NGO Network in Latin America Promotes Gender Equity as Key to Long-Term Success of Environmental Projects

Recipes passed for generations from mother to daughter in Mexico are the key to a conservation project called “De la Milpa al Mar” or “From Field to the Sea.” Through the project, a nonprofit group called the Equality Foundation, in the Yucatan of Mexico, is profiling natural resource use in the area and pinpointing which are endangered. The recipe initiative is one of 33 underway in Latin America that are being virtually collected this year by the Network for Gender and Environment in Latin America and the Caribbean (Red GALAC for its name in Spanish). The World Conservation Union (IUCN) regional office in Costa Rica and Fundación Acceso, a nonprofit group in Costa Rica, hope that Red GALAC will demonstrate that not just scientific studies are needed to promote management and sustainable use of natural resources. The aim of the network is to make environmental projects more effective by focusing on gender equity.

Illustration by Allan Núñez ('Nano')
“Many ecological problems are actually human, social, cultural, economic, or migratory in nature, and what we are proposing is that in order resolve the impacts of human beings on their surroundings, it is fundamental and unavoidable to involve women, which make up 52 percent of the population,” says Lorena Aguilar, coordinator of social concerns in Mesoamerica for IUCN and counsel on the subject of gender for IUCN internationally.

Members of the network, which formed a year ago with support from the government of Holland and the International Development Research Centre of Canada, are organizations from the Caribbean, South America, and Central America. Member groups offer advice on gender equity to directors of environmental projects throughout the region and are in charge of organizing experiences into a regional training database. The objective is to share methodologies that incorporate gender issues in the design of conservation projects.

Aguilar points out that a similar network has been underway for almost a decade, working with the ministries of the environment and agriculture from Mexico to Panama, helping them develop policies and activities related to gender issues. In this way, people doing fieldwork are linked with those in charge of setting policies. She explains that Red GALAC hopes “to demonstrate to a director of a protected area, for example, that gender counts and can make the difference in the work being done”.

Susana Albán Bedón is coordinator of the Gender and Sustainable Development Project for the Randi Randi Group of Ecuador, a member of Red GALAC. She believes that although gender equity is still not valued or included in all conservation projects, the issue is indeed becoming an important variable, taken into account along with biological and ecological factors. “The NGOs see that many efforts have been made in vain because they haven’t considered people in their project designs,” she says. The Randi Randi Group is applying a focus on gender in three areas of Ecuador, including the Amazon, which not only has different ecosystems, but also ethnically and culturally distinct populations, whose use of natural resources are based in tradition.

According to Albán, one of the key aspects of the effort is a historical-social context that encourages an understanding of community dynamics, family relationships, and power relationships, and the connections with ecology. She explains that in order to understand which resources are threatened within an ecosystem, they try to find out what relationships between men and women exist that are related to resource management.

For example, the Randi Randi Group has determined that it’s not the men’s angling techniques that determine whether a local fishery is efficiently managed, but rather the way the women process the fish caught. Ironically, improvements in fishery management are in the hands of women whose local superstitions hold that it’s bad luck for them to even climb into a fishing boat.

Another example of why it can be important to understand gender relationships is a study underway by biologists working in Brazil’s Jaú National Park to determine protein consumption in the forest. After talking to and following hunters for a period of three years without obtaining specific results, the female biologists involved in the project suggested that they ask the women what kinds and quantities of wildlife they cooked. Not only did they obtain specific information on protein consumption, but they also realized who decided what was eaten at meals, and therefore, with whom to negotiate in order to bring about an eventual change in the consumption of endangered species.

“Studies in protected area zones show that women are the ones who impose levels of control in the community with respect to bans on hunting, and they are the ones who pass on much of this knowledge to future generations,” Aguilar emphasizes. She adds that Red GALAC works with women, men, and mixed groups. However, women’s participation takes on special importance since their work is often socially invisible and undervalued.

Although gender relationships change a great deal from country to country and from ecosystem to ecosystem, Aguilar notes that there are themes in common, such as the use of natural resources only for family subsistence, not as a market-related activity or one that is publicly visible. Further, she points to studies that show that income obtained from the exploitation of natural resources in Latin America are often spent by men on prostitution, alcohol, or drugs, while profits from women’s work, whether subsistence or craftwork, are generally spent on improving quality of life for the family.

Natural resource management projects also imply social changes as people develop new skills and create new organizations. Groups that previously didn’t have decision-making power suddenly are influential. These changes inevitably alter the relationships between genders that, according to Aguilar, can be positive or negative. “These can range from divorces and separations to changes in attitude among men who understand that relationships between equals are better than relationships of subordination.” Albán adds, “It isn’t the stereotypical man-nature relationship that we always hear about, but rather the power relationships that people establish with each other that have repercussions on natural resources use.” These are the relationships that often dictate whether a conservation project fails or succeeds.

Contact:

Lorena Aguilar
Global Gender Council
World Conservation Union (IUCN)
Apdo. 146-2050 Moravia
Costa Rica
tel +506/241-0101
fax +506/240-9934
lorena.aguilar@iucn.org
www.genderandenvironment.org
(in Spanish, www.generoyambiente.org)

Susana Albán Bedón
Grupo Randi Randi
El Porvenir 243 y Telégrafo
Quito
Ecuador
tel: +593-2/ 2432-204
mapuche@uio.telconet.net

Read more about these projects on the Eco-Index:
Red GALAC:
www.eco-index.org/search/results.cfm?ProjectID=404
Iniciativa de Grupo Randi Randi:
www.eco-index.org/search/results.cfm?ProjectID=406

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