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What does gender have to do with conservation?

In a remote, arid region of southwest Madagascar, the main source of local income is women’s work.

In this case, it’s octopus fishing.

Each day, as the men of the community set sail at dawn to fish in deep waters, women wait for the tide to recede. Joined by their children and armed with well-used spears, the women venture out to the reef flats. Octopus hide in burrows or dens in the reef flat, and these women are experts at catching them, jabbing their spears into a den, twisting the spear slowly around until the octopus’ tentacles wrap together, and carefully pulling out the prize.

For years now, communities in this region have closed off certain areas of their reef flats — where reef and shoreline meet — for several months at a time to allow the fishery to recover. Yet women weren’t being included in community discussions about closing the octopus fishery, even though the closure was going to directly affect them.

“What we learned from talking to these women is that they weren’t included in the decision-making about the octopus fishery closures because of time and logistical constraints, and in many cases, they didn’t feel comfortable engaging in community decision-making,” says Kame Westerman, gender adviser at Conservation International, who was working in Madagascar at the time. “But the women had more intimate knowledge of octopus fishing, and any decisions about managing it were going to affect their ability to make money for their families and put food on the table.”

In working with these communities, Westerman says, men and women began to recognize the need to actively incorporate the women octopus fishers in meetings. The women decided they felt more comfortable meeting separately to agree on a unified plan about fishery closures, which they then presented to the larger group. Five years later, the fisheries are thriving, and the women have a say in their livelihoods.

It’s a situation that is lived out daily around the globe: Women and men experience environmental issues differently, and too often, women are excluded from decision-making processes that affect the environments they depend on — including conservation efforts aimed at helping communities adapt to climate change and resource scarcity. Change is slow to come, especially in the face of longstanding laws and social mores.

In honor of International Women’s Day, March 8, Human Nature talked to Conservation International field staff about their perspectives on why gender matters in conservation.

Question: First of all, what does gender have to do with the conservation of nature?

Dianne Balraj, Policy Manager, Guyana: Incorporating gender means understanding the needs and priorities of the entire community we work with — men and women, people of different ages and political affiliations — to help bring benefits to everyone. Gender isn’t just about women; for instance, there are girls and boys and elderly men who are also excluded from decision-making in their communities.

Candido Pastor, Technical Manager, Bolivia: It’s about efficiency — if we work with both women and men, we’ll get better conservation results. In the same way, a soccer coach must work with all the players on a team to win a game, not just the goalkeeper. At the end of the day, taking an inclusive approach — meaning women and men are included in the process equally, and their priorities are given equal weight — moves us towards a more democratic society.

Nolu Kwayimani, One Health-WASH Program Manager, South Africa: People are part of the nature that surrounds them — you can’t remove the human element and expect to have effective conservation. For instance, Conservation International’s One Health-WASH project in South Africa focuses on protecting freshwater sources as part of improving the health of people, livestock and nature. Since women traditionally fetch water for domestic use and crops, they know more about local water supplies and the conditions of their water resources. Men, on the other hand, use water primarily for their livestock. These two specific roles in the community relate to one resource that everyone needs: water.

Montserrat Alban, Environmental Services Manager, Ecuador: Incorporating gender into conservation is as essential as knowing English or computer science — it’s essential for our work and it’s the right thing to do.

Q: What are the challenges you face in advancing gender-inclusive conservation?

Whitney Anderson, Coral Triangle Initiative Program Manager, United States: Unfortunately, there are so many misconceptions about gender, and intimidating stereotypes can often prevent us from getting anywhere. When people hear the word “gender,” they assume we’re only talking about women’s empowerment.

Kwayimani, South Africa: For so long, conservationists have focused on natural science without considering how projects can benefit from including social science at the start. We want to measure the amount of land we’ve cleared from invasive species or the quality of water we’ve improved, but we also need to think about social equality and working with communities to care for nature and improve their livelihoods. Even something as simple as holding community engagement meetings at a time that is convenient for women to attend can make a big difference in encouraging participation.

Milagros Sandoval, Environmental Policy Senior Manager, Peru: While gender and conservation are closely linked, it can be a challenge for people to realize that incorporating gender isn’t additional work — it’s fundamental to understanding the communities we’re partnering with.

Pastor, Bolivia: In all cultures, there are imbalances in relationships between women and men. We must be conscious of this and commit to change. While it’s hard for people to alter the way they think, we must take the risk of envisioning a new way forward.

Conservation International is working with women in Indonesia’s Fam Islands. This is their story.

Q: So what does gender equity look like in the communities you work with?

Sandoval, Peru: We’re working with Awajun indigenous communities in Peru to support the distinct roles of men and women related to agricultural livelihoods. We’re helping the men grow sustainable coffee and cacao, while the women came to us with the idea of creating a women’s forest where they could grow medicinal plants and preserve the forest along with their traditional knowledge. We’re also exploring creating herbal teas for sale from these medicinal plants so that the women will have extra income for their families.

Anderson, United States: One of our community partners in Papua New Guinea, Marida Ginisi, is the matriarch of her clan. She initiated a protected area around her island, which has grown an impressive giant clam garden — these clams provide food for villagers and can be four feet long! As word spread to neighboring islands, people started seeking her advice, and she is now sharing baby clams to help other islands start their own clam gardens. Though this work, Marida is inspiring neighboring communities to protect their oceans.

Balraj, Guyana: After creating a “green” loan fund for sustainable agriculture, we noticed that more men than women were accessing the fund and getting bigger loans from the bank. To find out why, we interviewed community members and discovered that some women felt intimidated because they lacked financial literacy, while others weren’t allowed to travel to the bank on their own. As a result, we’re now working with the bank — the second-largest in Guyana — to improve women’s access to the loan program.

Alban, Ecuador: In Ecuador, we’re helping women create associations for mangrove conservation, which are usually run by men. Before, when husbands came home after attending a meeting about mangroves, their wives would pepper them with questions about what they were learning. Now, men invite their wives to come to meetings. We’ve also helped start a women’s crab meat processing business and are working on commercializing other products that come from mangroves, such as handmade earrings and decorative containers.

Leah Bevin Duran is a development writer at Conservation International.

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