COP15: putting gender at the heart of biodiversity governance

A failure to consider the human dimensions of biodiversity conservation could undermine progress at the upcoming UN biodiversity negotiations (CBD COP15). Processes set up to recognise the voices and rights of Indigenous People and local communities must be gender sensitive, so women and girls are not left behind.

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Insight by 
Philile Mbatha
Senior lecturer in environmental and geographical science department, University of Cape Town and co-director of One Ocean Hub – South Africa
24 November 2022
Countdown to COP15
A series of insights raising the profile of locally-led action on the road to and after the COP15 global biodiversity conference
Woman holding rice plants

Farmer harvesting rice fields in Ngazi, DRC (Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF, via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For centuries, women in various parts of the global South have relied on biodiversity and ecosystem services for their livelihoods, and to contribute to the nutrition, health and wellbeing of their families and wider communities. In the African continent, climate change research reveals that rural women are the biggest food producers and caregivers – making up approximately 70% of Africa’s agricultural workforce, and growing approximately 90% of its food.

A global South lens is crucial when thinking about biodiversity, drawing attention to some of the most biologically diverse countries in the world, including Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa.

Yet biodiversity governance through conservation in parts of the global South has historically created winners and losers, with Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs) usually constituting the latter, especially when biodiversity conservation is applied without adequately considering human and historical dimensions. This could undermine progress in the implementation of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework (GBF).

Biodiversity conservation policies and interventions must be implemented in a manner that is sensitive to local contexts and customary governance systems.

Not leaving women and girls behind

The GBF’s vision of humans “living in harmony with nature” by 2050 may be undermined if biodiversity conservation governance processes and practices fail to prioritise socioeconomic and political contexts. It is increasingly recognised that the rights of IPLCs should be highlighted in debates about conservation governance, particularly those linked to equity, benefit sharing, access, participation and procedural justice.

However, evidence indicates that women and girls in various parts of the global South are rarely the key beneficiaries of processes and practices related to access, benefit sharing and participation at the local level. It is therefore important to ensure that processes aiming to recognise the voices and rights of IPLCs are gender sensitive, and do not leave women and girls behind.

This aligns with target 22 on gender equality in the GBF which emphasises that women and girls should have a role in participation, as well as equitable access and benefit sharing processes from biodiversity conservation.

Understanding customary norms

A global South lens is also particularly relevant for interrogating issues of governance, equity and wellbeing in biodiversity conservation, in contexts where women’s roles exist within customary communities or structures where human-environment interactions and how local people view them are based on customary laws, norms and principles.

Research conducted on the coast of South Africa over the past two decades demonstrates the gendered ways local communities interact with marine and coastal biodiversity. On the Western Indian Ocean coast, the biodiversity-based livelihoods of women mainly involve crop farming and the harvest of intertidal marine resources or of timber and non-timber products from coastal forests. Meanwhile, men are mostly involved in line fishing activities.

Recognising Indigenous knowledge systems

Local communities with indigeneity to the coast (predating colonial times) argue that the ways they interact with biodiversity on the coast are informed by unwritten principles grounded in traditional knowledge systems that have existed locally for centuries.

Moreover, such standards have shaped the different ways that women and men interact with biodiversity in coastal communities. Indigenous and local knowledge systems are increasingly gaining traction in global conservation discourse and platforms in parts of the global South, such as the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). But it is still unclear how global policy instruments such as the GBF and the Aichi targets can promote the recognition, participation and representation of Indigenous and local knowledge systems in domestic biodiversity conservation policies and practices.

This is particularly pertinent given an increasing amount of literature demonstrates how the socioeconomic circumstances and human dimensions of biodiversity governance in various countries in the global South are still not adequately considered in the praxis of conservation governance, with tension between the expansion of biodiversity conservation and rural development.

Who has access?

Yet caution is needed when considering the challenges of advocating for customary and Indigenous/local knowledge systems informing how local people interact with biodiversity, from a gender equity perspective.

Research into coastal livelihoods based on coastal biodiversity in southern Africa reveals that women’s views tend to be overlooked in certain customary contexts (PDF), due to patriarchal and patrilineal systems of coastal resource governance that may also control who those winners and losers are in biodiversity access, use and governance: most countries have given women equal legal rights to own and control land but this does not always happen in practice.

Along the rural coast, land, forests and marine resources are largely vested with men: women usually gain access to these resources through their relationships with men in their families. Women-led households without a patriarchal figurehead are usually left out of governance decisions and are sometimes deprived of access altogether. Similar cases have been observed in other parts of Africa.

Context matters

Highlighting the relevance of gender is not only crucial in discussions about sustainability and equity, but also when considering how biodiversity access, use and governance operate in different contexts. Context matters because it encourages appreciation of the different ways women around the world conserve and use biodiversity for the wellbeing and livelihoods of their wider communities. It also highlights what women in different countries need in order to be heard and included in decisions about biodiversity conservation.

There is real scope for the GBF to engage with these considerations, and to get closer to a 2050 vision that does not leave women and girls behind.

About the author

Philile Mbatha is senior lecturer in environmental and geographical science department, University of Cape Town and co-director of One Ocean Hub South Africa

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