Bina Agarwal, director and professor of economics, Institute of Economic Growth interviewed by Pamela Philipose

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published Published on Nov 7, 2010   modified Modified on Nov 7, 2010

Bina Agarwal , director and professor of economics, Institute of Economic Growth, has written a pioneering new book, Gender and Green Governance, that explores a central question: If women had adequate representation in forestry institutions, would it make a difference to them, their communities and forests as a national resource? Pamela Philipose spoke to Agarwal:

Why has access to forests been such a conflict-ridden issue?

This is not surprising. Forests constitute not just community and national wealth, but global wealth. But for millions, forests are also critical for livelihoods and their daily lives.

Your first book, Cold Hearths and Barren Slopes (1986), was about forests. Is there an evolution of argument here?

Yes indeed. In Cold Hearths and Barren Slopes, i had argued that social forestry, with its top-down implementation and focus on commercial species, was neither 'social' nor 'forestry', and would protect neither forests nor village livelihoods. The answer, i argued, lay in allowing forest communities to manage local forests. Finally, in 1990, India launched the joint forest management programme and Nepal also started community forestry. So i decided to see for myself how community forestry was actually doing.

Between 1995 and 1999, i travelled extensively across India and Nepal and found a paradox: Forests were indeed becoming greener but women's problem of firewood shortages persisted and in many cases had become more acute. Also, despite their high stakes in forests, women continued to be largely excluded from forest management. I coined the term "participatory exclusions" to describe this. However, the current book is less about women's exclusion. I ask: What if women were present in forest governance? What difference would that make?

But has this question not been raised before?

Economists researching environmental collective action have paid little attention to gender. Scholars from other disciplines focussing on gender and governance have been concerned mainly with women's near absence from governance institutions. The presumption is that once women are present all good things will follow. But can we assume this? No. Rural women's relationship with forests is complex.

On the one hand, their everyday dependence on forests for firewood, fodder, etc, creates a strong stake in conservation. On the other, the same dependence can compel them to extract heavily from forests. As one landless woman told me: 'Of course, it hurts me to cut a green branch but what do i do if my children are hungry?' Taking an agnostic position, i decided to test varied propositions, controlling for other factors.

What did you find?

First, women's greater presence enhances their effective voice in decision-making. And there is a critical mass effect: If forest management groups have 25-33 per cent female members in their executive committees it significantly increases the likelihood of women attending meetings, speaking up and holding office. However, the inclusion of landless women makes a particular difference. When present in sufficient numbers they are more likely to attend meetings and voice their concerns than landed women. So what matters is not just including more women, but more poor women.

Second, and unexpectedly, groups with more women typically make stricter forest use rules. Why is this case? Mainly because they receive poorer forests from the forest department. To regenerate these they have to sacrifice their immediate needs. Women from households with some land have some fallback. But remarkably even in groups with more landless women, although extraction is higher, they still balance self-interest with conservation goals, when placed in decision-making positions.

Third, groups with more women outperform other groups in improving forest conditions, despite getting poorer forests. Involving women substantially improves protection and conflict resolution, helps the use of their knowledge of local biodiversity, and raises children's awareness about conservation.

Women's Feature Service.

The Times of India, 8 November, 2010,

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