This report will help to understand the evolution of gender roles in the conservation, use and management of biodiversity, with particular reference to plants of economic importance, in Sri Lanka. For centuries, men and women played complementary but equally important roles in the conservation and enhancement of plant genetic resources. Women particularly played a key role in selecting plants for seed at the time of harvest and in post-harvest technology. Their role in establishing genetic home gardens and in in-situ on-farm conservation has been critical in generating the variability occurring at the intra-specific level in major crop plants such as rice and vegetables. Women also played a key role in identifying plants of medicinal value and in cultivating them. They were leaders in harnessing non-wood forest products for strengthening household nutrition, health and livelihood security.
During the last century, gender roles started to change. The emergence of the plantation crop sector, particularly of tea and rubber, has been an important factor in altering gender roles. The growing commercialisation of agriculture is leading to the marginalisation of women in the intellectual aspects of biodiversity management. This will be unfortunate in the long run, since it is their keen sense of observation and patience in identifying superior genetic material has resulted in the systematic exploration of Sri Lanka's rich genetic diversity on the one hand and rich knowledge of plant genetic resources, on the other. Hence, there is an urgent need to highlight gender considerations in biodiversity management (ie., 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. New avenues for providing women with economically rewarding and intellectually satisfying job opportunities, based on Sri Lanka's biodiversity wealth, should be identified.
It is important to support in-situ on farm conservation practices of certain popular varieties by promoting their sale on a commercial basis - just as organic food is being promoted in western countries. They could be sold in attractive packages in the super markets in large cities. In Sri Lanka, the coloured rice fetches a higher price, due to its superior nutrient value.
Remote areas in the North and Southeast region are likely spots for locating traditional varieties with novel gene combinations. Efforts are also required to promote in-situ on-farm conservation. It may not be always wise to barter an entire gene pool of traditional crops for the sake of high yield. A balanced approach is needed to meet the high crop production targets by using the new high-yielding cultivars and also selectively maintain the germplasm of traditional varieties by in-situ on-farm conservation.
The kitul tree has provided sustenance to rural poor, and to countless roadside vendors and village shops. Here again is an apt case for intervention by the various State Government agencies and private entrepreneurs to generate appropriate post-harvest technologies, attractive packaging and marketing links to urban areas to popularise the use of kitul jaggery, treacle and other products. This approach will go a longway to bring about in-situ on-farm conservation, rather than the no-use existence in reserve forests or imprisonment in a botanical garden. Since women have played a skilful role in the post-harvest processing products, they should be involved in the capacity of as women entrepreneurs for upgrading of technologies and openings new urban markets. The Women's Bureau for Sri Lanka and NGOs could take initiative in this direction.
The Forest Department could identify the specific habitats for the commercial propagation of rattan and involve poorer sections of farm families who live in the vicinity of conservation areas. A package of propagation technology, adequate financial support during the gestation period, and marketing linkages would help meet the challenge of over-exploitation and mitigate opposition to harvests of cane from its natural sources.
No further time should be lost in initiating a concerted and well-planned move to ensure that both men and women play their historic as well as new roles in preserving for posterity the unique genetic heritage of Sri Lanka.