Trees, women and men: surprises and new questions

Renewed attention on gender across all of the research agendas of the CGIAR is leading to some surprising and intriguing results, which were presented and discussed at the recent Open Science meeting of the Global Land Project in Berlin, says Meine van Noordwijk


Most of the literature on the way people interact with forests and trees discusses a generic “community” or “household” scale without explicit attention to the differences in perspectives, knowledge,  preferences and decisions that women and men might have.

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Women’s decisions about land use might be very different from men’s and have different consequences. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

“Probably for the first time ever, we now have agent-based model results that suggest that gender matters for the tree-cover transitions in the landscape”, said Dr Grace Villamor, a postdoctoral scientist at the Centre for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn who is also part-time seconded to the World Agroforestry Centre. “In our study area we found that women have a less direct association with the remaining forest in the landscape than the men, that they are more open to external agents who promote logging or conversion to oil palm, and that they care more for the opportunities to grow rice, generally close to the village”.

The preliminary implementation in Indonesia of a multi-method approach to unravel gender differences suggests that females have a direct link to food security. Even though women expressed strong desire to make changes in the landscape by favouring highly profitable oil palm plantations, they ended up producing more rice.

“When we put their decisions into the agent-based land-use model, female-headed households were constrained by the high labour requirements of oil-palm plantations”, Grace said. “Thus, they went back to rice production and yielded three times more than the male-dominated landscape. Meanwhile, men produced more yield from tree-based systems, such as rubber agroforests and monocultures. The 5-year simulation period of the model estimated the carbon emissions from the various land uses and found that women produced more carbon emissions than men”.

The presentation by Grace was one of only two among the 600 presentations that paid explicit attention to gender even though more than 40% of the attending scientists were female.

“However, the reality of the landscape may well be in-between what the men and the women separately prefer”, said Grace. “At the end of the day, they might discuss, harmonize and modify decisions. Our results are a step along a steep learning curve on connecting gender analysis to natural resource management”.

Continuing efforts to pay more attention to “ecosystem services”, which are defined as the benefits people derive from well-functioning (agro-) ecosystems, should lead to these human dimensions, although many ecologists prefer to measure soil and vegetation rather than talk to people, let alone men and women separately.

The interdisciplinary field of global land science brings together scientists using remote-sensing techniques, those constructing economic models and social scientists who, so far, have been focussing on case studies. As was noted in the keynote speeches and concluding session, the field is still short of overarching theories and the scale dependence of perspectives and priorities has not been mapped in detail. The scale at which gender differentiation matters is thus not sufficiently identified.

In the Forests, Trees and Agroforestry research program, we are currently replicating the approach in Cameroon, the Philippines, Viet Nam and Uganda to understand the gender differences by looking at how institutional contexts (that is, matrilineal versus patrilineal and command and control) intersect with gender in the tree-cover transition. We hypothesized that males and females have different spatial perspectives and organizational arrangements that might affect the landscape multifunctionality as well as the delivery of ecosystem services.


Read more

Villamor GB, Desrianti F, Akiefnawati R, Amaruzaman S, van Noordwijk M. 2013. Gender influences decisions to change land use practices in the tropical forest margins of Jambi, Indonesia. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change. DOI 10.1007/s11027-013-9478-7.

Villamor GB, Chiong-Javier E, Djanibekov U, Catacutan DC, van Noordwijk M. 2014. Gender differences in land-use decisions: shaping multifunctional landscapes? Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 6:128–133.


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This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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