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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The importance of women in forestry

Published: March 23, 2012
Section: Features

Bina Agarwal, director and professor of Economics at the Institute of Economic Growth of Delhi, India, who has explored the potential for women’s increased inclusion in forest governance delivered a lecture on campus Monday.

Agarwal traced the historical absence of women within the forestry industry. She illuminated the cultural and gender specific forces that have cultivated this pattern, while further presenting her analysis of forestry industries in Nepal and India to elucidate the potential for increased female participation.

In some cases, extraction from the forests can be beneficial, preventing dry regions from catching fire. Agarwal further showed images of groups of women participating in informal patrolling of the forests.

“The presence of women within forest government can significantly improve conservation and regeneration,” she said.

To further provide the distinctions between participation levels granted to women within the Community Forest Industry, or CFI, Agarwal traced a continuum from nominal to empowered participation. She defined nominal or passive participation as being informed, but said that empowered participation transcends this actually to bear influence upon the decision making process. In the words of a village woman from Gujarat, “Men don’t stop us from speaking, but they do all the talking.”

Beyond reflecting on the historical near absence of women within this industry, Agarwal went on to address the distinct motivations rural women would have toward the forests in comparison to men. She drew upon gender divisions of interests, including relative stakes in forest conservation and increased knowledge of plant species. Acknowledging the complexities of her argument, Agarwal noted that since women tend to be far more dependent on the forests than men, they could possibly be “much more compelled to extract from them,” enforcing the conflicting interests of “immediate subsistence and long term conservation.”

Both the data she has collected and the statements on behalf of women with whom she has spoken, however, tend to repudiate these concerns. For instance, within Nepal, the likelihood of the forests improving was higher for all women groups than those lacking female participants.

Remarking on the sense of empowerment associated with active participation, Agarwal quoted one female villager who stated: “We are seen as much more knowledgeable and much more responsible persons.” Due to the dependence on firewood and timber within these regions of Nepal and India, Agarwal asserted the need to provide villagers with alternative sources of fuel.

During the subsequent question-and-answer session, Agarwal confessed that “women were much more trusting than the men and more forthcoming on rule violations.”

She noted the need to create environments actively in which women felt able to speak. It is not only inclusion Agarwal is striving for, but also the ability for women to feel comfortable in this environment. Having recently published the findings of her research in the novel “Gender and Green Governance,” Agarwal notes: “Somehow environment has not yet fired the imagination of feminists in the women’s movement.”