In the Colombian Amazon, Men and Women Share Conservation Benefits

© Jeremy Holden

Editor's note: This blog is the eighth post in our “Gender + Conservation” blog series. 

Deep in the Amazonian rainforest of southern Colombia, the thunderous Rio Caquetá winds through the densely forested flatlands before entering nearby Brazil as the Rio Japurá. Across this remote region, a series of indigenous reserves, national parks and forest reserves conserve and protect some 2.5 million hectares (almost 6.2 million acres) of unparalleled wildlife, including the black caiman and the black-headed uakari. This area is also home to several small indigenous and campesino (peasant) communities dotted along the mighty Caquetá.

Over the last 100 years, these communities have witnessed a boom and bust economy based on unsustainable extraction of rubber, cocaine, cedar and gold. Weak governance and a growing demand for fish for both local consumption and national markets have also led to an uncontrolled extraction of fisheries resources in these rivers and nearby lakes.

For more than a decade, CI Colombia has worked with these communities to identify and address the factors affecting the sustainable use of natural resources in their territories. In my 18 years of working in the Amazon, I’ve traveled many miles by river and small creek, had numerous encounters with magnificent wild animals, eaten countless meals with community members and had as many long and passionate conversations with them. These discussions have allowed me to see that we share many common views and aspirations about the future of these forests and the people who live here.

Using the conservation agreements model, communities take up activities such as patrolling the lakes and adjacent forests, and educating others about sustainable fishing practices and the importance of protecting ecosystems. In exchange, they receive monthly cash benefits, which they allocate toward particular causes like clothes and shoes for their children, medicines, small boat engines and goods such as sugar, salt and soap.

But how are those communal benefits decided on? And are the community’s decisions about the agreements fair and beneficial to everyone? We wanted to explore these questions more deeply, specifically to better understand how men and women were involved.

Over two months, we met with community leaders, held focus groups with men and women of the communities and looked back at the development and implementation of the agreements. We asked about traditional and current roles and responsibilities of men and women, how (or if) gender considerations were taken into account during project development, and the possible advantages and disadvantages for men and women throughout the implementation of the agreements.

We found that:

  • Communities in the region are in a cultural transition; traditional indigenous roles of men and women have been changing, particularly among the younger generations. Roles which were traditionally male, like collecting coca leaves or weaving thatching for roofs, are now also done by women. Likewise, roles that were traditionally female, like cooking, are now also done by men.
  • Despite these changes, women’s leadership has not advanced. The women surveyed reported a lack of understanding of the topics discussed in community forums, not finding support for their ideas and fear of being criticized for them as reasons for not being more active.

Specifically looking at the conservation agreements in this region:

  • Although gender was not explicitly considered during the design and implementation, women have played an active role and their interests have been taken into account.
  • The positive impacts of this project on men and women are considered equitable, based on the benefits that families are receiving for their participation. Most communities established as a rule that monthly patrols should be composed by a man and a woman, and this is being followed.
  • In many cases, decisions about what to do with the monetary benefits are agreed upon by the couple or the family group, and the money is generally managed by the woman.
  • Women report that an advantage of the project is that it allows them to be with their partners, jointly participating, as opposed to other male-dominated activities where men earn money which is then not usually shared with the family.

This project has allowed us to look more deeply at how gender within these communities impacts — and is impacted by — the conservation agreements. With this information, we realize that it will be important to develop workshops specifically to help women build skills and promote their participation in activities of the program in which they have not yet had the chance to participate in, such as biological monitoring.

Communities in this isolated region of Colombia are strongly working to protect their territories and conserve the important resources nature provides them. Unfortunately there is a growing pressure of illegal gold mining activities, which are posing new challenges more complex than past economic pursuits. However, by continuing to consolidate their conservation initiatives and strengthen their organizations, communities will be better prepared to meet these and other challenges as they arise.

Erwin Palacios is CI Colombia’s Amazon manager.