Building on Local Knowledge

While there are gender-differentiated effects of climate change, there are also gender-differentiated competencies and contributions that can be harnessed in measures for response and mitigation. Building on local knowledge and practices will prove essential as we try and conserve ecosystems; collect, document, and collectively bank genetic resources to avoid the loss of biodiversity; and develop programs and interventions.

Rohr (2006) reports that during a drought in the islands of Federated Micronesia women’s ancestral knowledge of hydrology, passed on from generation to generation, enabled the community to identify where to dig wells to allow them to tap into reserves of portable water.

Similarly, women’s knowledge of specific flora and fauna reflects their engagement with the resource base, and women often have specialized knowledge about “neglected” species. Estimates are that women provide close to 80 percent of the total wild vegetable food collected in 135 different subsistence-based societies (Aguilar, 2004). Women can often also better identify species’ medicinal uses, value as fodder and fuel, and ability to withstand adverse environmental conditions such as pests, drought, or flood (Abramovitz, 1994; Dankelman & Davidson, 1988).

Howard (2003) describes how women predominate in plant biodiversity management in their roles as housewives, plant gatherers, home gardeners, herbalists, seed custodians, and informal plant breeders. As she observes, “because most plant use, management and conservation occurs within the domestic realm, and because the principal values of plant genetic resources are localised and non-monetary, they are largely invisible to outsiders and are easily undervalued” (ibid., p. 2). Yet, a pronounced gender bias has prevailed in scientific research about human-environment interactions, and conservation policies and programs largely ignore the domestic sphere and the importance of plant biodiversity for women’s reproductive activities and, as a result, for household welfare. Building on gender-differentiated knowledge and practices will be essential if we are to conserve critical environmental niches, prevent biodiversity loss, and be alert to the incremental and cumulative impact of climate change.

A rights-based approach to securing environmental goods and services, and one that elevates women’s rights as a priority, can be particularly beneficial for ensuring continued biodiversity. For example, ensuring women’s access to land for agriculture and household use can lead to greater habitat protection. Achieving more gender equity in one realm can reinforce virtuous cycles that secure environmental resources and enable creative solutions to be found to support adaptation and mitigation activities.

Where Do We Go From Here?

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