Want to Conserve Forests? Involve Women

It is 6:15 in the morning in the town center of Ackaakrom (Sefwi Akontombra district), Ghana. A group of about 80 people—including villagers, town elders, and the local chief—have gathered in the pre-dawn darkness to hear the Rainforest Alliance field team present information about the Rainforest Alliance-Olam Partnership for Landscapes and Livelihoods in Western Region of Ghana, a joint project of the Rainforest Alliance and Olam-Ghana (with funding from the UK government) that aims to support deforestation-free cocoa production.

Today, the goal is to lay the groundwork for a community committee, which is the first step in setting up a larger Landscape Management Board (LMB) to oversee conservation and agricultural activities in the area.

The number of people who have come out—and at such an early hour, no less—suggests a high level of interest. But one group of people is notably underrepresented: women. Only about 15 percent of the attendees are female.

"Women have highly specialized knowledge of cocoa and forests. They understand the food and medicines that can be found in the landscape, and therefore have a lot to contribute to conserving these resources."

Because we had both just started our positions as interns for the Rainforest Alliance, and this was our first experience with community engagement, we assumed the small number of women at the meeting was a fluke. But then we went on to attend other such meetings in Kojina, Esaakrom, Benchema and in many more of the 74 communities that eventually signed on to participate in the proposed LMBs. Time and time again the attendees were mostly men. But why? Weren’t the women in the communities interested in the project? Were local traditions preventing them from taking part? Or did our invitation make women feel unwelcome?

These were important questions, given the potential of the LMBs to positively impact lives and forests. Made up of forest-fringe community representatives, farmers, local chiefs, the forestry commission, the Ghana Cocoa Board, and other stakeholders, LMBs support government efforts in protecting forests and promoting sustainable cocoa production. In another area of Ghana’s Western Region, Bia Juaboso, for example, an LMB transformed an entire landscape by implementing sustainable practices across 29,000 hectares (one of many achievements: an important river that had started to dry up during the summer months began flowing year-round again). The two LMBs we were currently working to help set up—meant to oversee a municipal area, Sefwi Wiawso, and an area covering two districts, Bodi and Akontombra—had just as much potential to affect local lives, so it was important to include the voices of women at the ground level.

Inauguration of Land Management Board executives in Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana

The inauguration of two LMB executives for the Sefwi Wiawso municipality. Traditional authorities are deeply involved at all levels of LMBs.

We quizzed people from the communities about the poor showing of women at these initial meetings and were given vague answers. But then one male community leader dismissed our inquiries with this appalling comment: “Women are below men." It didn’t matter if they were involved or not, in other words.

At that moment we understood why the project requires every community-level committee include at least one woman. While most of the committees complied with this requirement, one community committee chairman wanted to replace his female committee member with his son because having a “woman on the committee is not important.” It was only when the field team reiterated that the community would not be allowed to take part in the project did this leader realize that women are important after all. It was clear that without this requirement most communities would have presented all-male committees.

The project team arrived at this directive—to include at least one woman on the community-level committee—not just out of a general sense of fairness. The team understood that many women have highly specialized knowledge of cocoa and forests. They understand the food and medicines that can be found in the landscape, and therefore have a lot to contribute to conserving these resources. This knowledge is critical to household incomes and food security, and therefore to the decisions made about managing the landscape.

We began brainstorming about how to ensure a higher level of involvement of women in the next phase of the project; as interns, we were able to participate in writing a final report with recommendations. In that report, it was noted that because women often lack of access to land, adequate economic opportunities, and decision making, the project should include, for example, capacity-building for women, such as training in business and marketing skills for side-businesses such as beekeeping that provide additional income streams. The talent, energy, and involvement of women are absolutely necessary to sustainable development; by empowering women (as well as youth), we ensure better forest conservation and a more sustainable cocoa-supply chain.

Priscilla Baafi and Cynthia Agyiri

Priscilla Baafi and Cynthia Agyiri

There is still much to do to ensure gender equality in the LMBs, but we came away from our work with the Rainforest Alliance feeling confident that efforts would be made to integrate more women from the Sefwi Wiawso municipal area and the Bodi and Akontombra districts. To improve livelihoods and forest conservation, it is imperative that women have a voice and fair representation in decision-making.

Priscilla Baafi and Cynthia Agyiri served as interns in the Rainforest Alliance's Ghana office from March to August 2018.

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