Gender, Poverty and the Conservation of Biodiversity. A Review of Issues and Opportunities

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The loss of biodiversity affects everyone. The degree to which degraded resources impacts an individual depends on several key factors including economic status and gender. However, because women represent the vast majority of the world’s poor, women are ultimately impacted more severely than men with regards to natural resource degradation.

The availability of open access and common resource property is instrumental for obtaining sustenance and resources with which to generate income. As these resource bases disappear, the rural poor, particularly women, face increasing levels of poverty and their security is jeopardized (including food, water, energy, economic and health security). In general, household burdens are increased, poverty is increased, and health is diminished. These resource pools are lost for a variety of systematic reasons as well as external pressures such as demographic changes, economic growth, and climate change. 

Over half of the world’s poor live in rural areas. Despite recent increases in migration toward urban centers, the correlation between poverty and remoteness remains strong and is predicted to be significant in most countries over the long term. Rural people are often isolated from economic opportunities, have less access to basic social services, and therefore rely heavily on goods and services derived from biodiversity and ecosystems.

In rural areas, while land-owners often receive the greatest benefit from increased productivity and farming yields, yet even land-owning households often cannot derive all of their survival needs by farming alone. Forests enable the rural poor to conduct activities such as gathering firewood, preparing charcoal, fishing, hunting, collecting materials for making handicrafts and accessing non-timber forest products such as medicinal plants, fruits, and rubber. Near shore and coastal systems enable activities such as the gathering firewood (mangroves), fishing for fin and non fin fishes, collecting ornamental materials for handicrafts, accessing building materials, and utilizing fresh water resources.

Because poor people rely disproportionately on the goods and services that are provided by the natural world for food, water, medicine, and fuel, they are disproportionately impacted by the loss of natural resources. Further, biological resources make up a larger proportion of the ‘wealth’ of developing countries and are the basis upon which development can be built ( irish aid). Therefore, the loss of biodiversity not only undermines food, health and water security, and diminishes energy security it also increases the vulnerability and decreases resiliency of the poor to external forces such as climate change, rapid demographic shifts, and impacts from economic growth. 

Gender and environmental issues are linked in several different ways. First, women represent a disproportionate percentage of the world’spoor. Although still not clearly quantified, it is largely held that over 70% of the worlds chronically poor are women. Second, women and men use natural resources differently and to different extents to accomplish their defined roles in the community. Finally, men and women are treated differently under legal, political and social regimes and such treatment has implications for their ability to manage resources effectively.

Because of the inherent connectedness between poverty, biodiversity use, and gender and the mutually self-reinforcing nature of these links, addressing rural poverty and environmental degradation requires a holistic, multidisciplinary approach and an understanding of gender in order to achieve successful sustained results. Conservation efforts that exclude communities and specifically women in those communities, fail to identify and deal with gender differences, or prohibit the ability of individuals to access resources for sustenance and livelihoods will be unsustainable in the long term and will contribute to increased poverty, inequality, and resource degradation. Further, development efforts that fail to recognize the link between communities and robust, healthy, biodiverse systems will ultimately fail in their ability to alleviate poverty in the long term. Conversely, improvements in poverty, equality, or biodiversity can leverage improvements in the other two arenas.  

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