Gender and development People

Posted March 2000

Sri Lankan women and men as bioresource managers

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

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


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 21st century. In Sri Lanka, about 75% of the population lives in the rural areas and is 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 slightly greater. 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 are 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 has 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 have played a key role in diversifying the food and nutritional base by using their knowledge of forest-based resources. The homestead offers 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 have 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 have also been responsible for domesticating a few plants, many of which possess medicinal and nutritive value and can now be 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 agrobiodiversity.

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 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.

RAP publication 1999/ 45

Food and Agriculture Organization of The United Nations
Regional Office for Asia and The Pacific, Bangkok, Thailand

M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, India

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