Empowering women in forest governance contributes to forest conservation and poverty reduction

By Aye Chan Myae

According to the 2016 Global Climate Risk Index, Myanmar is the second most vulnerable country of climate change in the world and also has the third-highest annual rate of deforestation. Forests play a major role not only in Climate Change mitigation but also in reduction of poverty. However, the Myanmar Forest Cover Change report mentioned that forests are decreasing at the rate of 0.94 percent year by year, leading to impacts on livelihoods and food security of rural people. With 70 percent of Myanmar’s total population living in rural areas, they are often dependent on forests for collecting wood, herbal medicines, fruits, vegetables and other non-timber forest products from forests for their household food security and livelihoods.

As stated by Ma Ei Phyu, 35-year-old woman, Ma Noe Yone Village, Tanintharyi Region, for instance, “oil-palm Plantation Company took not only our upland and low land and also forest land area near our village. In the past, I collected bamboo and rattan for selling, vegetables for food and medicinal plants for traditional medicine. At that time, I could find forest products easily and it was plenty and very close to our village. But now, I did not see rattan and some medicinal plants. I can find bamboos and vegetable but it is not plenty as much as before. To get them, I have to spend lots of time because it can find the place where is very far from village. Sometime, I worried about my security. Moreover, elephants lost their habitats, leading to entering, eating and damaging paddy field and betel nut plantation.”

The governments at all levels have realized that community’s engagement in forest governance is essential to achieve sustainable resource management and poverty alleviation. Forest Policy (1995) highlights the six basic principles: protection, sustainability, basic needs, efficiency, participation, and public awareness. But, it still needs to address gender concerns. Moreover, community Forestry Instructions were formulated in 1995, and revised in 2016.

CFI (2016) allows establishing community forest, and describes gender equality concern in organizing management committee. However, it still lacks clear guidance on participatory benefit-sharing mechanisms and on differentiated rights and responsibilities of men and women in the use and management of forests and forest resources.

In communities, women and men are different in the nature and extent of their dependence on forests based on the gender division of labor and economic endowments. Women mostly collect firewood, fodder and non-timber forest products, but men mainly extract timber with greater potential. Gender differences in forest utilization reflect the differences in preferences and knowledge in forest products and conservation. Additionally, gender relation and division of labour shape the ability of men and women in forest conservation, meaning that the involvement of women in forest governance bodies can make the best conservation practices.

CFI (2016) mentioned that the management committee should be organized with elected Chairman, Secretary, Accountant and two members with consideration for gender equality among committee members. In practice, women are invisible in management committee of community forestry for varions reasons.

First of all, women lack awareness of their rights. Second is a male-dominated culture, and third is the lack of time, education, and other advantages and resources. To reach gender equality in Community Forestry, effectuating quota system in management committees is one of the best options because it improves representation of women in prominent positions, and ensures women take up managerial roles.

One study in India found that a higher proportion of women in decision-making bodies provided significantly greater improvements in forest conditions, with better forest regeneration and canopy growth even when establishing in smaller and more degraded forests.

By seeing gender division of labor, women have been engaged in various forest operations like establishing nurseries, selecting seedlings, replanting, and weeding, each of which contributes to the prevention of forest degradation. In turn, these activities provide extra household income for women. But, they need more knowledge of trees and better techniques for plantation. Women member of Management committee can spread that knowledge if they get dissemination of training from Forest Department and other organizations. It can also support to improve the reach of information about forest rules and rights to women within and outside the community.

As stated by Ma Thuzar Moe, 27 years old, Secretary of Management Committee, Htain Chaung Village, Tanintharyi Region, for example, “I learned the processes of Community Forestry and rights of community especially women After the training, I shared this knowledge with my family, friends and other members during leisure time and meeting time. Still, the proportion of male member in Community Forest User Group is higher than female but I realized those women members are active more and more.”

Is Community Forestry Enterprise providing the support in fighting poverty for communities, especially women? In CFI (2016), it allows to establish community forestry enterprise in order to extract forest product with sustainable yield under the permission of the Forest Department. Mandatory women in Management Committee can help in equal benefit sharing of the profit from extracting forest products. If the community reserved some proportion of profit as a revolving fund for women in order to invest in value chain of non-timber forest product, this in turn could increase income generation for women and reduce poverty.

To increase forest cover and reduce poverty, women’s participation in forest governance bodies is essential.

Aye Chan Myae is a Forest Governance and Gender Specialist who is currently working on gender mainstreaming in community-based natural resource governance. She is a member of Landesa’s Visiting Professionals Women’s Land Rights Network.