'Property can't own property'

by Jan Willem den Besten, IUCN | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 24 October 2011 12:05 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Jan Willem den Besten, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Women in Cameroon have developed a vision for a gender-sensitive approach for their country’s nascent Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programme. 

They have put together a roadmap to ensure that women are involved in the formulation of Cameroon’s national REDD+ strategy.

The premise is that women should be given equal opportunities to learn about REDD+ initiatives, and their capacity strengthened so they can influence, participate in and benefit from the programme. The roadmap will be presented at the U.N. Climate Convention in Durban in December.

Policymakers often wrongly assume that women are involved in decisions about the management of natural resources. In Cameroon, for example, women are often excluded from both formal and informal decision-making processes.

In September, more than 30 women from across Cameroon met for a three-day workshop near the capital Yaounde, where they discussed the role of women in forest management and the inclusion of gender considerations in REDD+ policymaking.

The women came up with recommendations that would lead to a more gender-balanced REDD+ process, and presented them to national-level policymakers at a second gender-focused REDD+ workshop immediately afterwards. This group, most of them women from relevant government ministries, developed the roadmap for gender-sensitive REDD+ planning in Cameroon.

The process is being supported by IUCN and the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), with similar initiatives in Ghana and Uganda.

WOMEN: VICTIMS OR AGENTS OF CHANGE?

Forests are a crucial asset for Cameroonian women. In rural areas, they often depend on resources provided by forests, including food, water, fuel, medicine and craft materials. These fulfill the subsistence needs of families, and enable women to make products to sell, boosting incomes.

The application of a forests-poverty toolkit developed by IUCN is building understanding of how local people use forest produce. It shows how cash income from forests allows families to send their children to school or to a clinic in case of illness.

Policymakers often don’t fully understand - or simply ignore - these benefits from forests and the roles women play in managing forest resources. That can result in policies that harm the livelihoods of rural women and their families.

Nor do they tap into women’s expertise in sustainably managing local forest resources, which could be useful for designing REDD+ strategies.

Access rights to forests are an urgent issue for many communities.

In Cameroon, forests are owned by the state, and despite serious attempts to decentralise forest governance, communities have found it difficult to improve their access to forests and benefits from forest activities. They often face major administrative bottlenecks and unattainable requirements when applying for concessions. 

Women face additional problems. They may be equal to men under the law, but in many parts of Cameroon, they face cultural barriers that make it even harder for them to own land.

As one participant at the September workshop pointed out, “Property can’t own property” - referring to a widespread sentiment among men who view women as their ‘property’.

Women, nevertheless, are not passive victims. In Cameroon, they are often agents of change, the workshop participants underlined.

Their support networks are strong and remarkably effective in distributing information and knowledge. Many are actively engaged in projects that improve the livelihoods of local women and their communities.

Only lack of awareness and resources prevent women from realising their full potential to effect positive change.  

RECOGNISING AND NURTURING WOMEN’S EXPERTISE

Against this background, REDD+ policies must address gender considerations and be fair to the interests of women. Women should have equal access to their benefits. At the same time, REDD+ can be strengthened by supporting rural women’s practices in the sustainable use of forest products.

Where women’s activities help protect forests, they could be incentivised to continue or expand them. Identified under REDD+, contributions by women could generate extra income while meeting REDD+ objectives. Advantages for women could help increase support for REDD+ implementation.

But because women’s roles in forest management remain largely invisible, decision makers have to be made aware of them. Likewise, women need to know about the opportunities and implications of REDD+.

Cameroonian women have now started to strengthen understanding of the impacts forest policies have on both women and men. They are also deepening knowledge about the opportunities of REDD+ to ensure positive outcomes for people and nature, as well as the barriers.

Thanks to increased appreciation of the ecological function of forests in the carbon cycle, as well as the relationships of different groups with the forests, decision makers and civil society have come to recognise the importance of engaging all relevant actors in the REDD+ process, in particular those groups that have traditionally been excluded.

The outcome of the Cameroon workshops is concrete and practical, having laid the groundwork for a REDD+ roadmap that integrates gender equality, empowers women and promotes women’s rights.

Cameroon is now in the midst of REDD+ planning and expects to present its proposal for funding to the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility early next year. The outcomes of the workshops will directly feed into this national process.

Ownership of Cameroon’s forests is vested with the state, and its management is supposed to be in the interests of the people. But this has to be juggled with various demands - including for economic development and more prosperity for its citizens - and is seriously impeded by weak law enforcement, illegal practices and corruption.

A large number of forest dwellers will lose out if policymakers fail to adequately take into account their roles and rights in forestry and land use. And the opportunity to develop more effective and equitable interventions in the forest sector could be squandered.

In designing REDD+, Cameroon must start by putting in place a process of improving the rights, interests and potentials of half of those living in the Central African country’s vast forests and savannahs: its women.

Jan Willem den Besten works as REDD+ Knowledge Manager for IUCN in Washington.