Women in Nicaragua’s indigenous territories face substantial obstacles while participating in decision-making processes when it comes to the use of forests and forest resources in their communities. Though national laws and regional policies promote gender equality, forests are still seen primarily as the realm of men. Development/conservation projects on women are rarely concerned with forests. Projects on forests rarely pay attention to women or approach forests from a gender perspective. Even when women are influential in other realms of local life, at the community level, forests remain largely out of bounds.
This case study presents results of research on “Gender, Tenure and Community Forests” in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) of Nicaragua. It is based on a review of national and regional laws, policies and literature; interviews with governmental and non-governmental organizations; and focus groups in 18 indigenous communities. The study began in 2010 as a collaborative effort between the Nitlapan Research and Development Institute of the Central American University and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). The Austrian Development Agency provided financing. This report documents perceptions about, the meaning of, and obstacles to women’s participation. It represents diverse points of view and lays the groundwork for further work at multiple levels.
The study highlights that government actions on forests and natural resources, although mandated to include a crosscutting approach to gender, are diluted into larger development processes. They may also remain at the level of a simple quantification of the number of men and women incorporated into projects (called ‘affirmative actions’). There is little genuine analysis of women’s roles. The state institutions or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are implementing projects in indigenous communities do not always recognize the importance of more inclusive and balanced development processes.
Gender mainstreaming, in this context, refers to the coherent and comprehensive inclusion of gender considerations into NBSAP design and implementation. The goals of mainstreaming gender into NBSAP strategies and actions include to: i) reduce gender inequalities and the vulnerabilities of dependent communities; ii) prevent negative impacts on and promote benefits for women; and iii) maximize the efficiency and sustainability of conservation efforts.
This study underscores the importance of including women in forest-related decision-making processes and regional and national political leadership positions. It provides a detailed analysis of women as social and political actors, and highlights the need to strengthen female participation in the country’s development and natural resource conservation planning processes. This study also highlights how biodiversity policies and projects can significantly contribute to gender equality.
The North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) is one of two autonomous regions that together comprise 52.6% of Nicaragua’s national territory (Envío 1981). The RAAN contains nearly 40% of the country’s forests, totaling .48 million ha (INAFOR 2009). More than half of the population lives in poverty (Ortega 2009). In the RAAN, indigenous women who have been closely linked to empowerment processes in governmental and political spheres now serve in a variety of positions of power. However, this process has moved more slowly at the community and territory levels.
The local governance of natural resources is a key issue in the autonomous and inclusive development of indigenous territories. However, little attention has been given to the local dynamics that determine who governs what, especially gender dynamics.
Women’s participation in community meetings is often limited to physical presence: they rarely share or voice opinions, and their opinions are not seen as relevant. In a many cases, women are not even invited to meetings. Often, men prevent their spouses from attending, dismiss spouses’ opinions during meetings or otherwise ridicule them. Women occasionally ridicule other women who speak out or try to take a leadership role. Other constraints include fear, lack of time, shyness and workload burdens.
Most public and private institutions have made little progress in promoting initiatives that lead to more empowering perceptions of women’s participation within communities. There is little understanding among indigenous women of how or why to participate. Donors that require women’s participation often do so without supporting mechanisms for serious reflection or analysis of gender issues. Hence, the result is often an emphasis on physical presence as a measure of participation. Instead, it is important for women to be sufficiently empowered, supported and skilled to take on high posts in community decision-making.
Through literature and field research, the study ‘Gender, Tenure and Community Forests in Nicaragua’ aimed to provide insights on how indigenous women participate in the management of forests and forest resources.
The study focused on three critical questions:
• To what degree are women involved in forest-related decision-making processes? What are the major impediments to their participation?
• Do governments (local, regional and national) and external actors, such as NGOs, support women’s participation in community forest management? In what way? With what results?
• What kind of governance arrangements, processes and structures can be designed to foster women’s inclusion in community forestry? How would this affect the sustainability and benefits of forests?
The action taken:
The project analyzed the existence, function and effectiveness of mechanisms to promote women’s inclusion in forest use and management. Researchers interviewed 20 key informant sand analyzed national and regional laws & policies and NGO and donor projects. Focus groups in 18 rural indigenous communities were created to understand community perceptions about women’s participation in forest resources management. Communal authorities granted permission to conduct the research. The communities ranged in distance from the region’s administrative center, in the density of NGOs and external agencies, and in land tenure agreements (private, communal and state). Females and males from the two main indigenous groups facilitated the focus groups in native languages. The focus groups were conducted with men and women separately, and divided into two age groups (18 to 35 years, and over 35), for a total of four focus groups. Not all participants were literate. To address this imitation, visual maps and timeline were used to construct the community history. This technique allowed all participants to contribute.
- A new vision for managing forests requires the bringing together of all of the community members who benefit from forests and forest resources.
- Both communities and outside institutions need to reflect critically on their actions, activities and gendered assumptions regarding forests.
- Political leadership and effective governance need to be addressed more broadly, not just only from a gender perspective. Indeed, efforts to address women’s participation may be ineffective without efforts to address local governance and accountability – a valuable hypothesis for future research.
- Although most of the state agencies and NGOs studied had some kind of gender policy or strategy, very few promoted indigenous women’s participation in decisions related to natural resources or forests.
- Even in communities where women believe they have influence over many important decisions, they do not have similar influence over forest-related decisions.
- Lack of confidence in local authorities has paralyzed the participation of both men and women community members. Thus, efforts to address women’s participation may be ineffective if local governance and accountability are not addressed.
- Both communities and outside institutions need to reflect critically on their assumptions regarding women’s and men’s roles and responsibilities in respect to forests, and design and monitor specific strategies to support women’s effective participation.
The following reflections and recommendations emerged from undertaking this study:
1. Factors that promote women’s participation in decision-making:
- Knowledge, by both women and men, of the laws that promote equal participation of women in government
- Relatively high education or capacity, which includes speaking at least two languages (native and Spanish)
- Relatively high level of awareness among men regarding women’s participation and the differing gender roles in these contexts
- Women’s organizations taking a role in establishing precedents and creating arenas for exchange among women.
2. Factors that impede women’s participation in decision-making:
- Few community assemblies, which also limits community participation in general
- Community assemblies that are unwelcoming to women
- Domestic work and the lack of initiative among men to share domestic chores
- Prohibitions, by male partners or spouses, of women taking part in community activities
- Avoidance of conflict and meetings associated with national politics (which exacerbate divisions related to political party affiliation)
- Risk of social punishment (gossip, innuendo, sexual slurs and criticism)
- Domestic violence.
3. Factors that impede women’s participation in forest resource decisions specifically:
- Negotiations that are limited to certain interest groups (which can exclude women unless they are part of the leadership and speak Spanish)
- Association of forests with men’s work (and religious beliefs that tend to reinforce women’s traditional domestic roles)
- Risks of travel (unescorted over long distances) or of conflict-ridden or dangerous situations (e.g. addressing land invasions)
- Lack of knowledge about forest policy or management issues.