Giving Local Women a Voice In Grass-Roots Conservation

As “gender advisor” at Conservation International, Kame Westerman seeks to include local women’s perspectives and priorities into the planning of projects in developing countries. This approach, she says, can be critical in determining whether a project succeeds or fails.

The roles of women in traditional, rural societies can be quite different from those of their male counterparts. As a consequence, their knowledge of the natural world and the way in which conservation projects affect them may also be different. But these variables aren’t necessarily taken into account when developing such projects. The results? They can range from missed opportunities to project failure.


Last year, Conservation International began piloting guidelines to help integrate gender considerations into its community projects — an initiative that Kame Westerman, the gender and conservation advisor for that organization, helped develop. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Westerman discusses these guidelines, as well as the perils of ignoring gender when planning conservation initiatives.

Yale Environment 360: Why is there a need for a “gender advisor” at a conservation organization?

Kame Westerman: Men and women oftentimes have very different roles and responsibilities in societies, especially in developing countries where we do most of our work. And that is reflected in how they relate to their natural resources. For example, in some areas we work in, women may be responsible for collecting firewood or water for household needs and for agriculture, whereas men might be more involved in forestry or fishing.

So there different roles and responsibilities vis-à-vis the environment that men and women have, but too often in conservation we think about the community and we don’t look more deeply at what that actually means and who people actually are. You need to recognize that a community is not homogenous and that different groups of people will have different needs regarding conservation or natural resource management. And they will have different knowledge about natural resources.

Getting back to that earlier example, women and girls who spend time collecting water will probably have a much better knowledge about where the best water sources are in a community or in a forest. Whereas men, let’s say in Kenya, who are responsible for livestock management, they’re going to have a much better sense of the resource needs regarding livestock management. And so in conservation projects, as we’re developing and implementing them, we need to understand that people have different needs, different knowledge, different priorities for conservation, and build that into our project so that people are able to benefit and participate equally.

‘We have to understand that people have different needs, different knowledge, different priorities for conservation.’

e360: What’s the price for overlooking gender when establishing or carrying out a conservation project, and perhaps you have an example of that?

Westerman: Too often, the people in a local community who will make decisions are the “elite” who have the decision-making power. And at the end of the day, if some social group, let’s say women, are not empowered to be at that decision-making table, their needs and priorities are probably not going to be heard or fully considered. So there are instances where conservation projects are developed in consultation with those elite decision-makers that don’t take women into account.

There’s one example that we use a lot. A conservation organization came into a community and wanted to reduce deforestation. They recognized that men were the ones who were harvesting the wood, so they thought, “Let’s work with the men to identify an alternative livelihood that we could help support them with so that they would not have to rely as much on deforestation.” Together they came up with the idea of vanilla farming. So they taught the men how to farm vanilla and how you have to pollinate it by hand in some areas because there aren’t natural pollinators. About a year later, when the vanilla vanilla pods were supposed to bear fruit, the conservation project managers realized there wasn’t as much product as they were expecting. They said, “Well, let’s bring in soil technicians to make sure the soil is ok. Let’s do another training with the men and make sure they understand how to pollinate the vanilla.”

The next year the harvest was still not very good, and eventually they brought in a social scientist who started to talk to people within the community. What they realized was, because women in the community were usually charged with smaller-scale agriculture, the responsibility for actually pollinating the vanilla flowers and taking care of the plants themselves fell to the women. But the women hadn’t been trained and hadn’t been asked if they were even interested in doing this project. In fact, it added more burden to their day-to-day responsibilities. And because the vanilla plant didn’t technically belong to the women, they weren’t the ones who were necessarily going to reap any benefits.

‘A major barrier we see is just the social-cultural norms that restrict women’s voices.’

So the women were thinking, “Why would we put effort into this if we don’t know what we are doing, and we’re not going get any benefit out of it?” So collectively they decided they were actually going to kill or pluck off some of the flowers that were flowering in order to keep the harvest really low.

e360: What are some of the common impediments to women’s participation in conservation projects?

