For Sub-Saharan rural women, making tree-planting worth their sweat

The fruits of a baobab tree, a superfood that can be harnessed by rural women to boost their financial independence. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
15 October 2018

This post is also available in: French

Why should rural women care about landscape restoration?

That’s the provocative question that Milagre Nuvunga of the Mozambican Micaia Foundation posed in her Landscape Talk at the Global Landscapes Forum in Nairobi last month.

October 15 is the UN-led International Day of Rural Women, highlighting issues surrounding a group well-deserving of enhanced attention and acknowledgement. Overall, some 3 billion people – roughly 40 percent of the planet – live in rural parts of developing countries. The women in these areas remain consistently worse off compared to their urban counterparts, as well as men, over a wide range of indicators, according to a UN Women report released this year on gender and progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Rural women in developing countries are also among the people most affected by deforestation and forest degradation, as most depend heavily on local natural resources and ecosystem services for their livelihoods.

One might think, then, that they’d be first in line to participate in restoration activities. But structural barriers like lacking land tenure make it difficult for women in many rural areas – particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa – to justify putting time into managing landscapes sustainably.

ALL FOR WHAT? THE ISSUE OF INCENTIVES

“Restoration is a very good thing. But why should I be involved in a long-term, time-consuming process that will only benefit my husband and his family? When he dies, or he divorces me, his family will take this land away from me.”

These words came from a local woman, Luisa, in the Manica Province in Central Mozambique – home to the Chimanimani National Reserve biodiversity hotspot – where Micaia centers its operations.

Unsustainable agricultural practices are causing deforestation and forest degradation in the area, and this is negatively impacting local livelihoods by reducing much-needed food, water and wellbeing benefits that ecosystems provide. So, in partnership with BioFlora, a Brazilian company linked to the University of São Paulo, Micaia used the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology (ROAM) to scope out ways to boost sustainability in the area.

Speaking separately to men and women in the 12 communities located in the reserve’s buffer zone, the researchers noted that men were generally supportive of adopting more sustainable practices. Women were also well aware of the impacts that deforestation and forest degradation were having on their families and communities’ well-being, such as diminishing water potability and soil productivity. But, the researchers were well aware that they were working in a patriarchal society, and quickly saw that the personal incentives for these women to participate were sorely lacking as a result.

“They knew very well that [restoration] could bring back environmental services for their families and communities, help diversify local development opportunities, and enhance their wellbeing,” says Nuvunga. But, she adds, “We were not very well prepared for the depth of feeling and resolve behind Luisa’s statements, as she expressed her unwillingness to embrace the restoration process.”

Women constitute the majority of small-scale farmers in the area, and most practice shifting cultivation, which is the single most important driver of local deforestation and degradation.

“So in a landscape like this, it was clear there could be no significant restoration effort without women’s full participation and engagement,” says Nuvunga. “Luisa’s argument forced us to stop and consider how deep we should go to bring this issue to the fore and give it center stage in our study.” 

SUPERFOOD & STRATEGIC MOVES

Challenging entrenched norms on issues like land tenure is a “painfully slow” process, says Nuvunga in a later interview with Landscape News, “because these systems have existed forever, and so they are very ingrained in both men and women, and sustained by both men and women too.”

Micaia has, however, found that one of the quickest ways to start changing old patterns is to help women gain greater financial independence. As such, the foundation has begun investing in value chains dominated by women, such as the baobab industry. Manican women have traditionally gathered fruit from this iconic tree while working in their fields and sold it in markets during the dry season. Recently, though, the white powder that coats baobab seeds has gained international recognition as a superfood in recent years, due to its high levels of antioxidants, Vitamin C, iron and calcium.

Opportunistic traders have been making the most of this boon, but until recently, the women gathering and processing the fruit were none the wiser. “These big trucks would come in, take their product, pay almost nothing, and not tell them about the real value,” says Nuvunga.

So Micaia intervened and began buying baobab through an inclusive business (Baobab Products Mozambique Ltd – BPM) established by their social enterprise arm Eco Micaia and selling it on the international market. They’re now able to offer the women, who own 20 percent of BPM’s shares, triple the price that earlier traders were unscrupulously offering.

This new income stream has prompted some fascinating shifts in gender dynamics. In many cases, women are now able to earn more than their husbands through the baobab trade. Some men described women’s involvement in the trade as “a bit of a shock” initially, but most were ultimately happy that the extra income was enabling the family to live a better life. Some men decided to begin collecting baobab themselves and paying their wives a fee to market what they collected – a notion formerly “unheard of in such societies,” says Nuvunga.

Some women used capital from the trade to open small shops in areas where such enterprises had never been. These investments have helped build their visibility within the community and normalize the idea of women’s leadership and decision-making capabilities.

Within households, things are changing too. “Women are no longer shy to talk,” describes Nuvunga. “They stand up and say, ‘You see how my husband looks beautiful now? It’s because of my trade. I bought him nice pants and a new pair of shoes. He almost resembles now the man who came to ask me for marriage all those years ago!’ ”

Some women also made decisions to leave abusive relationships, knowing that the baobab trade meant that they could return to their family land without being a burden on their parents and take their children with them, knowing that they could manage the support.

CONSOLIDATING THE GAINS

Of course, it’s risky to rely on the current popularity of one product to shift power relations long-term, says Nuvunga. “Today baobab is a superfood,” she says. “But tomorrow, maybe they’ll discover it’s good for this but it’s bad for something else, so its prime place in the international market might fall.” It’s therefore crucial to take the opportunity to make incremental changes toward securing rights for women, while baobab is still “hot and trendy,” she says.

This means helping locals understand and slowly buy into the idea of women’s human and citizenship rights. It also requires wider partnerships with local and national government to help enforce these. “And maybe, if we have this case established, we can then use it as a flagship for other traditional communities elsewhere.”

This Day of Rural Women, Nuvunga wants to emphasize the value and importance of the work rural women do for their families and communities all over the world. She also hopes to point out opportunities that already exist to advocate for enhanced rights. “Even if they don’t sit at that table where supposedly decisions are made,” she says, “they have other avenues that they may not yet see.” She says it’s crucial to help build these women’s self-belief, “so that they can make use the doors that they open – or others might open for them – and conquer the space that is rightfully theirs.”

If women’s rights are not placed at the center of reforestation work – especially in Sub-Saharan Africa – “it will be a lost opportunity,” she says. “So let’s recognize that this ambitious agenda goes beyond the realm of biological sciences. Let’s bring on board the right combination of expertise and institutions at the local, national and international levels, so that we can bring about the change that we seek.”

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