Gender and Green Governance

Bina Agarwal, Guest Blogger

Environmental governance as a field is increasingly engaging economists, especially those interested in institutional analysis. The 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom for her pioneering work on governing the commons is one indicator of this engagement. However, neither economists, nor typically political scientists studying environmental collective action and governance, have paid much attention to gender. At the same time, research in other disciplines which brings a gender perspective to these issues has focused mainly on women’s relative absence from governance institutions and the factors underlying that absence.

But suppose we turned this focus on its head to ask: what difference would women’s presence make in these institutions? How would that affect institutional functioning?

Would women’s inclusion, say, in forest governance— undeniably important for equity— also affect decisions on forest use and outcomes for conservation and subsistence? Are women’s interests in forests different from men’s? Would women’s presence lead to better forests and more equitable access? Does it matter which class of women governs? And how large a presence of women would make an impact? Answers to these questions can prove foundational for effective environmental governance. Yet they have hardly been empirically investigated.

In my new book, Gender and Green Governance (Oxford University Press, 2010), I make these questions the central focus. I conceptually outline why we would expect women’s presence to make a difference, statistically test a range of hypotheses, and trace the policy implications of the results. Based on a primary survey of community forestry institutions (CFIs) in the early 2000s, and backed by a decade of fieldwork in Nepal and India, I examine what impact the gender composition of the group has on women’s effective participation, rule-making, rule violations, forest conservation, and firewood and fodder shortages.

I find that women’s greater presence in CFIs has many statistically demonstrable benefits. It enhances women’s effective voice in decision-making; influences the nature of decisions made, especially the rules of forest use and their implementation; and improves forest condition. Measures that help increase women’s presence in governance institutions (and especially poor women’s presence) would thus be beneficial both because their participation is intrinsically important for inclusive governance and successful institutional functioning, and to better fulfill the conservation and subsistence objectives of such institutions.

Improvement in forest canopy and regeneration (as assessed by the research team, the villagers, the forest department, and where possible satellite data), for instance, is found to be significantly greater among CFIs with a higher presence of women on their executive committees. In fact, in Nepal, all-women groups outperform other groups, despite receiving smaller, more degraded and younger forests. Involving women in the CFI’s decisions enlarges the pool of people committed to resource conservation. It improves the flow of information about forest protection rules among a wider cross-section of users. It increases the number of those watching out for intruders. It creates conditions under which women can better use their knowledge of plants and species and conservation practices. And it raises children’s awareness about the need for conservation.

These results are especially important given that forests are sources of biodiversity and carbon sinks, with a notable impact on climate change. But our ability to save forests can depend critically on the local collective action of millions of communities across the globe, as was recognized as early as 1987 in the Brundtland Report.

Where the CFIs I studied have done less well, however, is in addressing women’s domestic energy needs. Despite forest regeneration and the greater availability of biomass, in most cases firewood shortages have persisted, and in some cases they have become even more acute. I argue that effective solutions to such problems depend on both local and non-local responses, in particular the energy policies framed by the government. But is the government listening? If not, by what mechanisms of democratic deliberation and institutional strengthening can we call the government’s attention to critical local needs?

In engaging with current debates on energy policy, critical mass and social inclusion the book traverses fields which go beyond the domain of any single discipline. It also traces women’s history of exclusion from public institutions, the factors which constrain their effective participation, and how those constraints can be overcome. It outlines how strategic partnerships between forestry groups and other civil society institutions (“a web of strategic alliances”, as I term them) could strengthen rural women’s bargaining power with community and government. And it examines the complexities of eliciting government accountability in addressing poor rural women’s needs, such as for clean and adequate domestic fuel and access to the commons.

You can order Gender and Green Governance at a discount.

See also, Agarwal, B. 2010: “Does Women’s Proportional Strength Affect their Participation? Governing Local Forests in South Asia”, World Development, 38 (1): 98-112

Agarwal, B. 2009: “Gender and Forest Conservation: The Impact of Women’s Participation in Community Forest Governance”, Ecological Economics, Vol. 68: 2785-99.

Bina Agarwal is Director and Professor of Economics, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University. Triple Crisis invited her to write on her new book. See also

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