Forest loss is a global problem for all due to loss of livelihoods and a changing climate. However, it affects women and children disproportionally.
Although women’s increased vulnerability is due to a variety of causes such as poverty, weak governance and unjust laws, a key reason is women’s limited capacity to stand for their rights and have a say in the way natural resources are managed.
Whether caused by unsustainable logging or plantation development, forest loss exacerbates competition over resources and threatens women’s access to food, medicine, and other products that are essential for them and their families to survive and make a living. Today, indigenous and rural women make up more than half of the 2.5 billion people who depend on customary land. Despite this, they continue to be marginalised and excluded from decisions linked to forest and land management.
A 2019 Fern study, entitled Community forestry: Opportunity or mirage for women in the Congo Basin? shows that women living in the forested areas of the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Republic of Congo (Congo) tend to feel the impacts of deforestation and forest degradation more acutely due to their traditional roles and responsibilities. Rural women produce the majority of the food; and they are also accountable for cultivating land, collecting non-timber forest products, and collecting water and firewood. So when land and forests are degraded to the point that they no longer provide food, women and children are the most severely impacted.
In both countries, men and women recognise the importance of sound forest management not only for their livelihoods, but also for future generations. Community forestry is a great tool to make forest management more just, but government support is timid and patchy, and discussions still tend to exclude women. In Congo, according to the Bantu men and women surveyed, women do not necessarily have to play a key role, while in CAR, the Bantu and indigenous communities think that everyone, men and women should be involved in improving forest management. Nevertheless, both communities recognise that women deeply value their forests and that they have a rich understanding of forest protection, development and use. They are also aware that despite women’s important role, they are not yet given a more prominent place in decision making processes.
So how can women have a greater voice on decisions around forests?
Gender activists Philomène Biya and Nelly-Françoise Comte have been working for several years on environmental and climate justice with Réseau Femmes Africaines pour le Développement Durable (REFADD) in CAR and the African Women's Network for Community Management of Forests (REFACOF) in Congo respectively. They regret that women have not been sufficiently involved in decision-making processes related to illegal logging, deforestation, and land tenure, and have limited knowledge of ongoing governance reforms such as the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+).
Philomène and Nelly-Françoise explain that they “are simultaneously fighting for strengthening women's rights, eradicating poverty, and protecting forests, and are keeping on warning governments that agribusiness, agro-fuel production and land grabbing by multinationals are causing land loss, environment havoc, and further marginalising local and indigenous communities, and mostly women in them”.
“We are encouraged with the brave actions of community and indigenous women in Asia and Latin America who are successfully opposing land grabbing and forest destruction, and we share these examples with rural women to show that women can stand in defense of their ancestral land and human rights”, they added.
Fern believes that community forestry cannot succeed if it does not include women, and fully integrate gender issues in its development and implementation.
In Congo, the introduction of quotas for women's participation in decision-making bodies, particularly in the composition of local forest area councils must be built on.
In CAR, being clear about women’s rights within existing community forestry regulations would go a long way towards stimulating women’s leadership and generating broader support for their participation.
For Fern and local gender activists, progress means: developing forest and land tenure laws that promote equality between women and men; tackling discriminatory practices; educating women on their rights; and building their capacity to engage in forest governance processes, and access income generating opportunities.
Such actions would help make forest management beneficial for all community members in these countries, and deliver lessons for the Congo Basin as a whole. They therefore have to be at the heart of all efforts by EU donors and governments in the region to improve community and indigenous women’s lives while protecting and restoring forests.