Women continue to be invisible to planners, despite their high levels of contribution to the national economy, says a UN Women paper on women and forests

Some of the present policies in forest management are detrimental to the poor, particularly women, states a

UN Women paper by NC Saxena, member National Advisory Council, even as he suggests changes that could ameliorate their condition.

Despite economic growth, gender inequalities in “critical human development indicators such as life expectancy, health and employment have remained stagnant or increased.”

More than 90 per cent of women continue to struggle in the informal or unorganised sector with no legislative safeguards.

Women have remained the neglected step children of development, says NC Saxena, in the report. “Women continue to be invisible to planners, despite their high levels of contribution to the national economy. Development has concerned itself with producing surplus for the market economy, and women, involved in the subsistence rather than the cash sector of the economy, were not able to attract serious attention from the planners,” he says. The interest of women was considered subsumed within the family. In almost all schemes for the rural poor the family approach was adopted under the assumption that benefits to the head of the family, who is assumed to be a male, will percolate down to women and children.

Almost 80 per cent of rural women still derive their livelihoods from land and water based activities. Enough empirical evidence has proved that conservation of forests must go hand in hand with economic development because any economic development that destroys these resources will create more poverty, unemployment and diseases and thus cannot be called even economic development. It may just be transfer of resources from the poor to the rich. This is because the poor and especially women depend on nature for their daily survival. For them the Gross Nature Product is more important than the Gross National Product, according to the report. Environmentally destructive economic development will impoverish the poor even further and destroy their livelihood resource base. Therefore the environmental concern in the developing world must go ‘beyond pretty trees and tigers’ and must link it with peoples’ lives and well being.

In addition to firewood, poor women collect minor forest products (MFPs) or non-timber forest produce (NTFP), such as fodder and grasses, raw materials like bamboo, cane and Bhabbar grass for artisan based activities, leaves, gums, waxes, dyes and resins and many forms of food, including nuts and honey.

While men do more laborious work like cutting timber, women concentrate on NTFP collection, fodder and fuel wood. Consequently, men and women have a difference in knowledge about forest resources. Tribal women in India use almost 300 forest species for medicinal purposes.

Much of the misery of women and forest dwellers is due to deforestation and commercial plantations which have removed the resource on which their livelihoods have been based. Primarily due to the policies followed in the forestry sector in the first 40 years after independence that discouraged use of forests by the people, and encouraged its exploitation for industry resulted in deteriorating peoples’ access to forests for meeting their basic subsistence needs.

According to NC Saxena, three sets of factors were responsible for this. First, development until the mid-Eighties was associated in the minds of planners with creating surplus from rural areas and its utilisation for value addition through industry. Hence, output from forest lands was heavily subsidised to be used as raw material for industries. Second, women, tribals and other forest dwellers, with little voice or means to communicate, were remote from decision-making and politically their interests were not articulated. Third, foresters were trained to raise trees for timber. Other intermediate and non-wood products were not valued, as indicated by their usual description as ‘minor products’ leading to adoption of technologies that discouraged their production.

The combination of these forces led to perpetuation of a timber and revenue oriented policy that harmed both the environment and the people, but was argued to be meeting the goals of the nation-state. Policy decisions during 1950-90, which have supported industrial plantations on forest lands, have not been able to stop the degradation of India’s natural forests. Forests were over-exploited on account of government concessions to forest industries in the zeal for industrialisation, which had made forest raw material available to industries at much below the cost of regeneration, in fact almost free. As such, there was not much incentive for industries to invest in regeneration. The unsustainable exploitation of forest raw material dried up the sources of supply much sooner than expected by the forest industries themselves, and pushed the frontiers of exploitation into ever more remote areas.

So far the entire thrust of forestry has been towards growing timber, which results in the removal of all the material which could serve gathering needs. This calls for a modification of the existing silvicultural practices, not so much to achieve high forest as to restore to the forests as admixture in which a sensible balanced level of vegetation would be available to meet the gathering needs.

Timber is a product of the dead tree, whereas NTFPs come from living trees allowing the stem to perform its various environmental functions. Moreover, gathering is more labour intensive than mechanised clear-felling. Local people living in the forests possess the necessary knowledge and skills for sustainable harvesting. Finally, NTFPs generate recurrent and seasonal as opposed to one-time incomes, making its extraction more attractive to the poor. Thus if access to NTFPs can be assured, standing trees can generate more income and employment than the same areas cleared for timber, whilst also maintaining the land’s natural biodiversity, says the report.

From the women’s point of view, crown-based trees are important for usufruct, but forests still remain largely stem-based. The traditional Indian way of looking at trees has, however, been different. As opposed to trees for timber, Indian villagers for centuries have depended on trees for livelihoods. There has been little felling. Instead, trees have been valued for the intermediate products they provide. To the extent that trees provided subsistence goods with little market value, and trees were abundant, questions of share or ownership did not arise much. Trees were valued for the diversity of their products and the many ways in which they helped to sustain and secure the livelihoods of the people.

In addition to deforestation and preference for mono-cultures in place of mixed forests, forest dwellers’ and women’s access to NTFPs has also been constrained by the regulatory framework, diversion of NTFPs and forests to industries and nationalisation of NTFPs.

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