I recently gave a guest lecture for M.S. students in the biodiversity program at the University of Rwanda.  The purpose of the talk was to bring a gendered perspective to the biology of conservation and it’s social dimensions. My purposes were to define “gender” as it relates to environmental conservation, propose general ideas about how to think of women’s roles in conservation and highlight some of the pitfalls to gendered approaches. There is no one panacea effort to gender-aware environmental conflict management that always works. We learn little-by-little how to improve research and policy on a case-by-case basis, and are developing an evolving model.

Women in Conservation Guest Lecture

First, most folks know that gender is a set of social constructs, not biological realities, based on sex.  However, when we talk about the environment, that becomes more specific. In environmental studies of Africa, gender is the difference in the socially constructed labor roles between men and women. This is because agricultural work is dominated by women while logging, trade, and cash-based and distance work are typically for men. I pointed out to students that in Africa, colonization altered the customary gender division of labor. Men were directly and structurally encouraged to work for cash (and produce cash crops for export), often traveling far from home to do so, whereas women were positioned to grow food crops for the family and local consumption. Women were marginalized from the Europe-constructed cash economy. This change in the gender’s approach to land management, and differing relationships to the environment, led to biodiversity loss in many African countries even hundreds of years go. These gender divisions in labor still exist today and continue to contribute to biodiversity loss.

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Zebras at Akagera National Park. Credit: LM

Second, I gave an oversimplified explanation of how we have tried to account for women’s rights and needs overall in the past decades, including in relation to the environment. The three lines of thought are:

  1. “Men and women need equal rights” (to land and natural resources).
  2. “Men and women need equal outcomes” (in land productivity and benefits of natural resources).
  3. “Men and women need equal rights and equal outcomes that acknowledge how their differences are constructed” (when actors and communities manage land and natural resources as a dynamic process of interaction).

I gave students the example Payment for Ecological Services (PES), or compensation ($) to local communities for conservation that displaces them. This is an example in which quantifiable amounts of money can demonstrate inequality. Should a husband and wife each get 100 bags of seeds as compensation for displacement from the construction of a wildlife park when the wife produced 90% of the food on the farmland the family lost, and the husband’s income was based on hunting far away?

I asked the students:

Which of these three approaches do you think is best and most just?

How do we either: A) change gender relationships to the environment, or B) create conservation that accommodates gender-based relationships with the environment?


My third point was about the drawbacks of some approaches to gender-based environmental conservation plans. I found it embodied in an African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) statement on their website [I added numbering]:

“1. African women are the natural custodians of the environment. 2. They pay the price when it comes to the social and economic effects of factors associated with environment and conservation. 3. Women are more directly affected by the degradation of the environment. 4. Many of the livelihoods of African women rely upon the stability of the environment around them and its decline has impacted women disproportionally to men.”

I asked students: Which of these statements do you agree with?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of thinking about gender and conservation in this way?

It took a bit of leading, but we did end up discussing gender “essentialism“. Essentializing the experiences of any single group to further a cause on that group’s behalf risks omitting an array of their identities and needs, and simplifying the group down to the realities of a few members. This gets done all the time with African women who are essentialized as mothers. Most social movements involving women in Africa have been on account of women’s roles in the family, as I have discussed in my work on women’s roles in oil agitation in the Niger Delta. Their status as mothers justified their public voices. In conservation, the notion is the same: women are vulnerable to environmental conflict because they are responsible for water and food in the home, feeding children, and taking care of the family. Their role as mothers means they have fewer alternatives than men do to sustenance when they lose land.

This is an often true and powerful argument, but it leaves out of the conversation women who aren’t mothers, women who earn non-agricultural incomes, and women who are urbanized. It is also highly problematic to say that women’s rights and vulnerabilities only matter vis-a-vis the family unit, as if their individual well-beings are not part of the issue.

I was extremely impressed with the array of questions I received from students, most asking how to improve gender equity in environmental conservation. I had some ideas, but left it to them to come up with better solutions over the course of their future careers.