governance

measures that pay them for their time. It could also provide a renewed focus on reforms to decentralize forest management and institutions, to make them more accessible and responsive to the needs of rural women. Thus it could reduce the vulnerability of women to climate change while also creating new financing and mechanisms to address poverty alleviation goals.

And it is of utmost importance that we keep the pressure on REDD to make the most of these opportunities. Without a strong text, the lives of rural women will become incredibly difficult. Without a loophole-free text (for example, the UN definition of forests currently fails to differentiate between plantations and forests), deforestation may yet continue, contributing to nightmarish situations similar to that in Malaysia in the palm oil plantations. Over half of the workforce in the plantation are women, performing the most menial and underpaid jobs on contract – most often the role of pesticide sprayer. These women have been described as “poisoned and silenced” – without any proper protective equipment they deal with toxic chemicals such as the insecticide Parakat (which women are much more susceptible to because of our thinner skins) and suffer all kinds of terrible health consequences, with no medical care available to them.

So what we can do to ensure REDD properly considers and responds to the role of women with regards to the protection of forests across the world, before they sign it off in November?

First off, we can talk about it. We must not underestimate the power of raising awareness about these issues, and about the situation that many women will find themselves in should they not get a fair deal. We can support organizations such as the Green Belt Movement, who are doing fantastic work with women and tree planting in Kenya, or the Women’s Environment Network who have a dedicated programme that raises awareness of the link between gender and climate change. We can get involved in female-led activist groups like Climate Rush, set up our own, or find our own way to stand in solidarity with women across the world. Get involved. It’s not too late. If you are a woman, start thinking about governance and decision-making as something you could do. We might be running out of time, but we can only change things if we’re in it for the long haul.

Above all, we must keep pressuring our governments, decide not to give up, and know that even though Copenhagen failed, things do move forward (even if ever-so-slowly). To take our eye off the ball even for one second might mean a text full of holes and we’d be missing a real opportunity – not only to reduce deforestation and protect our warming world, but to protect and improve the lives of women across it.

Picture credit Marc Johns

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