Gender and Bioresources Research Team
M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation
Chennai, India

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ISBN: 974-85757-0-5

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Technical and Editorial Support:

Dr. Revathi Balakrishnan
Regional Rural Sociologist and Women in Development Officer
FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
Bangkok, Thailand

For copies write to:

Regional Rural Sociologist and Women in Development Officer
FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
39 Phra Atit Road
Bangkok 10200, Thailand

Email: Revathi.Balakrishnan@fao.org

This document was prepared as one of a series of studies on the gender dimension of biodiversity management in Asia. This series was initiated by the FAO regional office for asia and the pacific in 1996. The following studies on gender dimensions in biodiversity management have been published.

Gender dimensions in bio-diversity management: india
Maldivian gender roles in bio-resource management


This publication is the outcome of the joint efforts of Women in Development Programme of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, India.

The study titled as “Sri Lankan Women and Men as Managers of Bioresources”, is the third one published by FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. The work captures the rich biological diversity of Sri Lanka and examines the daily dependence of its rural women and men on the bioresources for food security and to access resources for their livelihood. The study documents the gender specific roles in managing the bioresources in various production domains and local knowledge of bioresources. Situation specific case studies among the poor included in the publication illustrate eloquently the importance of the access to bioresources to meet the basic needs. The recommendations call for partnership with local communities for sustainable use of bioresources.

These regional studies that focus on gender dimension in bioresource management contribute to a growing knowledge on gender concerns in agriculture development. Hence, through such efforts Food and Agriculture Organization is pleased to contribute to the global understanding of gender dynamics in bioresource management.

Prem Nath
Assistant Director General
Regional Representative
for Asia and the Pacific

December 1999


Gender analysis deals with the socially constructed roles and relationships among men and women in their day today activities. There is widespread misunderstanding of the distinction between gender analysis and exclusively women-centred approaches. Hence, there is often the tendency to focus on women separately, rather than on the relations between men and women.

In 1996, the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok, initiated a series of studies on the gender dimensions of biodiversity management in Asia. MSSRF was invited to undertake this study, first in India, and later in Maldives and Sri Lanka. The studies carried out in India have been published in a book titled “Gender Dimensions in Biodiversity Management” (Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd, Delhi, 1998)

The present report contains the results of the study carried out in Sri Lanka by Prof Virendra Kumar of MSSRF during March – May 1998.

The study brings out the richness of the biological wealth of Sri Lanka and the joint and independent roles of men and women in the conservation of terrestrial and marine biodiversity. In order to help in understanding the evolution of gender roles in biodiversity management, a detailed historical background of the biodiversity conservation ethos of Sri Lanka is given. The agro-ecological and cultural features relating to biodiversity wealth are also described.

Further, the study has also resulted in a few recommendations including the launching of a movement for the preparation of People's Biodiversity Registers by local communities. Such a step will help to mainstream biodiversity in all development activities.

I am indebted to Dr (Ms) Revathi Balakrishnan of the FAO Regional Office, Bangkok for inviting us to undertake this study and to Prof Virendra Kumar for carrying out the studies with care and devotion as well as for preparing this report with meticulous attention to details. Above all, my thanks go to the Government of Sri Lanka, International Water Management Institute, Sri Lanka and Prof H B M Gunasena, Director, Post-Graduate Institute of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka for the help and advice extended for carrying out this study as well as for their total commitment to promoting rapid economic development rooted in the principles of ecological and social sustainability.

M S Swaminathan


Gender and Bioresource Management Research Team led by Mr Virendra Kumar, fielded by M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, gratefully acknowledges the assistance provided by Sri Lankan scientists and farmers, women and men, who participated in the research. They also sincerely thank FAO Representation in Colombo, Sri Lanka, International Irrigation Management Institute and Post-Graduate Institute of Agriculture, University of Perandeniya Sri Lanka for their support to develop this study.


Sri Lanka is a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. The population is 18.3 million (1996) and is expected to reach 25 million by mid twenty first century. In Sri Lanka about 75 percent of the population live in the rural areas and are directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture and forest-based resources. The average land holdings are small, varying from 0.8 to one hectare or a little more. The country is divided into wet, intermediate and dry zones based on the precipitation patterns. These zones have distinctly different traditional forms of agricultural practices

The main agricultural systems in the country are lowland rice paddy culture Chena cropping of coarse grains, oil and vegetables in highlands; plantation crops of tea and rubber in the wet zone, coconut in coastal plains; and home gardens, with a variety of plants for food, spices, medicine and general timber requirements of a farm family. The agricultural practices correspond to the two major phases of Southwest and Northeast monsoon seasons, and are supplemented by indigenous village tank irrigation systems.

