TMG Think Tank for Sustainability
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To protect ecosystems, invest in women’s capacities!

This International Women’s Day we highlight the importance of women to the success of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030

by Harry Stopes, Jes Weigelt and Wangu Mwangi | 2021-03-08

To protect ecosystems, invest in women’s capacities!

2021 to 2030 is the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a programme coordinated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of the earth’s ecosystems.

The protection and restoration of ecosystems around the world — whether in farmland, oceans, peatlands, forests, savanna or even urban areas — can help to end poverty, combat climate change and prevent mass extinctions of many species. The restoration of 350 million hectares of degraded terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems by 2030 — one of the goals of the Bonn Challenge — could remove up to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Restoration will also be a vital component of global efforts to meet the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and its Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs), with effects ranging from the elimination of poverty for those who depend on healthy ecosystems for their livelihoods(SDG 1), to the sustainable use of oceans and land (SDG14 & SDG 15), and the promotion of gender equality (SDG 5).

The Decade will enjoy its official public launch on World Environment Day, celebrated each year on 5 June. However, to substantially reverse the current high rates of land degradation globally, it is vital that planning processes recognise the need to empower all the world’s people to play a role in ecosystem restoration. As the official strategy for the Decade has already acknowledged, it is essential to build the capacity of those populations that not only stand to lose most from the continued destruction of ecosystems but are already leading efforts to protect them. As we celebrate this International Women’s Day, therefore, we discuss why measures to protect ecosystems must be designed and led by women, giving some examples of how this can be achieved.

Women are vital to the sustainable management of ecosystems and their successful restoration. Nearly half of the world’s smallholder famers are women, in some regions producing a large majority of the food consumedWomen and girls often bear responsibility for access to and management of communal resources — they are responsible for water collection in 80% of households without access to water on the premises. Their participation is therefore vital to any project aimed at ensuring such resources are managed sustainably.

Yet despite their important role in using and managing resources, women are too often excluded from fair or secure access to them, to decision-making structures, or to other aspects relevant to ecosystem restoration. In more than half of the world’s countries laws or customs hinder women’s ownership or access to land. Women control an overall global average of around just 12.8 per cent of agricultural land. Without security of tenure, they have little incentive to invest in sustainable land management practices such as tree planting and soil conservation, which are vital to ecosystem restoration. Such is the case where women make efforts to improve soil fertility only to have land holders reclaim such land for cash crop farming and other male-dominated activities.

Women smallholder farmers with land tenure insecurity risk losing their land when they improve its soil productivity.

Other barriers to women’s participation in ecosystem restoration include, depending on local circumstances: the exclusion of women from customary or statutory structures of governance and decision-making; inadequate access to technical knowledge and information networks, in part due to their exclusion from formal education; difficulties in accessing credit; and donor organisations’ perception that cooperation with male landowners offers easier, guaranteed, results.

TMG works with local partners in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Benin, India and elsewhere to develop locally appropriate, and socially innovative strategies for overcoming such barriers. Our research shows that securing land access and use rights for marginalised land users, including women, does not always require national policy reforms. In western Burkina Faso we worked with our local partner Group de Recherche et d’Action sur le Foncier (GRAF), to develop locally drawn up and endorsed tenure agreements.GRAF experts facilitated dialogues through village assemblies, focus group discussions, and one-to-one conversations. After men and women had agreed on the transfer of land use rights, the secured plots were GPS-referenced, documented and validated by the village assembly in the presence of the mayor. In our pilot village of Tiarako over 200 women today have, individually or collectively, secure access to 189 fields, amounting to a total of over 400 hectares. You can see a short video about our work inTiarako here.

Our experience further shows that political recognition of community-developed land tenure and land-use agreements can be secured subsequently. By working with civil society organisations as facilitators, engaging key local officials such as mayors throughout the process, and supporting the formalisation of agreements into local planning and by-laws, communities can ensure that statutory authorities reinforce rather than undermine their activities.

It is important that interventions are designed from the outset with the participation of women and other excluded groups. This includes recognising that without taking deliberate measures, “bottom up” consultations may merely reinforce the interests of the most powerful individuals and groups — both male and female — within a community. Support programmes therefore need to pay attention to issues such as the time and venue of meetings to fit in with women’s daily schedule, as well as the practical needs of the most vulnerable and food-insecure households, including female-headed households. When working with civil society and community organisations, it is also important to reflect on whose interests they represent.

Wherever she is in the world, a woman has many characteristics, identities and roles, besides her gender. When they take on leadership positions, women draw on this intersectional experience in caring for their families, communities, and the broader environment. As Violet Shivutse, Director of our partner organisation, Shibuye Community Health Workers, in western Kenya, explains: “Our work on land is the most important work that we do… helping women to understand that it is important for them to be part of land governance.”

By building capacity among women at the community level, the organisation supports women in claiming and defending their rights, with effects that ripple outwards into all areas of their lives. On International Women’s Day, we would like to reiterate the importance of recognising, and effectively engaging women as agents of change in protecting the world’s ecosystems.

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