Social Norms and Perceptions – How women’s participation in customary forest and land governance in the DRC is being restricted

This blog post is based on results presented in the article “Exploring the impact of social norms and perception on women´s participation in customary forest and land governance in the Democratic Republic of Congo – Implications for REDD+”, written by Larissa Stiem and Torsten Krause.
Photo Larissa Stiem

Climate change and its impacts have dominated global environmental politics for more than two decades. Drastically reducing carbon emissions is the most important action to mitigate climate change and fighting deforestation can play a large role in this proceBlogss. Forests function as important carbon storage when trees take up carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the form of wood. However, deforestation releases the carbon stored in trees and the soil out in the atmosphere. Herein, in 2005 a global mechanism was proposed with the idea to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from deforestation and forest degradation (known as the REDD+ mechanism).

Since the birth of the idea, REDD+ was perceived as a promising and relatively cheap option to reduce emissions from forest loss and forest degradation. The underlying idea is that developed countries, which need to meet emission reduction targets, pay forest rich developing countries for conserving their forests and manage forests more sustainably.

The Congo Basin rainforests

blog 1The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) receives the largest amount of funds for REDD+ in Africa. This vast country, similar to the size of Western Europe, hosts more than 63% of the Congo Basin rainforests, the world’s second largest contiguous rainforest after the Amazon forests in South America.

Protecting the forests of the Congo Basin is not only important for mitigating carbon emission but also of crucial importance for preserving its biodiversity. The region’s tropical forests are home to more than 400 known mammal species (such as the Okapi, chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, and forest elephants), over 1,000 bird species, and possibly over 10,000 plant species of which around 3,000 are endemic.

Moreover, the livelihood of millions of people in the Congo Basin depends on forest resources. For instance, wood constitutes the primary energy source with 80% of all domestic energy consumed in the Congo Basin. Medicinal forest plants are used by an estimated 85% of households for curing diseases in Equateur province (our study area), where health infrastructures are poor.

Blog 2REDD+ as an inclusive process

Currently, there are a number of REDD+ projects being tested in the DRC. The funds are intended to improve forest governance towards sustainable forest management practices and forest conservation. In particular at the local level, these changes will affect communities’ forest resource use and ultimately their livelihoods. To counteract potentially negative social impacts from REDD+ project activities social safeguards, such as the UN-REDD Social and Environmental Principles and Criteria, have been developed. Among other things, these safeguards require the full and effective participation of all groups and stakeholders, gender equality, and the empowerment of women.

In a country like the DRC where gender inequality is very high, the promotion of gender equality and women empowerment are even more important challenges. Previous research on the role of women and their participation in REDD+ projects already found that women in particular tend to be less informed about REDD+ pilot projects on the ground.

Field study in the Equateur Province

The full and effective participatiblog 3on of women and other marginalized groups is a crucial concern for the social success of REDD+. Hence, we conducted field research on obstacles faced by women as well as opportunities for them to be equally involved and benefit from REDD+ project activities in the DRC. We spent several weeks interviewing people who would potentially benefit from two REDD+ projects in Equateur Province, which is located in the north of the DRC and is rich in its abundance of forests, but where human development is low. As study sites we used the REDD+ pilot project Projet Equateur managed by the Woods Hole Research Center and a potential REDD+ pilot project within the COBAM program managed by the African Model Forest Network.

During fieldwork in the Equateur Province in the summer of 2013 and in early 2015 we discussed many issues related to local gender roles and responsibilities. We talked with both men and women about how they perceive the participation of women in REDD+ projects. Our findings further strengthened and confirmed those of similar studies in Southern Asia and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. While there was unanimous agreement that women play a crucial role in harvesting forest products, such as fruits, nuts, etc. for the wellbeing of the family, most men were eager to preserve their male privileges ingrained in local traditions, meaning that men dominated forest user groups and decision-making. Surprisingly, men’s activities in and their knowledge about the forest was systematically valued higher compared to that of women. This continued to be the case even though women proved to be very or even more knowledgeable about issues such as where to find different forest products for household consumption.

Women’s knowledge needed in REDD+

In addition to the obligations stipulated by social safeguards, our results underline that REDD+ project developers and policymakers have a very practical reason to assure that women are active and fully participating within local forest governance groups. More efforts must be made to ensure gender equality and to challenge the traditional devaluation of women’s work and capabilities.

Another important implication for prospective REDD+ initiatives was the gendered behaviour during village meetings. Many women are reluctant to actively engage in discussions due to their lack of experience of speaking in front of men while self-confident and better-educated women (e.g., women who are literate in French language) are much more accepted to contribute with their ideas to local forest governance. This type of results further support calls for advocating education as an instrument to empower women. We conclude that the promotion of education, especially for women, should be included as a measurable social benefit for REDD+ projects.

The situation of women in the Equateur Province is representative for other contexts where the role of women are structured by sets of wider norms or rules in local society. Therefore it is particularly important that REDD+ initiatives actively support work that has the goal to overcome these structural limits that women continuously encounter. This study brings forward the broader and underlying structural constraints that women face within society where even the most participatory and inclusive forest groups at the local level will likely not be able to address these gender norms and larger societal inequalities.


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