Strategies to help rural women protect forests
Around the world in forest communities, women entrepreneurs are making a big difference. More than 750 million women depend on forests for employment and household consumption, and women are among the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs. Federations of forest and farm producers around the world are providing blueprints for supporting women-led sustainable businesses. Here are three key strategies for gender transformation in producer organisations.
Photo: Petan ACOFOP / If Not Us Then Who
Rural women entrepreneurs protect forests
The rural environment is full of possibilities for entrepreneurship, much of it based on ancestral or cultural knowledge. Globally, women are heavily involved in organic farming; artisan food and crafts; collecting forest products (such as edible wild fruits and vegetables, traditional medicines, resins); and ecotourism, among others.
Women also use their traditional knowledge to manage resources sustainably. Often passed on through generations, this helps boost incomes and sustain the interlinked biodiversity and cultural (biocultural) heritage of their landscapes. Through their ability to reach and inspire collective action among others, strong women entrepreneurs are also vital in addressing biodiversity loss and sustainably manage forested landscape to mitigate climate change.
Barriers to rural women entrepreneurship
The challenges for women to grow their local businesses are clear. Many are circumstantial. For example, women take on more responsibilities in the household, making it difficult to balance home life and entrepreneurship. They have less time and fewer opportunities to study and develop skills, have higher levels of illiteracy than men, and often have to bring children along to training which can affect learning.
But then there are others that are hidden under socio-cultural norms or structural inequalities. For example, investors frequently do not see or respect women entrepreneurs as much and their weaker land rights are another barrier to access finance.
The three strategies to help women protect forests
Evidence shows three key strategies can help women help the forests. These are:
- Supporting peer-to-peer mentors to improve women’s skills
- Supporting tailored business coaching for women
- Sharing knowledge and linking to women’s networks
Good progress is being made including with the support of the Forest and Farm Facility. Many forest and farm producer organizations are shining examples of gender equality and championing women’s economic empowerment. Through the programme we have seen examples of how women’s entrepreneurship leads to empowerment in other important areas – such as cooperative leadership or more equal decision making at home and in the community.
Learning from other women to improve skills
Sharing expertise and experiences is a key way to boost the confidence of women producers and strengthen entrepreneurship. In April, women producers and leaders from Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala, Panama and Costa Rica came together at the Regional Exchange of Forest Entrepreneurship of Indigenous and Community-based Women in Managua, Nicaragua, organized by the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forest (MAPF). For almost three-quarters of these women, it was their first experience of participating in an activity of this nature outside their region.
As well as sharing experiences, they learned new skills such as forest-related bee-keeping and how to build solar-powered cookers and dryers to dehydrate fruits, vegetables and edible plants for food storage during the drought, flood and hurricane season.
Mayra Morles, a founding member of the The Sociedad Civil Laborantes del Bosque in Guatemala which manages a territory within the Maya Biosphere Reserve, said “For me, being able to represent my organization from a female perspective has allowed me to make women, men and mainly young people aware of the capacity and tenacity that define us women to fight for the well-being of our families and local development”.
On the other side of the world, women entrepreneurs discussed similar challenges at a virtual roundtable event held by the Community-Based Non-Timber Forest Product Enterprises (CBNE) in June. Some women in Asia use non-wood forest products including nuts, fruits, leaves, honey and oils in their local businesses.
The Mount Everest Forest Botanicals Alliance (MEFBA) in Nepal is a beacon for gender equality. Of its 13,720 members, 82% are women. Its Director, Avisha Tuladhar, said, “Working together with other women brings about a spirit to fight back against the prejudices. Enterprise brings women strength and confidence, and that is what is needed to break social and economic barriers.”
Business coaching for women and strengthening their collective voice
Ghana has amongst the highest concentration of women entrepreneurs. In 2020, the Ghana Federation of Forest and Farm Producers (GhaFaPP) was formed. It represents just over a million forest and farm producers. Just under half are women and the Federation has enshrined gender policy into its 10 year strategy. It has set up a women’s champion wing of female mentors and coaches, which plays a critical role in providing business support to members.
Where GhaFaPP has made a real difference is in its ability to create a critical mass of women’s voices which can be heard at multiple levels – from grassroots to national decision-making. For example, a key business for women entrepreneurs in Ghana is the production of shea and baobab butter which they make from trees on collectively held land. Traditional chiefs were struggling to stop these trees from being cut down. But the presence of a critical mass of women shea and baobab butter producers drew attention to the problem at a local and zonal level – highlighting the impact this was having on their livelihoods and the local economy – and this helped resolve the issue.
Knowledge sharing and linking to women’s networks
Peer-to-peer mentoring boosts women’s self-confidence and creates an overall favourable environment for women to express their voices. The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India has been supporting women entrepreneurs for almost thirty years to practice sustainable farming and agroforestry. Through mentorship and solidarity, SEWA is empowering women from producer organizations in Nepal, including FECOFUN (Federation of Community Forest Users Nepal), AFFON, NFGF, FNCSI, Ashmita Nepal and Adhar Ekata Mahila Samuha. In particular, they have received training about leadership, finance, how to diversify their income and how to add value to their products.
“I was profoundly inspired after learning from them and seeing their works,” said Shanta Neupane, from the all-women producer organization Adhar Ekata Mahila Samuha in the Bagmati Province of Nepal, which currently has 148 members. Shanta has a vegetable farm and experience of working in community forests. As a result of her knowledge-exchange visit with SEWA, her group has been exploring the potential to process tomatoes into ketchup to add value to one of their products.
Women entrepreneurs have much to learn from these examples in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Women have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but by maintaining momentum, and learning from successful projects such as these, they will grow in strength. They will continue to be a vital force in being role models for young people, providing income for their families, preserving ancestral traditions, and protecting natural resources.
Pauline Buffle, Programme Officer, International Union for Conservation of Nature
Anna Bolin, Senior Researcher, International Institute for Environment and Development
Josephine Querido, Editor, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations