Women managing farms and forests in South Asia
For millions of rural women and their families in developing countries, rights to agricultural land and forest resources are critical determinants of their well-being and their security against destitution. Not only can such property rights enhance individual welfare, they can also strengthen livelihoods for the most vulnerable and help conserve forests that are of global importance as carbon sinks and sources of biodiversity.
Women Managing Farms
There is a growing recognition that owning agricultural land can critically strengthen the economic and social well-being of rural women and their children.1 It can add to women’s livelihood options, alleviate poverty, reduce infant and child mortality, increase the likelihood of children attending school and receiving health care, and lower women’s risk of spousal violence. Moreover, since women constitute a growing proportion of farmers, with more men moving to non-farm jobs, securing land access for women can also increase a country’s agricultural productivity.
But how do we increase women’s access to land? And how do we strengthen their ability to use it profitably? In principle, women can access land through their families, the state, or the market. All three sources, however, tend to favor men: inheritance laws are often gender unequal, governments tend to transfer land to male heads of the household, and most women lack the financial resources to buy or lease land. Also, many women who inherit land or obtain it from the government are unable to cultivate it effectively because of the small size of their plots and the male bias in agricultural services that severely limits their access to credit, inputs, information, and new technologies.1,2 A possible solution that has enormous potential in helping women access, retain, and productively cultivate land is a group approach to investment and farming, in contrast to a single-family approach.3
By a group approach I mean a group of persons pooling financial and other resources to create joint farm enterprises. By pooling their funds, women who have no land could lease or purchase it, something they could not afford to do individually. Also if women who obtain land in this way, or who already own small plots, were to pool their land to cultivate it collectively, there would be further advantages: they could enjoy economies of scale, gain better access to credit and inputs, undertake investment in irrigation and land conservation, share labor and skills more profitably, afford crop insurance, and profitably market their crops.
Such a group approach, however, would be quite different from early socialist collectivization, which tends to evoke stark images of famines and failures. Socialist collectives were formed coercively, were massive in scale, and provided little opportunity for farmer participation in decision-making or fair distribution of benefits. In sharp contrast, in the approach I am suggesting, the groups would be formed voluntarily, would be of small size and constituted of women who are socially and economically homogenous, and would have participative decision-making processes, egalitarian distribution, and effective mechanisms for curbing free riding.
The formation of such “collectivities,” as I term them to distinguish them from former socialist collectives, is not simply a theoretical possibility. There are many on-the-ground examples of success. In Andhra Pradesh, in southern India, for instance, with support from the Deccan Development Society, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), poor women in many drought-prone villages are farming collectively in small groups of eight to ten. The women have gained access to land by taking advantage of various government schemes. Especially notable is a scheme that provides financial support (50 percent as a grant and 50 percent as a low-interest, long-term loan) to landless, low-caste women who form a group to buy agricultural land. The purchased land is then divided equally and registered individually in each woman’s name. In other cases, groups of women have leased land collectively through government schemes intended to alleviate poverty. Both the purchase groups and the lease groups farm collectively. In 2008, 26 villages had one or more women’s lease groups and 21 villages had women’s purchase groups. Some groups which began as lease groups have been able to buy small plots over time.
By working together, women have learned to survey land, hire equipment, travel to towns to meet government officials, obtain inputs, and market their crops. They preserve their own seeds and practice organic farming and multicropping. Some groups grow as many as 24 crops a year. This reduces their risk of harvest failure and provides a balanced diet. Women who shirk work on the group farm are held to account by the group members at their weekly meetings. Women report that as a group they now have more access to government officials and to markets than they had individually. And per hectare profits are higher than on individual family farms. Women also report an improvement in family diets and health, enhanced respect within their communities, and better spousal relations. Their children’s attendance in school also improves. Moreover, the women have found that they are in the position to bargain for higher wages when they seek supplementary work, since they already have land to provide for a part of their needs.
In addition, in 51 villages, using government support, women’s committees have extended loans to male farmers to cultivate their fallow land and, in return, contribute a share of their harvest to a community grain fund managed by the women. The food grains in the fund are sold at a nominal price to poor families, thus enhancing food security for several thousand needy families.
