Exploring Gender Roles in Africa’s Largest Rainforest

Kame Westerman with Madam Odette, one of the participants in a recent gender workshop in the DRC. (photo courtesy of Kame Westerman)

Kame Westerman with Madam Odette, one of the participants in a recent gender workshop in the DRC. Madam Odette runs a local organization that focuses on gender equality and providing family planning to villages near the park. (photo courtesy of Kame Westerman)

This blog is the second post in Human Nature’s new “Gender + Conservation” blog series; read the previous post.

One by one, the men and women stood up and rattled off a list: “Beans, sweet potatoes, peas … also sorghum.”

I was sitting on a hard, thin wooden bench in a dimly lit concrete room. Afternoon sunlight streaming in through holes near the roof provided enough lighting to display the crowd of men and women from the nearby village who had eagerly come to this meeting. “And the men,” they continued, “they are responsible for bananas, sugar cane, potatoes.”

I had come to visit a small village in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) near the border of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

As one of the largest national parks in the country, Kahuzi-Biega boasts one of the few remaining refuges for the endangered eastern lowland gorilla and a variety of other unique fauna and flora. It also contains large stands of bamboo, which is used frequently by local people for housing materials, as well as wood harvested (illegally) to make charcoal for sale.

CI has been working in the eastern DRC since 2003, helping to conserve and protect this and other national parks that are part of a network of protected areas throughout the Congo Basin.

eastern lowland (Grauer's) gorilla, DRC

An eastern lowland gorilla (also known as the Grauer’s gorilla) in the DRC. Kahuzi-Biega National Park is one of the last remaining refuges for the species; CI is working with communities and local partners to support ecotourism in the area.(© Conservation International/photo by John Martin)

This region contains some of the most well preserved forests in Africa — and indeed, the world — yet their future is threatened by oil and gas exploration, population growth and political instability. While things seemed calm during my visit, the slew of white U.N. Land Rovers bespoke of the recent decades-long civil unrest that has plagued this part of the world.

With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, CI and our local partners are working to conserve forests and biodiversity in a landscape of over 10 million hectares (almost 25 million acres), which includes Kahuzi-Biega.

Any good conservationist knows that engaging the communities that surround and depend on protected areas is key to achieving long-term conservation goals. With this in mind, we are working closely with communities like this one to build environmental stewardship and support for conservation.

As CI’s gender advisor, I had come to the DRC to work with our staff and partner organizations to better integrate gender into our conservation projects.

At this community meeting, we were learning how local men and women spend their time and how they relate to their environment. As became starkly clear during this discussion, they use natural resources differently and are engaged in environmentally related activities in different ways. In addition to the agricultural differences, women are responsible for gathering water, while men are the ones who own the land.

truck on road through Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DRC

People hitching a ride on the back of a truck on a road through Kahuzi-Biega National Park. (© Conservation International/photo by Kame Westerman)

It is important for conservation projects like this one to understand those differences and how they impact (or are impacted by) the project. Without understanding who uses what resources, a project can easily fail to benefit local people.

For example, a project that seeks to reduce human pressure on a protected area would be remiss to not fully understand how community members (men and women, boys and girls) use the natural resources in the protected area. Likewise, conservation regulations could impact areas which contain water sources, requiring women and girls to travel farther to collect water.

Throughout the next five years, CI and partners will be focusing on these issues throughout eastern DRC to ensure that everyone can participate in and benefit from forest conservation efforts. As this blog series continues, we’ll soon be sharing how similar discussions are progressing in other parts of the world — check in the first week of August for our next post.

Kame Westerman is the advisor on gender and conservation in CI’s Center for Environment and Peace. Read the previous post in Human Nature’s “Gender + Conservation” series. 


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