Ecological Restoration and Gender

By Meenakshi Singh

Changing global climate patterns, receding forests, intensive industrialization, urbanization and concretization have all led to awakening of environmental conscience discussed by people like Aldo Leopold (in Sand County Almanac and The Land Ethic) and Rachel Carsen (in The Silent Spring). Concerns for environment have been on the rise since late twentieth century with international initiatives such as Brundtland Commission for ‘Our Common Future’ and Sustainable Development and passing of laws at national and state level such as UK Clean Air Acts after the Great Smog in London and movements such as Chipko Andolan or Narmada Bachao Andolan in India. Another response to ecological degradation has been the establishment of the practice of Ecological Restoration. Though people have been engaged in the practice of replenishing nature since long, for example by providing manure or leaving the land fallow after agriculture for it to regain its nutrients and fertility, the science of restoration ecology has gained prominence as a formal field of applied sciences in recent decades. Ecological Restoration, defined as ‘the process of assisting recovery of an ecosystem that has been damaged, degraded or destroyed’ (SER Primer), initially focused only on the science but has of late laid importance on human dimension. Involving local societies and different stake holders in the restoration process and planning has been discussed by many restoration practitioners and theorists, stating the importance of inclusion as ethical as well as practical. Human societies do not present a homogeneous entity, hence considering the role of class, race, caste, gender and other factors is significant for a meaningful and effective inclusion. Gender specifically, that generally divides the human population into two major factions, namely men and women, affects the planning and outcomes of restoration to a large extent.

Gender, as defined by World Health Organization, refers to ‘socially constructed characteristics of women and men- such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men’. This socially constructed bifurcation also results in different perceptions about and relation with forests. As Aggarwal discusses, women and men vary in the nature of their dependence on forests and its extent, and the reason for this difference in gender division of labour and gender division of economic resources. Women have the responsibility of running the households and collect items such as fuelwood, fodder, which are consumed within the house and are required on daily basis. Men on the other hand essentially collect timber from the forest for occasional use such as building or mending agricultural tools or constructing houses. The occasional demand leaves men with enough free time to pursue employment opportunities and generate income which could also be used to purchase timber instead of collecting from the forest at times. Women, with the responsibility of getting fuelwood and fodder daily, have lesser or no means of income generation and hence depend on forest more.

This gender based distinction of dependence on natural resources and its extent also differentiates the expectations and decisions for restoration project. For example, there might be difference in not only what women and men prefer to be restored but also how much time they are willing to invest in the restoration process. Men might want timber yielding plant and ready to wait for it longer (due to occasional requirement), women, whereas, might insist on fast growing plant species efficient for good fuelwood and fodder supply (for their regular requirement) and might want to harvest the plants from restored land from early on. Majority of the restoration projects however are still gender blind as reviewed by Broeckhover and Cliquet. They explain how in spite of considering and mentioning gender and its implication in ecological restoration in various international policies such as Convention on Biological Diversity (Paragraph 13 in Preamble) or the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (Targets 14 and 15), there has remained a gap between gender and ecological restoration. Bridging this gap would not only provide meaning to ecological restoration but also provide possibilities for gender equality as happened in the Azraq Oasis Restoration Project in Jordan. This IUCN project for restoring the Ramsar Site, Azraq Oasis, paid attention to the gender dimension of the project from the beginning and took it into consideration when executing the project activities. The result was a successful project from restoration perspective and, also, a substantial difference in the attitude of the local community towards acceptance and support of women’s roles in such projects.

As we move from science centred theories to incorporate socially acceptable and relatable goals in restoration, it becomes vital to realize the significance of understanding the heterogeneity in human society and its implications. Gender, being an important factor in creating this heterogeneity, needs to be considered and studied in detail in relation to ecological restoration. Connecting gender and ecological restoration has potential social and cultural impacts which need to be recognized and implemented.

References:

Aggarwal, B. 2010. Gendered interests and the environment. Pages 31-54 in B. Aggarwal. Gender and green governance: the political economy of women’s presence within and beyond community forestry. Oxford University Press: New York.

Broeckhoven, N., & Cliquet, A. 2015. Gender and ecological restoration: time to connect the dots. Restoration Ecology 23:729-736.

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