Thus, set in this context of biodiversity and agricultural diversity, the gender roles in the agriculture practices and biodiversity management are examined. The main thrust and reasons for the study is to understand the gender dimension in agriculture and related biodiversity management. This has been described via a historical and social perspective.

The agricultural systems have gone through a sustained phase of agro-biodiversity enhancement by genetic diversification and periodic introductions, over the past centuries. This phase of diversification had produced numerous varieties and locally grown cultivars, with varied adaptations spread over the agricultural landscape. The biodiversity manifestations, in the form of different floristic regions and vegetation types, offer a wide range of natural plant and animal resources.

The tribal and non-tribal human population, over the past centuries, developed intimate knowledge of the utility value of forest based resources, particularly of non-wood forest products. This knowledge base, which kept expanding with the passage of time, was transferred verbally from one generation to another.

The agrarian society evolved social systems of partnership and community action to safeguard common interests. The gender roles in the family were based upon the specialised knowledge and biological attributes. The gender roles were defined for conducting many agricultural operations, from seed sowing to harvesting.

Women played a key role in diversifying the food and nutritional base by using their knowledge of forest-based resources. The homestead offered a locus for the introduction of plants required meeting the day-to-day needs; and women's home gardens are best described as “genetic gardens”.

Women made significant contributions to the genetic improvement of crop plants and other economically important plants by a continuous selection process, which has a genetic basis. They were also responsible for domesticating a few plants, that have medicinal and food value, are now found in every home garden.

With the transition of Sri Lankan agriculture from one based on home needs to one catering to markets, gender roles have tended to change. Women have increasingly been reduced to unskilled work. This is particularly true in the plantation crop sector.

There is therefore an urgent need to highlight gender considerations in biodiversity management (i.e. conservation, sustainable and equitable use) in Sri Lanka.

A first step in this direction will be the initiation of a movement for preparing gender-sensitive community biodiversity registers. The preparation of such registers will also help to sensitise the local community of the important role played by traditional practices such as raising home gardens, in the conservation and improvement of agro-biodiversity.

As commercialisation of agriculture progresses, gender roles are altered, often to the disadvantage of women. It is important that a Gender Impact Analysis is carried out at the best the project design stage, in all forestry and natural product-based commercial ventures.

Sri Lanka is a veritable mine of valuable genes. The challenge is now to tie in conversion of the genetic wealth with the formation of economic wealth. Feminisation of poverty will continue unabated, if the role of women in skilled jobs is ignored. Women can take a leading role in the preparation and maintenance of community biodiversity registers. The Home Genetic Garden movement should be revitalised.

© FAO, 1999

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I.   SRI LANKA: A GENERAL DESCRIPTION: location, land and coastlines


III.   SRI LANKA'S SOCIAL DIVERSITY: people, culture, religion and gender

IV.   BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY IN SRI LANKA: Plants, crops, forests, fauna and conservation

agro-ecological zones, cropping systems and agro-diversity









Tables and Figures


Table 1.   Present net work of protected areas
Table 2.   Agricultural systems and participation by community and gender roles
Table 3.   List of Chena crops
Table 4.   Gender roles in Chena cultivation (slash and burn cultivation)
Table 5.   An illustrative list of plants grown in wet zone home garden
Table 6.   Details of plants grown in a home garden and their use
Table 7.   Gender roles in crops on small scale plantation owned by small farmers


Figure 1.   Generalised map of Sri Lanka
Figure 2.   Sex ratio by residence
Figure 3.   Literacy rate by sex and residence
Figure 4.   High-mid-country: wet zone: paddy cum tea cultivation
Figure 5.   Low country wet zone: cultivation
Figure 6.   Low country dry zone cultivation
Figure 7.   Low country dry zone: home garden

Boxes and Photographs


Box 1:   Forest types in Sri Lanka
Box 2:   Loss of genetic diversity in crop plants


Agro-ecological systems and bio-resources
Farm family: bio-resource users in agro-ecological systems
Depending on biodiversity for livelihood and household food security


EIUEconomist Intelligence Unit
ESCAPEconomic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific
UNUnited Nations
OAWOwn accounts workers
GPSGuaranteed price scheme
SW&NE monsoonsouth west and north east
FDForest department
DWLCDepartment of wildlife conservation
NGOsNon Governmental Organizations
AERAgro-ecological regions
HYVHigh Yielding Varieties
PGRCPlant genetic resources centre
MT/ha.Metric ton/hectare
MEAMahaweli Economic Agency
NPKNitrogen Phosphorus and Potassium
NWFPNon wood forest produce/product
STCState Trading Corporation
IIMIInternational Irrigation Management Institute

UN Exchange Rate: US$1.00 = Sri Lankan Rupees71.05 (November 1999)