Through the lens: women from the Western Ghats forest

Through the lens: women from the Western Ghats forest

As we near International Women's Day, Ewa Hermanowicz reflects on lessons learned from the resilient women she met while filming in India.

As we near International Women's Day, Ewa Hermanowicz reflects on lessons learned from the resilient women she met while filming in India on the sidelines of an research project that takes a participatory and gender-responsive approach.

Participatory and gender-responsive research approaches can stimulate social learning among participants, while also providing researchers with a wider and deeper view of how local natural resources are used and how development can be made more inclusive.

Bioversity International and Life Trust, an Indian NGO, have been using participatory research methods in a project focused on improving the livelihoods of forest dwellers and conserving native fruit trees in the Western Ghats, India. The project brought together different gender, age and sociocultural groups, including people who had previously been overlooked in decision-making processes.

Conducting research activities in a participatory way stimulated an exchange of knowledge about native fruit trees and encouraged the community to act together for the sustainable management of these precious resources. Women from the Siddhi community, a tribal group of Afro-Indian origin, were revealed to be particularly knowledgeable about native fruit tree species, not surprising given that they depend on these species for their livelihoods. Yet, it was the first time for some of them to speak in public forum.

The participatory research activities which took place in 2013 triggered a few social and economic changes in local communities. For example, a women’s group was formed to develop new products from both common and underutilized native fruit tree species, to sell at the local market.

The experiences of two women who participated in the project were captured in two videos that document this process thus giving voice to people who had not been in the spotlight before. Although they had never spoken in front of a camera, Yenki and Nagaveni were open to telling us their stories and perceptions of the research project, which created some unity among traditionally unconnected groups of the community.

In the first video, Yenki, a Siddhi woman and member of the newly formed Matrabhoomi women’s group, tells the story of her life. Her narration highlights the importance of forest resources for her livelihood, as she climbs trees to collect wild fruit and honey to survive.

The second video expands on how the research was conducted, and illustrates, through the eyes of the leader of the local Matrabhoomi women’s group, what the positive implications are of using participatory methodologies. The film also includes the perspective of a researcher, Narasimha Hegde, who works for Life Trust and coordinates research activities on the ground. The support of men is visible in fragments of footage: husbands and sons help in the preparation of a syrup using kokum fruit (Garcinia indica) – a local forest tree.

The production of these films was participatory, too: the local community was involved in identifying the story, main characters, locations and topics to be covered. From the interviews it becomes clear that women are leaders in promoting sustainable management of forest trees and possess an entrepreneurial potential which is yet to be fully unveiled.

The films urge us to consider: What would we have missed had we talked only with men or with members of one sociocultural group?

“Your film generated much interest from the participants and they wanted more. Personally, it was one of my favourites and many female social activists who were present at the screening loved it. Not only did the film address issues of food security and well-being, but also the male–female work dynamic that we encounter in life,” commented Odacy Davis, project manager of the COBRA Indigenous Participatory Film Festival where ‘Climbing to survive’ was pre-screened.



View the two films: 



‘Climbing to Survive’ (5 min)




'Participatory Research for Social Learning and Conservation of Forest Fruit Trees' (10 min) 


This research is part of CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

First image: Women who collect fruit from the forests of the Western Ghats. Credit: Bioversity International/E.Hermanowicz

Second image: Drying kokum fruit in the sun before they are made into other products. The rinds are used to make beverages and slimming products. Credit: Bioversity International/E.Hermanowicz