03 Mar 2017 Story Ecosystems

Rural women help preserve biodiversity

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day on 8 March, we should not forget the role rural women in developing countries play in preserving biodiversity and genetic plant resources.

Poor countries often have abundant supplies of genetic plant resources. It’s important to ensure that they are not unfairly exploited.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “Genetic resources for food and agriculture are the raw materials upon which the world relies to improve the productivity and quality of crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries, as well as to maintain healthy populations of wild species.”

In the developing world, women are often the main custodians of these resources; they are seed savers; they protect, cultivate and use these resources in their daily lives.

Furthermore, they tend to be the guardians of traditional knowledge associated with these dwindling genetic resources. “Time is running out to preserve these resources. We have not explored even half of Africa’s genetic resources,” says ecosystems expert Mohamed Sessay.


Dao people gathering herbs in Sapa, Lao Cai province, Viet Nam  ©: Viet Nam Biodiversity Conservation Agency

The Nagoya Protocol, part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, provides a mechanism to ensure that monetary and non-monetary benefits from the utilization of genetic resources are shared fairly to support continued resource conservation and sustainable use.

Men and women in rural settings in developing countries have different roles and priorities. For instance, women are more likely to prioritize a varied diet for their children, and treat family members with “free” and easily accessible herbal medicines when they fall sick. Men tend to be more focused on cash and non-food crops.

Using herbal medicines reduces costs for health services, and saves on drug imports.

Biodiversity conservation

According to a 2013 UN Environment publication, Biodiversity for the well-being of women, “women provide almost 80 per cent of the total wild vegetable food collected in 135 different subsistence-based societies. Up to 80 per cent of the population in many developing countries relies on traditional medicine. Women often have a more specialized knowledge of various local and neglected species.”

“Women play an important role in conserving biodiversity, due to their important role in household activities, and the influence they have on their children, by teaching them about the importance of nature and conserving biodiversity,” said Onlathai Vilaisith, a representative of the Women’s Union in Lao Peoples Democratic Republic. She was speaking at a UN Environment-sponsored meeting in February on incorporating gender considerations into the implementation of National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plans (NBSAPs).


Rice farmer Maria Anap, Setunggul, West Kalimantan, Indonesia ©: Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

The Union, established in 1955, aims to respond to women's development needs and promote the status and role of women. The Lao Women’s Development Plan (2016-2020) seeks to mainstream women’s role in managing natural resources and protecting the environment; two of its projects contribute directly to the implementation of Lao’s NBSAP.

Women’s role in preserving biodiversity needs to be better recognized

The theme for International Women’s Day on 8 March 2017 is “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”. This is a candid call to governments and businesses to increase their efforts and commitments towards closing the gender equality gap.

As broadcast on the UN Women website, “Measures that are key to ensuring women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work must include bridging the gender pay gap, which stands at 24 per cent globally.”  

However, in many developing countries women are not paid for handing down traditional knowledge about plants and the land they live on; they are not paid to grow, nurture or collect the medicinal plants that the family needs from time to time; and more often than not, they are neither invited, nor given the opportunity, to share their views on development initiatives within the community. Their first-hand knowledge of the land and its uses tends not to be taken into consideration when it comes to finding sustainable agricultural solutions that support their families’ daily sustenance.

Nor are they paid for their work as food producers. The food they grow is shared with their family. Any cash the family gets is from surplus produce, and women do not necessarily get a fair share of this income.


Palm oil farmer Asiyah, 19, from West Kalimanatan, Indonesia. ©: Icaro Cooke Vieira, CIFOR

Addressing the gender gaps in leadership, entrepreneurship and access to social protection may be a good international and national objective but, again, in places like rural Africa and Asia where traditional social structures are still pervasive, change needs to be driven by governments and others. The ongoing communications revolution and new solar technology may help; but ensuring that women are involved in all developmental initiatives, such as National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plans, is also crucial. 

Women represent 5-30 per cent of all agricultural landholders in lower income regions

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 per cent, raising total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4 per cent.

Closing the gender gap in terms of access to agricultural inputs alone could lift 100-150 million people out of hunger.

Source: UN Environment’s December 2015 TEEB/Agriculture interim report

For more information, please contact: Niklas Hagelberg: Niklas.Hagelberg@unep.org