Restoring land in Africa an opportunity for women’s rights, says president of women’s forest network

Cecile Njebet is founder of the African Women’s Network for Community Management of Forests (REFACOF). GLF/Handout
Natasha Elkington
20 August 2018

NAIROBI (Landscape News) – Deforestation and land degradation amount to almost a third of Africa’s landmass, which has a devastating effect on the environment and livelihoods.

Growing populations clearing land for farming and rapid development of mining resources have resulted in an estimated 2.7 million hectares of lost forests every year on the continent.

Cècile Njebet is the founder of the African Women’s Network for Community Management of Forests (REFACOF) dedicated to tackling social, cultural, political, legal and economic issues related to forest management and women’s rights.

With more than 30 years in the field, Njebet is no stranger to the fast changing African landscape and the issues affecting communities.

Ahead of the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) taking place in Nairobi at the end of August, where she will speak, she shared her views with Landscape News.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your organization

A: Our organization is the African Women’s Network for Community Management of Forests. It is a network that covers 17 countries now in Africa.

We help women in the mentioned countries to secure rights to land, forest and forest resources, and we work with local woman and indigenous women as well. All these connected issues like climate and climate change come in because all of them have an influence on (land) tenure.

Globally, we are really trying to push for more consideration on women’s rights as much as we can and raise awareness among decision-making people of U.N. agencies and other organizations on women’s rights to land and forests.

Q: In all the years you have been in the field what progress have you seen?

A: I am now glad that we are talking about rural women in international conferences; when we started, no one paid us much attention. I am happy that tenure has become a great issue eliciting discourse and I am pleased with the progress. We can achieve more with our rural women in Africa because we really have the challenge of how to help women secure rights to land and forests.

This will improve not only their lives but also entire families and communities and join the fight against poverty and climate change. As you know, land issues are cultural and it is not very easy to change the culture.

Q: Do you think, however, that over the years the culture is slowly changing?

A: Culture is the hardest thing to change, but we are positive about the future because we are working with traditional chiefs and we see how they are getting more sensitized and are becoming more understanding of what we are advocating for. The issue is how to help them to improve their lives, and many know that women are key in their lives in our culture. If you do not have a dynamic woman, then you don’t have anything.

So we use that and we show them that for rural women, the capital is the land, forest and if they don’t have that capital secured they cannot improve the standard of living of their families. So we are trying to analyze the issues in culture that are against that security.

Q: How are you able to find balance between conserving land and forest and also with development as trees are being cleared for development?

A: Land restoration in our work is one we use as a strategy. It is a strategy for us to improve land ownership because culturally, when you restore a degraded land; when you are authorized to plant trees for example on degraded land, it’s like they have given you ownership of that piece of land because trees are long term and will be standing on that land for half 50 years or a century.

That is why it is very difficult for them to give the land for restoration to women because they know if you restore land then you can claim ownership of it because the trees will be there as proof that you gave value to that land.

So we are negotiating with men headed families, because we see land around us getting more degraded because men are interested in timber while women are in trees in fruit, barks, leaves, everything else that does not involve cutting the tree.

We thus try to show them that our interests for the same resource differ and that if you cut down all our trees, these will be the consequences for the coming years. There will be more problems than you have thought of so if you allow your women to get into restoration as a way for them to restore value and give landscapes life you will also gain because they will be taking care of you and your children and family.

So it is a big campaign that involves information sharing, sensitization of men headed families which are 90 percent to show them how in all levels; climatic, economic, social importance of landscapes and the role women can play in restoring those landscapes.

Q: What about advocacy?

A: We are also trying to improve laws, which are easier to change than cultural practices that have superiority over laws. So we think working with traditional chiefs, family heads, male members and women themselves — because these are inured in behaving in a certain way that is difficult even for themselves to change — because it will be seen as going against culture and tradition and putting them at risk of losing their husbands, and it is a big issue.

We hope it will be easier when we get both genders involved so that when the laws have changed, there are also actions to take to quicken implementation and we have started doing the same.

Q: Why do you think it is important to have the event in Nairobi?

A: For the first time, the (GLF) conference is coming to Africa and it creates an opportunity for us to put things out there, and to show the world where we are, and how we can move forward.

I was so happy when I was asked to participate because this is a great opportunity to reflect in issues in Africa. You know Kenya has many indigenous groups, it has a very large-scale landscape and some of it is very degraded. It’s like a laboratory for the Global Landscapes Forum where we can really talk about concrete issues. I hope there are opportunities for women’s groups and indigenous groups to share their experiences and challenges.

We are in the real context of landscape restoration problematics where we can experiment, where we can implement and try to evaluate the progress and challenges we really need to address if we want to go for landscape restoration.

Cecile Njebet will speak on a gender and rights plenary at the Global Landscapes Forum in Nairobi on Thurs. Aug. 30 at 14:00 local time (11:00 a.m. GMT). Attend discussion in person or online. Learn more here.