Can this success story be replicated more widely? I believe so. To begin with, there are also other examples of women’s group farming in India and elsewhere in South Asia. In Bangladesh, for instance, with support from the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (a large NGO), about 20,000 women are reputed to be farming in groups on land leased from private owners. In addition, there is substantial potential for encouraging group farming by women’s groups already formed for credit. In India, for instance, there are 2.3 million women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs). Some have also formed federations, namely horizontal and vertical networks of similar groups. Initially formed to share their savings on a rotational basis, with subsequent support from banks, most SHGs use their funds for individual family enterprises. But some have begun group enterprises around fish or tea production, and many others also have the potential to take up group farming.
For those who still remain skeptical about people’s ability to cooperate in such ventures, three types of developments could prove persuasive. First, apart from the examples of women’s group farming, such as those described above, families are found to be pooling land to undertake collective cultivation in many countries, particularly in the transition economies of Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Nicaragua, and the former East Germany.3,4 These countries, which had earlier undertaken farm collectivization, decollectivized their farm sectors in the 1980s and 1990s. Households could then opt for individual family farming. Instead, many families chose to reconstitute into small family cooperatives and farm jointly. Unlike the earlier collectivized farms, these new family cooperatives are formed voluntarily and by families who know each other. The farms are relatively small in size, participate equally in farm decisions, and ensure fair distribution. Forming a group helps them overcome shortages of land, machinery, or skills, and some also say that they simply enjoy working together. Recent research by development economist Rachel Sabates-Wheeler and others shows that productivity in these group enterprises is significantly higher than on individual family farms. And such enterprises are quite widespread. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, 64 percent of all farm enterprises consisted of family cooperatives in 1997. Second, there are numerous examples of communities cooperating to govern common pool resources (such as forests and irrigation systems), as documented by the 2009 Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom and others (including myself). Third, a large body of experimental games research in economics indicates that repeated interaction has the potential to increase cooperation. This research examines human behavior under simulated situations, using university students, and sometimes communities, as subjects. Experimental games literature also indicates that women tend to be more cooperative than men. All this suggests that cooperation within communities and among people is much more widespread and much more possible than normally assumed.
Women Governing Forests
The gendered aspect of cooperation is also relevant when considering women’s stewardship of forests. In the last two decades, there has been a proliferation of communities protecting forests in developing countries. In India and Nepal, for instance, in a major policy shift in the early 1990s, the government transferred substantial tracts of government-owned forests to village communities to manage. In both countries today, we can find many thousands of community forestry groups, some self-initiated and others started by NGOs or the government. Most of these groups, however, include few women. In 1998–99, I traveled across India and Nepal and found that such “participatory exclusions,” as I termed them, were widespread. Many factors explained women’s limited presence, including conservative social norms that restricted their participation, mobility, and voice; membership rules that allowed only one person per household to join (this was typically the male household head); or the non-implementation of women-inclusive membership rules.
This early research led me to ask: what if more women were present in forest management? Would that make a difference to conservation and subsistence outcomes? Would women’s presence lead to better regeneration of forests and more equitable access to them? Does it matter which class of women governs? And how large a female presence would make a difference? Answers to these questions could have profound implications for effective environmental governance, but they had received little empirical attention. Nor was there any readily available data to answer them. I therefore collected my own data from three districts in western India and three districts in Nepal during 2000-2002 to address these questions.
