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Women Significantly Improve Conservation of The Forests in India

By Pamela Philipose, Womens Feature Service

Bina Agarwal, Director and Professor of Economics, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, has written a pioneering new book entitled “Gender and Green Governance”. The book explores a central question: If women had adequate representation in forestry institutions, would it make a difference to themselves, their communities, and forests as a national resource?

Pamela Philipose interviewed Agarwal in Delhi.

Philipose: Why has access to forests been such a conflict-ridden issue?

Agarwal: This is not surprising, given their importance both for conservation and for livelihoods. In the context of global warming, forests are recognized as carbon sinks. They are major sources of biodiversity. They constitute not just community and national wealth, but global wealth. But for millions, forests are also critical for livelihoods and their daily lives.

Philipose: Your first book, “Cold Hearths and Barren Slopes” in 1986, was about forests. Is there an evolution of argument here?

Agarwal: Yes indeed. In “Cold Hearths and Barren Slopes,” I had argued that social forestry, with its top-down implementation and focus on commercial species such as Eucalyptus, was neither social nor forestry, and would protect neither forests nor village livelihoods. The answer, I argued, lay in allowing forest communities to manage local forests. Many communities were already doing so, but policy lagged behind.

Philipose: But has this argument not been made before?

Agarwal : Economists researching environmental collective action have paid little attention to gender. And scholars from other disciplines focusing on gender and governance have been concerned mainly with women’s near absence from governance institutions. The presumption is that once women are present all good things will follow. But can we assume this? No. Rural women’s relationship with forests is complex.

Philipose: What were the challenges in doing this?

Agarwal: Well, for a start, there was no existing data set for such analysis. So I collected my own in three districts of Gujarat and three of Nepal. Fieldwork was difficult, especially in Nepal where Maoist insurgency was at its height. Nevertheless, my research team and I talked with village committees, male and female villagers, guards, and foresters.

Philipose: What did you find?

Agarwal: To share some of the highlights, first, women’s greater presence enhances their effective voice in decision-making.

Second, and unexpectedly, groups with more women typically make stricter forest use rules. I had expected less strict rules since women need to extract more given their daily needs of firewood and fodder. So why do they make stricter rules? Mainly because they receive poorer forests from the forest department.

Third, groups with more women outperform other groups in improving forest conditions, despite getting poorer forests. Involving women substantially improves protection and conflict resolution, helps the use of their knowledge of local bio-diversity, and raises children’s awareness about conservation.

Philipose: A win-win situation?

Agarwal: Up to a point. Since both conservation and gender equity outcomes are positive with women’s greater presence in forest committees. Firewood and fodder shortages are also lower.

Philipose: What are the policy implications of all this?

Agarwal: Let me highlight a few. Given that women’s higher presence in forest management significantly improves conservation. We must recognize their key contribution to efficient outcomes and not just towards improved welfare.

Second, groups with more women are likely to sustain better, since they better fulfil the conditions identified by many, including Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, for building enduring institutions for managing the commons.

Third, while one-third is a good percentage to aim for, it is also important to ensure women’s effective voice. And for that equity of 50 per cent is needed.

Fourth, we need to especially involve poor women in governance.

Fifth, we must look not only at women’s impact on policies but also on implementation.

Sixth, how do we increase women’s numbers and influence? I suggest forming “a web of strategic alliances” between forestry groups and local women’s groups, especially self-help groups, of which India has over 2.3 million.

Seventh, long-term environmental sustainability will require village access to alternative fuels, building materials, and livelihoods that are less forest dependent.

Philipose: What is the difference between the groups you studied and the Chipko movement?

Agarwal: Chipko was key for challenging the long held assumption of governments that communities destroy forests. It demonstrated that communities are often more interested and effective than the forest department in protecting forests. Chipko also highlighted women’s role as forest protectors.

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