Editor's note: This blog is the fifth post in Human Nature’s “Gender + Conservation” blog series.
If you’re quiet enough, you may be able to spot one of the forest’s furry inhabitants in the high reaches of the canopy.
Despite the many threats facing Madagascar’s lemurs and the forests on which they depend, there is some hope for their survival. In the remote southeast region of the country, we are working with local communities to reduce threats and create sustainable livelihoods for people that do not rely on the destruction of forests.
Although I usually work in our main office in the capital city, I’m here in the field to lead a team looking at how men and women engage in CI’s conservation work.
A decade ago, we started working in the Fandriana Vondrozo Corridor, one of the country’s last remaining intact wildlife corridors linking two prominent national parks.
Rich in biodiversity, this forest absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, an especially important climate change mitigation service in a country where only 18 percent of the land is still covered by forest. It also plays a more direct, crucial role in the lives of the local communities who rely on forest products, ecotourism and the presence of international scientific research teams to support many of their livelihoods.
Although CI Madagascar has always encouraged both men and women to participate in our conservation projects, we had never really studied how this played out, and what barriers might be keeping people from participating fully.
Along with a local gender consultant, we headed to five of the villages that CI works closely with, all of which sit amid a mosaic of agricultural and forest lands. Moving from village to village, we sat with the men and the women of each to listen to their stories and better understand how they are involved in conservation and livelihood activities.
What we learned was a bit surprising. Although women had previously been involved in small livelihoods-focused projects such as handicrafts, health and sanitation and home gardening, we realized that women had limited involvement in the forest management groups we work closely with.
In this region, as in many others in Madagascar and around the world, social norms dictate that men lead the communities, and women are largely left out of decision-making structures. These cultural values and customs can be strong within the communities, and pose quite a challenge for addressing gender inequalities.
In addition to not necessarily feeling comfortable participating in meetings, women also reported a lack of knowledge and education about the subject. Most are illiterate, and often they simply don’t have the time to learn due to household chores.
When we talked to Esther, a member of the local association for forest conservation and ecotourism development at Itaolana Mijoro village, she said that she would be willing to contribute more to the association’s various activities. But because she has to feed her household every day, she is only able to contribute to the activities that take place within the village, such as acting as treasurer of the association and preparing food for guests.
We also gathered more information about how men and women share responsibility within some projects, based on their unique skill sets. In the community gardening projects in Sahavondronana village, men tend to do the physical labor while women cultivate the seeds.
In other activities, it is much more difficult for both men and women to be involved, as in the case of ecological monitoring and forest patrolling which requires being gone from the home for many days and walking for long distances.
This exercise has helped us understand how important it is to consider gender within our projects, and that gender needs to be more deeply assessed in order to improve our conservation approach. Some of the specific steps we will take include:
- Changing the medium of communication, relying more on images and radio instead of writing;
- Considering providing child care during meetings so that mothers can bring children; and
- Highlighting gender in all new project proposals.
We realize we are only in the beginning stages of really exploring gender and conservation in our work in Madagascar, and that there is much further to go. We will look to our fellow conservation and development organizations to share learning and spark dialogue on how to address some of these deeply-entrenched social norms that do not allow for equality.
With this better understanding of men’s and women’s roles and responsibilities in relation to the environment, I know we can improve how we support local communities and organizations to protect this important forest and its unique inhabitants.
Zo Lalaina Rakotobe is the outcomes monitoring manager at CI Madagascar. She was a technical coordinator of the gender study. Read previous blogs in this series.