Forestry and Women

The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 21 March the International Day of Forests (IDF) in 2012. The Day celebrates and raises awareness of the importance of all types of forests. On each International Day of Forests, countries are encouraged to undertake local, national and international efforts to organize activities involving forests and trees, such as tree planting campaigns. [http://www.fao.org/international-day-of-forests/en/]

Not enough that the three decade civil war caused diverse damage to Sri Lanka, this ‘pearl of the Indian ocean’ continues to face the rise of various challenges out of which deforestation is one. The island which had 49% forest area in the 1920s, has decreased by to 33% in the year 2015 [World Bank Data].

Nearly 55% of the total forest area of the country is managed by the Forest Department and the maximum legal protection under the Forest Ordinance is provided to Conserve Forests and no activity other than research and visitations is allowed within these forests. Yet the Village forest areas provide forest products and services to the local communities around it as per the section 12 of the Forest Ordinance [Department of Forest, Sri lanka].

Deforestation has been carried out in Sri Lanka for various reasons: for plantation and agriculture, timber production, irrigation, paddy cultivation, etc. Between the year 2000 and 2016 the rate of deforestation has been 1.46% per annum over the reasons like massive development projects, large scales of plantations and resettling programmes The effects that deforestation has created on the country does not limit to environment consequences alone, but had led to natural disasters such as land erosion, landslides, flooding and many others.

Though the ‘forest’ is only a place for adventure and sightseeing for most of the city dwellers and tourist of Sri Lanka, for the rural community forest is an area to fulfill their daily needs. Firewood, food, herbs, medicinal plants, and agriculture and plantation, are those obtained by the villagers who live surrounding the forest areas.

Deforestation happens in the hands of these villagers for purposes, such as Chena cultivation, tree-sawing for firewood and timber for house constructions, for animal grazing, etc., the villages also take steps to preserve the forest in large, as their livelihoods dependence rests in the forests. While women use the forest to meet the livelihoods requirements of their families, men engage in deforestation of the forest with the aiming of felling and selling trees for an income, which does not create a positive impact on the forest, and on the lives of the villagers.

The hazards which occur as the consequences of deforestation result in disastrous situations on the lives of the villagers, where the most suffered are women and children. Due to the disasters such as drought, women have to walk long distances in search of water due to their water wells and lakes being dry. These situations not only consume women’s time, but also create insecurity in their lives with cases such as sexual harassment, rape, wild animal attacks, etc., being constantly reported.

Women who play the role of feeding their family consider it important to seek for healthy food products. Women engage in small scale planting of vegetables and herbs in their own gardens; and women living near forest areas depend on forest lands for cultivating their own food products, through growing vegetables, greens, fruits and through Chena cultivation. These activities of women heavily depend on the forest resources, and bring women into a close relationship with the forest. But forestry is still considered as a man’s field and women’s role in forestry is mostly invisible.

Like in many other areas, in forestry too, gender inequality is seen as a growing issue. In every decision making instances, the concerns of women are not seen incorporated. Forestry is considered as a male profession in Sri Lanka. According to an assessment, 68 – 100 percent of work related to gathering of non-wood forest products is carried out by women; and approximately 60 – 80 percent planting and conserving measure is done by women in their own home gardens. [Athukorala, K. 2013]. But Cultures and traditions have ignored the contribution of women, and excluded them from participating in decision making processes, keeping the voices of women to be silent and unheard.

Yet the recent years began to see changes taking place with forestry and women in Sri Lanka. The Department of Forest took steps to mitigate deforestation and to involve the rural communities in managing the forests. Under this initiative, plots of forest land was given to the community farmers to involve in agriculture and cultivation, while also encouraging the community to engage in reforestation, and in protecting the forests from illegal activities, felling of trees and encroachment.

The main source for the 42% of national timber demand is met through home gardening [Department of Forest]. And those who engage in home gardening are women. Through the support extended towards home gardening women are becoming highlighted in the areas of forestry, and their livelihoods are improving.

I own a land now, and I am relieved that I can provide for my family; my children’s future will be stable now” said fifty-two year old widow Kumari who owns a 4 acre paddy field from the land given to her by the forestry programme. “While I care for my land, I also care for the surrounding forests; I make sure no one is encroaching it”, she stated stretching her hand towards the vast spread forest area.

Women do most of the work in gathering and using forest products for their domestic purpose. Women have significant knowledge of the forest and the local use of the forest as they always try to fulfill their family needs in the best possible way. However, women have got used to being ignored and unrecognized and they remain unaware of their rights and responsible voices. For appropriate management of the forest and its resources it is essential to educate and empower women and consider them and their participation in forestry.

Thirty- four year old Shanthi engages in farming in her land. She also collects herbal leaves and fruits from the nearby forests which she sells to earn an additional income. “These medicinal products will go waste if we don’t collect them from the forest. We are not harming the forest, but earning extra income, and this helps us to care for our family better. Because we enter the forests frequently, we are able to protect it too.” Shanthi is also engaged in growing fruits and vegetables in her garden. She sells the produce in the local markets. “I am a businesswoman now, and so I am able to obtain loans from banks; but before they wouldn’t give me. I also participate in discussions in the community. People listen to me.”

Women, who assume the role of caretaker for their families, are also able to care for things around them. Women engage in their own gardens in growing plants that will serve the family purpose. Women decide what to feed to their families, and to their livestock; they concern on the health and nutrition of their families. If women could play different roles in the family and community, and if women are able to make decisions in terms of their families, they also have the potential to care for the natural resources around them, care for the forests around them, and participate in forestry activities. Women, who depend on the forestry resources for their family, will also care for the forest. Engaging women in forestry activities will not only recognize women, and address their needs, but also protect and preserve the forest lands.

Abirami Parasuram | Sri Lanka