These community forestry institutions (CFIs) have a two-tier management structure, consisting of a General Body (GB) that all village households can join and an Executive Committee (EC) of 9-15 members. The EC is the principle decision-making body that, in consultation with the GB (and sometimes with the forest department), decides on methods of protection, rules of forest access and product extraction, penalties for rule violation, mechanisms of conflict resolution, and so on. Based on my data and many years of prior fieldwork, I examined what impact the gender composition of these ECs has on women’s effective participation, on rule making and rule violations, on forest conservation, and on firewood and fodder shortages.5
The results are striking. Women’s greater presence in CFIs does indeed have several statistically demonstrable effects. If women constitute a quarter to one-third of an executive committee, they tend to have a more effective voice in decisions on forest management and use. Poor women, in particular, tend to be more outspoken when included in the EC since they are more dependent on the forest. Overall, women’s enhanced presence also influences the nature of decisions made, especially regarding the rules of forest use and their enforcement; it reduces the incidence of rule violations; and it is linked with a significant improvement in forest condition, as measured through changes in forest canopy and forest regeneration. In fact, in Nepal, all-women groups outperform other groups in this respect, despite receiving smaller, more degraded, and younger forests from the forest department.
The positive effect of women’s presence on conservation outcomes is attributable to several factors. First, it increases the effectiveness of protection. Involving women in a CFI’s decisions creates a larger pool of people keeping a lookout for intruders. After joining the EC, participating women tend to comply better with forest protection rules, and they spread information about the rules to other village women and persuade them to comply. EC women are also more likely to take up patrolling and to encourage other village women to do so. Second, women on the EC bring to the conservation effort their knowledge of plants and ecological practices. This increases the pool of knowledge since understanding of local ecology tends to be gendered: women often know more about firewood, fodder, and non-timber species and men know more about timber. There is also some evidence that groups with more women tend to cooperate better and resolve conflicts faster.
Measures that help increase women’s presence (and especially poor women’s presence) in governance institutions can thus not only improve equity but also significantly improve forest condition. Women’s participation can increase children’s awareness of conservation practices as well, thus increasing the likelihood of forests being protected by the next generation. Involving women in forest protection can therefore add to the overall sustainability of governance institutions.
There is, however, one aspect in which the CFIs I studied have done less well. This is in addressing rural women’s domestic energy needs. About 65-75 percent of rural households in India and 90 percent in Nepal use firewood as their primary cooking fuel, and most firewood is gathered from forests and common lands. Despite effective regeneration and greater biomass availability in the protected forests, firewood shortages persist in most cases, and in some cases have become even more acute, since less is now extracted than before. Effective solutions to such problems lie both in local responses, such as increased extraction of firewood within the limits of sustainability in the short term, and in the government’s energy policies in the longer term. These policies must focus on alternative clean fuels to eliminate local dependence on forests for fuel. Biogas (methane gas obtained through the fermentation of biomass) is one such clean fuel that can be generated through low-cost technology.
This leaves us with two challenges: increasing women’s presence in CFIs and finding mechanisms to effectively influence governments to attend to poor rural women’s needs. A possible way to meet both challenges would be to build strategic alliances between forestry groups and other civil society institutions. In India, for instance, the SHGs I mentioned above could build alliances with women in forestry groups, or themselves join the groups as members, thereby gaining access to a resource they need for their own subsistence. Creating federations of interlinked self-help groups and forestry groups would further strengthen women’s influence and voice within community forestry. In turn, such federations would have greater bargaining power with the government and be in a stronger position to influence government policy. In India, the challenge is therefore to scale up the existing forest federations, as well as to form strategic alliances with local women’s groups. In Nepal there is already a nationwide federation of forest user groups with a mandate that 50 percent of members and office bearers be women. Here the challenge is to convert this mandate into a reality.
In conclusion, solutions to women’s effective management of both farms and forests lie in moving away from individual-oriented approaches to more collective approaches. This will help empower women both economically and socially.
- Agarwal, B. A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994).
- Agarwal, B. Are We Not Peasants Too? SEEDS (Population Council, New York, 2002).
- Agarwal, B. Rethinking agricultural production collectivities: A group approach to poverty reduction and women’s empowerment. Economic and Political Weekly 55, 64-78 (2010).
- Sabates-Wheeler, R. Co-operation in the Romanian Countryside: An Insight into Post-Soviet Agriculture (Lexington Books, Colorado, 2005)
- Agarwal, B. Gender and Green Governance: The Political Economy of Women’s Presence Within and Beyond Community Forestry (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010).