The Metema forest in Ethiopia, an important buffer against desertification. Image: Tree Aid/Maheder Haileselassie
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- Rural women can contribute vital knowledge to the management of climate adaptation projects, like Africa's Great Green Wall.
- Their participation has multiple community benefits, such as poverty reduction and improving food security.
- An inclusive approach also empowers women, expanding their social and economic opportunities.
At Tree Aid, we know that we must put local people, particularly women, at the heart of what we do: Women have significant potential to tackle the interlinked challenges of poverty, climate change and biodiversity loss. On International Women’s Day, we should remember to equip women in the Sahel with the tools and training they need to restore their land and champion their land rights.
Rural women remain pioneers in the management of the forest, sourcing tree products to feed their households, earn incomes and produce medicinal plants to care for their children. Despite cultural constraints, they represent a pool of vital knowledge and talent; acknowledging their leadership and participation is essential for the restoration of our planet’s ecosystems.
Africa’s Great Green Wall project – a planned 8,000-kilometre corridor of greenery spanning 22 countries – was first conceived in 2007. Since then, local and inclusive forest governance efforts – particularly when led by women – have spearheaded the most effective land restoration we’ve seen in the Sahel. When women's leadership and their traditional knowledge are prioritized in how we manage local forests, we see benefits not just for communities and the land, but for women themselves, both locally and nationally.
Women and the forest
A forest governance approach embraces equity by putting women in the driving seat of locally led climate adaptation. This ensures that trees are protected by the people who grow and depend on them. Evidence shows that a healthy environment follows suit.
“The whole system exists because there are trees – if they are destroyed, it would collapse,” Birtukan Gebeyehu told us. A mother of two in her late twenties, Birtukan lives in Ethiopia’s Metema district. Metema’s forest provides a vital source of income for her, but over-tapping of frankincense resin from Boswellia trees threatens the forest’s survival. It is now one of the last green belts holding back the desert.
Women in Birtukan’s community, as with many communities in the Sahel, must juggle a “triple burden” of responsibilities – as mothers, community members and land workers. It is these same responsibilities, combined with their traditional knowledge, which make women cornerstones of the Great Green Wall. However, they face many challenges: high levels of unpaid work, unequal access to health and education, and insecure land rights.
Equal leadership transforms communities
Making space for women’s leadership and knowledge can therefore have a powerful impact. Tree Aid’s governance training ensures that the forest is managed in a participatory way, inclusive of the women who depend on it. Often, community members work alongside local governments to agree rules for protecting their forests and local resources.
Our research shows that inclusive decision-making benefits the community at every level, from poverty reduction to improved food security. We have found a link between strong, locally led forest governance practices, higher community incomes and increased food security.
These benefits also stem from the high gender inclusivity of local tree product enterprise chains – another essential component of sustainable forest management. In the villages analyzed, all enterprise groups and cooperative unions included at least 50% female members, with women often in group leadership positions.
The impact of this inclusive approach extends beyond forests and communities, benefitting women themselves too. Improving forest access and management rights is helping to create lasting social and economic opportunities in Africa’s dryland communities, for women like Birtukan who often have limited access to education. “I didn’t go to school and I don’t like to be reminded of it,” she says. “When I see my classmates coming from work I feel a deep sadness. You see what it means to be a woman.”
Birtukan’s story is familiar for many women in Ethiopia living with climate-exacerbated poverty. Leaving school aged just nine due to a family crisis, she had to put many of her ambitions on hold while she helped her mother to run a roadside tea business. “Families think sending their daughters to school is a waste of time, so girls are not encouraged to aim big … which has a big implication on their performance at school,” she says.
However, Birtukan's story did not end here. Following involvement with Tree Aid’s forest governance project in Metema, Birtukan is now thriving in a leadership role, an executive member of the local Participatory Forest Management Cooperative, a body set up to oversee the forest.
The forest in Metema used to be no one’s property. Anyone could cut a tree, tap frankincense, collect fuelwood or honey and allow their animals to graze. Each forest management project now has an area of forestland to conserve, develop and utilize. Everyone has a sense of belonging.
The local and the global
The UN Decade for Restoration has identified the Great Green Wall as one of its flagship projects, and the initiative has received international acclaim for its bold aspirations. International leaders have now committed $19 billion of finance to be shared. However, in the words of Birtukan: “What is happening at a national and regional level is encouraging, but there is still a lot to be done at the community level.”
What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?
We cannot forget that grassroots action is at the heart of this initiative and always has been. Leaders must show that they recognize the value of local actors and move from a “trickle-down” model of climate finance towards more accessible forms of funding. In doing so, they will empower women in communities who can enact change at the scale so urgently needed. With local heroes like Birtukan in the driving seat of forest conservation, we can create a path towards a lasting and truly empowering change to the way trees are protected.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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