Research on the Roles and Contributions of Indigenous Women in Sustainable Forest Management in Mekong Countries

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International standards including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and recent climate change agreements recognize the important role of indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge, systems and practices in the sustainable management of natural resources and biodiversity conservation. Yet, indigenous women’s role and contribution to sustainable forest management is often overlooked, thus the need to document good practices of indigenous women as well as the challenges they face in their role as managers of forest natural resources.

The Mekong region is rich in forest resources. However, recent studies reveal that forest conditions in the Mekong countries are on the decline. National legal frameworks on indigenous peoples and forest policies vary in the different countries, giving rise to varying situation of forests and particular problems faced by indigenous peoples and women in relation to sustainable forest management. The Mekong region is culturally diverse, with numerous indigenous cultures or ethnic minorities found within each country. Ethnic minorities or indigenous peoples in the areas covered by the research generally experience marginalization and poorer socioeconomic conditions compared to the national figures. Many indigenous households live at a subsistence level, and forest resources are especially important to them for their survival.

The research finding in the indigenous communities of Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar reveal that indigenous peoples attach prime importance to forest resources. Indigenous women depend daily on the forests to supply the needs of their families for food, water, livelihood, firewood, shelter and health care. They deeply value their forests and care for them through their spirituality and rich indigenous knowledge on forest protection, development and use. Indigenous knowledge contributes to the maintenance and preservation of biodiversity and sustainable forest development. Indigenous women’s traditional knowledge and practices have been found to be effective in securing food, conserving their culture and traditions, and contributing to sustainable natural resource management in their community.

Indigenous women view forests as a common wealth of all, within which individual families may use and manage portions of the forest for their needs. All members of the community can enjoy the benefits of forest products in accordance with the customs or rules set by the community. Particular customary laws and practices are applied in managing, protecting and improving forest resources such as in the cultivation of land, identification of forest zones, and proper use and collection of forest products. Classification of forests is particularly important in designating and protecting critical areas that are off-limits to exploitation. Indigenous women play a very significant role in sustainable forest management and conservation as seen in the important tasks they perform to support their family and the community. These tasks include the living practice and transmission of indigenous cultural values; use and improvement of forest for food, health care and sustainable livelihoods; protection of biodiversity and genetic resources; introduction and sharing of new indigenous knowledge; and participation in advocacy to protect their forests from degradation. At the same time, indigenous women face serious challenges in forest resource management such as insecurity of land tenure and land conflicts with private companies and the government; non-recognition and weakening of the roles of women and traditional knowledge in forest management, heavy workload and absence of women’s participation in decision-making; and forest degradation due to logging activities and economic land concessions.

Recommendations to address these challenges include ensuring land tenure rights of indigenous peoples and women within national legal frameworks, promotion of traditional knowledge in forest management, ensuring gender equality and women’s participation in decision-making and addressing forest degradation that poses a serious threat to indigenous peoples rights, livelihoods and traditional knowledge.

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