Westerman: There are some pretty standard barriers that play across cultures around the world and those are responsibilities in the home — taking care of children, cooking, cleaning, all those domestic chores that women are by and large responsible for. They just don’t have time to go to a meeting or time to go to a workshop. Another main barrier we find is related to self-esteem and lack of knowledge. Because they haven’t been able to go to training or workshops, women don’t often feel that they have the basic knowledge in order to really contribute to the decision-making process of a conservation project. Another major barrier we see is just the social-cultural norms that restrict women’s voices and don’t encourage women to be decision-makers.

e360: Conservation International is piloting its guidelines for gender-inclusion projects in seven countries: Timor-Leste, Colombia, Ecuador, Madagascar, Guyana, Peru, and Bolivia. What are some strategies you are employing to help women get involved in conservation projects and have a seat at the decision-making table?

Westerman: We’ve really been using these guidelines to first understand what is the lay of the land. What are the gender dynamics that are happening within that community related to the project? How are men and women involved? Do they want to be more involved? If so, what are the barriers? What are some culturally appropriate ways that we can get around these barriers?

Our staff found that women have a hard time participating in workshops and in training because they can’t read. So what can we do now to reduce that barrier? Perhaps using radio or images more often in how we communicate, instead of handing out a brochure that has a lot of words on it.

‘You need to work with the men and help them understand why it’s to their benefit to have women involved.’

But it’s not just about working with women. Because we can work for years on women’s empowerment and leadership, but if the decision-makers are not on board, there’s nowhere to go. So you need to also work with the men and help them understand why it’s to their benefit to understand how women need to be involved in these projects and how important they are in natural resource conservation.

e360: You mentioned culturally appropriate solutions. I think that you also are exploring the idea of sometimes providing day care so women can attend meetings about conservation projects. That sounds like a simple, easy fix, but I imagine that things are not always simple and easy when it comes to gender roles in some communities. Where do you draw the line between pressuring for women’s participation and alienating a community?

Westerman: I think that is the crux of the challenge that we have. We really want to be very aware of and very thoughtful of traditional, local cultures. In conservation we usually work in very remote areas with, again, very traditional cultures. And I think this is where the conservation and gender community differs from the development and gender community, and where we have this added challenge. Development organizations tend to work in bigger towns and in cities. Certainly there are cultural issues they have to overcome. But they’re not getting out to that last mile and getting out to those very rural areas. So this is where we have to tread very lightly. We want to respect the local culture. But at the same time, if human rights are being abused we can’t just stand by and not say anything or not do anything. I’m sitting in Washington, D.C., and I’m from the Midwest. One day I’m working with colleagues in Bolivia, the next day in Madagascar, the next day Guyana. I don’t know what is best. So that is where I have to rely on my colleagues who are from that country and from that region within that country to really know what is appropriate and what we can do.

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For example, I worked in rural Madagascar and we did a gender analysis on a fishery. And we found that women were not part of the decision-making process, but were very much impacted by the decisions being made. The women said they wanted to be more involved. The men said, “Well, the women can certainly come and join the meeting. They just haven’t seemed like they are very interested.” And the women said, “Well, we don’t feel comfortable.” So we asked them for their solutions, what they thought would work best. What they came up with was the women wanted to meet on their own as a group and come up with their own recommendations and then send a representative to the larger community to share what the women thought. That was their way of developing a culturally appropriate way of getting the women’s voices into the larger discussion.

e360: After the guidelines have been in place in these pilot projects for a few years, how will you define success?

Westerman: I would love to see that this just becomes part of our DNA, that all of our staff, especially those in the field, have what we call their gender glasses on when they are thinking about a project. I think that the conservation community as a whole is getting much better at this. And I think this is a really opportune moment. There’s a lot of interest from donors, from organizations themselves, to look, not just at gender, but at human rights in general and really integrate that into conservation work. I think we’ve got a lot to learn from the development field. There’s tons of information out there for integrating gender into health, nutrition, and food security programs. And I think in conservation we can take that knowledge, but we have to adapt it to our own needs.