Maathai and Beyond: Highlighting the Importance of Women in Landscape Management

“If you destroy the forest then the river will stop flowing, the rains will become irregular, the crops will fail and you will die of hunger and starvation.” - Professor Wangari Maathai

This vision of people and nature intertwined underpins the great strides in empowering women and their communities while protecting the underlying natural support systems led by Dr. Wangari Maathai, whose life and accomplishments are honored annually on  March 3rd. Wangari Maathai day celebrates the late environmental activist, who was instrumental in starting the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. Promoting the tenets of integrated landscape management, the Green Belt Movement adopts a community-driven approach to protecting watershed function and rural livelihoods by planting trees to conserve biodiversity, restore ecosystems, and reduce the impact of climate change. It targets critical watersheds and considers the interactions of land uses within the area, also offering training to the primarily female smallholder farmers in rural Kenya in order to increase food security and income.

While Maathai focused on empowering and educating local communities, she simultaneously advocated for awareness of these issues on the global level. While she might be remembered best for her 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace”, her work in the advancement of women in agriculture will likely be her lasting legacy.

Though Maathai’s work demonstrated just how powerful engaging women to work in stewardship of agricultural landscapes and the natural capital can be, there is still considerable change that needs to happen. In the developing world, the gap in access to information and resources between genders and entrenched cultural attitudes are some of the barriers hindering the impact women have on a more sustainable and just agricultural sector. Women often lag behind their male counterparts in control of quality land, ownership of working animals, use of modern inputs in farming, and accessing credit and education opportunities. Yet a more inclusive and equitable agricultural system could yield immense benefits for both genders. The 2011 State of Food and Agriculture Report that equal access to resources for men and women “estimates suggest that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent, lifting 100-150 million out of hunger”. In addition, the report makes the claim that “equal access to resources will raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5–4 percent, thereby contributing to both food security and economic growth”.

As we approach International Women’s Day on Friday, the Landscapes Blog will be focusing in on issues of gender in relation to agricultural landscapes and natural resources management. Considering women’s central role in both agriculture and as stewards of the land, and they must play a pivotal part in securing our collective sustainable future. It is our hope that over the coming posts, we will be able to highlight just how important it is to  incorporate gender considerations into landscape management.

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