Gender Equality or Environmental Conservation? A tough call for Sumatra

Greater involvement of women in landscape-level decision-making will increase emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in Sumatra, Indonesia, posing challenges to emissions reduction efforts. This is according to a study by Villamor et al, published in ‘Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change’, which revealed that support for greater gender equality in decision-making may not coincide with environmental goals in the area, and a tough choice may have to be made between objectives—gender equality or environmental conservation? 

Indonesia has experienced massive land conversion from forest to intensive commercial agriculture, and has one of the highest rates of deforestation among tropical countries. This leads to a decrease in terrestrial carbon stocks, higher carbon emissions, a loss of biodiversity and changes to hydrological functions.

Women in the agricultural communities of Sumatra are rarely invited to participate in decision making at the village level. Men and women are ascribed different roles in agricultural activity, as regulated by local customary law or adat. Some communities practice a matrilineal kinship system, where land is bequeathed from mother to daughters or nieces. This leads to strong land rights for women, egalitarian ethics, and a relative absence of gender discrimination. In upland rubber fields, the traditional matrilineal system has been replaced by a modified system in which land is bequeathed from father to son. This has strengthened the land rights of men, while eroding women’s land rights.

Liberalization and globalization mean that people’s land use choices are increasingly based on options and influences originating outside their communities—with major implications for transitions to sustainability. The drivers of deforestation have changed from small-scale farming to industrial-scale, export-oriented agricultural production, such as oil palm and rubber monoculture. Efforts to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) must address the drivers of these conversion processes. Does gender affect decision-making and practical choices in relation to land use change? Do men and women respond in the same way to new land use opportunities that may affect carbon emissions? This type of gender analysis has not been adequately studied to date.

Villamor et al undertook a study to examine the role of gender as a factor in decisions about land use change in a forest margin landscape in Jambi (Sumatra, Indonesia). It explored three dimensional variables that can affect the diversity of responses between females and males: the elevation gradient (lowland versus upland); individuals and group responses; and the level of conservation awareness.

A survey was conducted and role playing games assessed participant responses in a simulated social setting of women-only and men-only groups. Six villages were selected across a stratification based on elevation (lowland and upland) and the degree of previous involvement in conservation boundary work undertaken by the World Agroforestry Centre and its partners. Exploring the drivers and consequences of forest transition is key focus of the CGIAR’s Collaborative Research Project 6 on Trees, Forests and Agroforestry—of which the Centre is a key partner.

In both the lowland and upland areas, a clear difference was observed between male and female styles of decision making, especially with regard to changing current land use. Females perceived rubber agroforest as economically superior to natural forest; they saw no environmental or income risk in changing forest into rubber agroforest, at least within the context of the game. By contrast, males in the upland area did not touch natural forest in the same game. This perspective is possibly shaped by the value of the timber that the males in the upland collect from these forests, along with their strong conservation belief system, which is attributed to their long experience with various conservation and research organizations. All respondents, and particularly the women, indicated that there was likely to be a change in their land use patterns: from forest to rubber agroforest, oil palm plantation, monoculture rubber or coal mining—all pathways that could lead to substantial carbon losses.

While absence of women in natural resource management is usually considered to be a failure, the results of this study suggest that stronger involvement of women in decision making could potentially increase land conversion, because of the female tendency to accept offers of conversion to oil palm and monoculture rubber plantations. Therefore, contrary to expectations and gender stereotypes, it is expected that greater involvement of women in landscape level decision making will increase emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in the area, posing further challenges to efforts to reduce such emissions. Overall, women approached land use change in a more dynamic way than men, reacting more positively to external investors proposing logging or oil palm conversion. Some recommendations arising from the study:

  • Increase efforts to study how matrilineal systems are changing in the face of agricultural industrialization
  • Invest in information dissemination activities about the value of ecosystem services provided by natural forest and rubber agroforests, and involve women directly in these activities
  • Acknowledge the various drivers of deforestation and diversify options for conservation, rather than placing the entire onus on a single scheme, such as REDD+.

The stereotype of conservative and conservation-oriented females and more aggressively market-oriented males did not hold true in this case study, and a gender-balanced approach is needed for any government program that aims to modify land use decisions.

Read the full open access journal article.'

Rebecca Selvarajah

Rebecca is a science writer, manager of publishing projects, trainer in science writing, and novelist — working partly from Nairobi, Kenya and partly from Morwell, Australia. With over 15 years of experience in writing, advertising/marketing, publishing and social media, she takes on varied assignments, travelling, if needed, to conduct relevant research and interviews. Originally from Sri Lanka, Rebecca holds a BA honours in Psychology, with minors in Gender Studies and Sociology. Email Rebecca on

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