Why gender matters in forest restoration

Why gender matters in forest restoration

Effective forest and landscape restoration interventions need to take into account socio-political aspects and gender norms in order to ensure long-term impact and promote equitable sharing of benefits.

While international and national campaigns to restore degraded landscapes are gaining steam, a serious shortcoming persists at the heart of the restoration agenda: the lack of attention to the socio-political dimensions of ecological interventions, due to interpretations of sustainability that focus only on biophysical aspects. As a result, gender norms and power imbalances within communities and among restoration actors are commonly overlooked in restoration initiatives. When this happens, rather than generating new opportunities for local people, restoration initiatives can accentuate existing inequalities and create exclusions for vulnerable populations who most depend on the lands being restored.

For instance, an uneven playing field often excludes women from equitable participation in relevant decision-making processes around restoration projects and from receiving direct benefits. Yet, the complexities around gender at the local level are often managed as a secondary issue in restoration projects. Even if they influence the projects' social and environmental outcomes, deeply rooted social norms and power relations are difficult to address and typically ignored in restoration initiatives.

Motivated by these challenges, during the 8th World Conference on Ecological Restoration held recently in Cape Town, scientists from Bioversity International, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and the International Water Management Institute organized a session that placed people and social equity squarely at the center of the restoration discourse

The session convened scientists and practitioners to critically interrogate the power and politics that underpin the inclusivity and sustainability of land restoration initiatives. It focused on the ‘who’ in restoration: whose lands, whose rights, whose knowledge, whose values, whose labor, whose gains, whose losses, and more. In this way, it offered a timely contribution to the conference, which this year was framed around the concept of interconnectedness - the inextricable relationship between the ecosystems restored and the human communities that interact and depend upon them.

What emerged from the session is that power imbalances among restoration actors stem from historical and institutional contexts. Complexity increases as we move from the household level to the landscape scale, where different actors, driven by different motivations and embedded in uneven power relations, must come together and negotiate their visions and priorities for restoration. Engaging this multitude of actors and perspectives is crucial to address the interests and needs of all those who will be affected by restoration initiatives and, ultimately, to promote equitable sharing of economic and social benefits.

Through targeted case studies, participants showed how restoration initiatives overlooking social norms and power relations can have unforeseen negative impacts, especially for the most vulnerable.

"Rapidly changing rural contexts, such as those that are targeted by restoration initiatives, offer renewed possibilities to reform the institutions - including policies and markets, but also norms and beliefs - that structure our social interactions and can present rural women and men with opportunities for enhanced equality. In parallel, however, rapid changes carry significant risks for gender equality and social inclusion, as power and resources can be further consolidated in the hands of few" says Marlène Elias, Gender Specialist at Bioversity International.

"Advancing sustainability goals – which encompass social, economic and environmental dimensions – through restoration will require working across multiple types of institutions, across scales, and with many different types of actors who are affected by and contribute to producing inequalities, including women and men from local communities, as well as civil society, local authorities, governments and private sector actors."

In summary, keeping a focus on the 'who' is essential if local people are to benefit equitably from restoration. This calls for acknowledging the diversity of actors involved in restoration, the power relations and gender norms that embed them, their respective rights to land and resources, and the knowledge and priorities they bring to the table. This is no easy task, but one of critical importance if restoration is to deliver on its promise of a better and more sustainable future.

The session on ‘Restoration for whom, by whom?’ was co-organized by the CGIAR Research Programmes on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), and Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), which are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Donors.

The session will result in a journal special issue on the topic, to draw attention to the need to integrate gender and social inclusion considerations into land and landscape restoration.