Sri Lankan gender relations in the management of biodiversity and agro-biodiversity were studied in the context of historical, socio-cultural, agro-ecological and commercial realities. Some of the salient features are summarised below:
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.
Depending upon the pattern and quantity of average annual rainfall, the country is broadly divided into a wet and a dry zone, the latter constituting about 75 percent of the land area. The physiography adds another dimension, to topography factors such as mountain, hills, low undulating land and coastal plain areas. On the basis of climate, relief and soils, the country is divided into 24 agro-ecological zones.
The agricultural practices are more or less in conformity with the agro-ecological zoning.
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.
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 to meet 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.