University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006
Women, environmental changes and forestry-related development:
Gender-affected roles of rural people in land degradation and environmental rehabilitation in a dry region of Sudan
Doctoral dissertation, May 2006.
The purpose of the present study was to increase understanding of the interaction of rural people and, specifically, women with the environment in a dry area in Sudan. The study that included both nomadic pastoralists and farmers aimed at answering two main research questions, namely: What kinds of roles have the local people, and the women in particular, had in land degradation in the study area and what kinds of issues would a gender-sensitive, forestry-related environmental rehabilitation intervention need to consider there?
The study adopted the definition of land degradation as proposed by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which describes land degradation as reduction or loss the biological or economic productivity and complexity of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. The Convention perceives desertification as land degradation.
The dry study area in Sudan, South of the Sahara, has been the subject of land degradation or desertification discussions since the 1970s, and other studies have been also conducted to assess the degradation in the area. Nevertheless, the exact occurrence, scale and local significance of land degradation in the area is still unclear. This study explored how the rural population whose livelihood depended on the area, perceived environmental changes occurring there and compared their conceptions with other sources of information of the area such as research reports.
The main fieldwork methods included interviews with open-ended questions and observation of people and the environment. The theoretical framework conceptualised the rural population as land users whose choices of environmental activities are affected by multiple factors in the social and biophysical contexts in which they live. It was emphasised that these factors have their own specific characteristics in different contexts, simultaneously recognising that there are also factors that generally affect environmental practices in various areas such as the land users' environmental literacy (conceptions of the environment), gender and livelihood needs.
The people studied described that environmental changes, such as reduced vegetation cover and cropland production, had complicated the maintenance of their livelihoods in the study area. Some degraded sites were also identified through observations during the fieldwork. Whether a large-scale reduction of cropland productivity had occurred in the farmers' croplands remained, however, unclear.
The study found that the environmental impact of the rural women's activities varied and was normally limited. The women's most significant environmental impact resulted from their cutting of trees, which was likely to contribute, at least in some places, to land degradation, affecting the environment together with climate and livestock. However, when a wider perspective is taken, it becomes questionable whether the women have really played roles in land degradation, since gender, poverty and the need to maintain livelihood had caused them to conduct environmentally harmful activities. The women have had, however, no power to change the causes of their activities.
The findings further suggested that an inadequate availability of food was the most critical problem in the study area. Therefore, an environmental programme in the area was suggested to include technical measures to increase the productivity of croplands, opportunities for income generation and readiness to co-operate with other programmes to improve the local people's abilities to maintain their livelihoods.
In order to protect the environment and alleviate the women's work burden, the introduction of fuel-saving stoves was also suggested. Furthermore, it was suggested that increased planting of trees on homesteads would be supported by an easy availability of tree seedlings. Planting trees on common property land was, however, perceived as extremely demanding in the study area, due to scarcity of such land. In addition, it became apparent that the local land users, and women in particular, needed to allocate their labour to maintain the immediate livelihood of their families and were not motivated to allocate their labour solely for environmental rehabilitation.
Nonetheless, from the point of view of the existing social structures, women's active participation in a community-based environmental programme would be rather natural, particularly among the farmer women who had already formed a women's group and participated in communal decision making. Forming of a women group or groups was suggested to further support both the farmer women's and pastoral women's active participation within an environmental programme and their general empowerment. An Environmental programme would need to acknowledge that improving rural people's well-being and maintaining their livelihood in the study area requires development and co-operation with various sectors in Sudan.
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© University of Helsinki 2006
Last updated 21.04.2006