A gender perspective on landscapes in the Zambian flood plain

A gender perspective on landscapes in the Zambian flood plain

Bioversity International and partner organization researchers working in the Barotse Hub in Zambia celebrate International Women's Day and write about an innovative project.

Blog by Natalia Estrada-Carmona, Simon Attwood, Roseline Remans and Fabrice DeClerck

Women play a range of important roles in agricultural landscapes, engaging in many farming and household activities. According to the different day-to-day, or seasonal activities that they engage in, women and men perceive and use landscapes, and the ecosystem services they provide, differently.

Bioversity International, through the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agriculture Systems and on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health has been working on a pilot 'Nutrition-Sensitive Landscape' project, investigating how women and men use different Barotse floodplain elements to obtain diverse ecosystem services during the different seasons (dry and wet). Our team conducted landscape characterization (mapping the different parts of the landscape communities’ use) and ecosystem services assessment (mapping their perception and use of ecosystem services) based on the local knowledge shared. This was done through an innovative combination of field work, participatory mapping activities and focal group discussions in three communities: one permanent village in the heart of the floodplain (Lealui) and two permanent villages in the uplands (Mapungu and Nalitoya). A permanent village is comprised of families that don't migrate because of the floods.

The Barotse is a highly complex hydrological system driven by yearly floods and vegetation adapted to a dynamically changing environment and poor soils. Local communities are resourceful and adaptive and respond to the challenges and opportunities by diversifying their livelihood activities and migrating from the floodplain every year to the upland areas, prior to the floods and back to the floodplain after the water recedes. Although this migration of the whole family is still an active tradition, men tend to migrate more than women seeking fishing opportunities.

The most marked difference between women and men observed in our study is how they perceive and benefit from ‘provisioning services’ –ecosystem services that provide a direct product to communities, such as fish and different crop varieties . 

Consequently, we focused on food and fish sources, and how women and men access and produce these. For example, we found that women and men mentioned in similar proportion that they plant cash crops such as maize, rice, cassava, sweet potato, and sorghum, among others. However, women mentioned that they plant double the number of non-cash crops such as Bambara groundnut, yellow squash, watermelon, cowpea, sorghum, local sugarcane, among many others.

Both women and men see crop diversification as a strategy to overcome the hunger period (months with scarce food approximately from August till December) and to improve household livelihoods. We found as well, that women tend to conduct fishing activities in places such as shallow ponds and canals that are closer to their homes, where they catch small fish mostly for household consumption, but also for trading. On the other hand, men travel larger distances to gain access to deeper waters and larger fish that have a higher market value. However, often this income does not return home but is spent by men in the city or village.  

Women contribute in a very large proportion to household nutrition in the Barotse but do not necessarily experience the direct financial benefits of that greater production and food acquisition. They mostly manage nutritious crops for household consumption, which do not have much market value. Strategies to empower women should carefully consider the access that women have to the different elements and resources of the landscape, and how women specifically prioritize their choices within the individual, household, and community contexts.

Exciting times are coming: we are working with the communities to find potential crops and management technologies that will potentially provide nutrition security all year around and that will empower women. We are considering women’s financial limitations for crop diversification in areas with high risk of floods, and areas with poor soils and high risk of droughts, limited labor during the fishing season (due to migration of men) and, limited mobility to remain close to dwellings to tend crops and look after children. Other opportunities to explore include the introduction of processing activities that would allow the women to add value to their produce and thus also extend the storage period.

Learn more about nutrition-sensitive landscapes


Photo: Fishing in the canal. Credit: Bioversity International/N.Estrada-Carmona