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3 The field experience case studies

The following descriptions of 12 case studies were selected from a total of 50 field experiences in Africa and Asia dealing with gender (or women) and drylands, and were identified via a search on the Internet. The field experiences are presented in alphabetical order of country and each is followed by an Internet address from which further details can be obtained.

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more women than men living in poverty. One of its most important resources is the karite nut, which is its third largest agricultural product export and has many uses, including processing into karite butter.

Although the production of karite butter is traditionally an exclusively female activity, women have had no control over its marketing and have been limited to selling small quantities locally. Recently, however, the Songtaaba Women’s Group has been transforming karite butter from a subsistence, informal sector activity into a systematized cottage industry, in which men have started to participate.

Under the Songtaaba system, karite is processed by semi-industrial machinery in urban areas and by manual presses in rural areas. Throughout Burkina Faso, 2 000 women have been trained to treat, collect and transform karite into butter and related products. Women workers are paid according to the task and their availability. They are given flexible working hours and are organized into teams. Through the association, women are able to gain access to credit for the first time. The association has also established a special fund to help members who are experiencing particular difficulties, such as a death in the family, medical emergencies or the need for help with school fees. In addition, Songtaaba gives training in management, literacy and family planning.

As well as generating increased incomes, new jobs, new skills and opportunities, the commercialisation of karite is helping to fight desertification and abusive woodcutting. Now that the tree’s economic value is increasingly recognized, landowners and farmers are determined to protect it, and people are being sensitised to the need to preserve natural resources in general. This leads them to find ways to reduce deforestation, including improved wood-burning stoves.

Source: Ashoka. 1998. Songtaaba Women’s Group - Case Study:

Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal

The Sahel Programme was financed by SIDA and implemented, in collaboration with UNSO, between 1983 and 1994 in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger. It aimed to address declining productivity and a degraded natural resource base - significant problems in these countries, where most of the population is dependent on rain-fed agriculture and/or herding activities.

After a shaky start, in which a top-down approach to increasing woody biomass failed to include resource users in decision-making or address their concerns, programme activities were reoriented at the start of the third phase in 1990. The programme evolved by advocating the promotion of local land use management arrangements that increase women and men users’authority over resources, value indigenous knowledge and meet local priorities through agroforestry, natural regeneration of local tree species, soil and water conservation, credit and on- and off-farm income-generating opportunities.

Its main activities and achievements were:

The main conclusion that can be drawn from the programme is that the resource users, men and women, constitute both the start point and the end point of all efforts to combat desertification. Women and men resource users are motivated by both self-interest and solidarity, stimulated by new opportunities, enabled by adequate policies and supported by facilitating partners in development.

Source: UNSO. 1997. Lessons from the field for the Implementation of the UNCCD.


More than 80 million Chinese people live in poverty, mostly in the rural areas of central and western China or in the remote mountains where drylands are prevalent. Increasing population, industrialization and urbanization are leading to a continuously rising demand for land resources, and the decreasing availability of usable land sets a limit for the country’s sustainable development. The need for sustainable agricultural production techniques that can be used by local communities to ensure food production without endangering natural resources has led women’s groups to engage in efforts to develop new methods for combating desertification and eradicating poverty.

Local women recognize that desertification can only be combated successfully when efforts are focused on integrated dryland development. In addition to their land reclamation efforts, women lead development efforts in other fields such as health and education. As one woman leader says: “If we want to be richer, not poor like today, we must increase the education and knowledge of our younger people. Because if they are educated, they will understand the seriousness of desertification and, if they want to reclaim the desert, they must have the knowledge, they must be educated.” In striving to ensure quality education for the children in the local villages, this woman leader obtained a grant from a donor in Hong Kong and a new school is now preparing boys and girls for their future participation in dryland development.

Source: UNSO. 2001. Women and desertification in China.

India - Tamil Nadu

In India, dryland agriculture is an important source of livelihood but, while it accounts for more than 70 percent of the country’s cultivated area, it contributes only 42 percent of the national food basket. One important aspect of dryland agriculture is that production is seasonal, which means that grains must be stored for long periods by traders, procurement agencies and consumers. Research into post-harvest practices in Tamil Nadu, India has revealed that these activities - as with most of the key operations in agriculture - are largely the responsibility of women. For this reason, local women should be consulted when new post-harvest techniques are devised.

Numerous post-harvest technologies, including improved material and better equipment, have been introduced to make processes faster, easier and more profitable. However, the majority of rural women continue to use traditional tools and techniques for many post-harvest operations. Such indigenous knowledge is highly valued, since in many cases the new tools and techniques are not available or are beyond the means of the farmers.

Research identified 19 indigenous post-harvest technologies used by local farmers. According to the rural women, traditional practices are handed down from generation to generation, usually by word of mouth. They are perceived to be economically feasible and user-friendly. Indigenous post-harvest tools are made by local artisans, using low-cost resources that are locally available, and they are easy to repair and maintain. As a result of these advantages, traditional post-harvest operations became the starting point for designing appropriate and improved new technology for sustainable agriculture.

These experiences demonstrate clearly that local women and men are the innovaors of agricultural technologies. When new post-harvest technologies are devised, they should be consulted first, because they are the real experts, as well as the ultimate users.

Source: Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor (IKDM). 2000.
Dryland and post-harvesting practices in Tamil Nadu, India.

India - Telengana, Andhra Pradesh

The rain-fed drylands of the Telengana region are among the poorest and least developed in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Agriculture in these areas is constrained by low productivity, lack of an assured supply of inputs, lack of technologies and cropping systems suited to dryland conditions, poor resources and inadequate extension and support services; and the situation is deteriorating as rapid desertification takes hold. As is often the case, women are the worst affected by the resulting conditions of chronic hunger and poverty and male migration in search of work.

The UNDP Food Security programme aims to promote self-sufficiency in food availability and raise the purchasing power of the poor through the endowment of land and non-land assets and the generation of employment opportunities. It also addresses the feminisation of agriculture and the increasing burden of household food security on women in Telengana. The overall objective is to enable women farmers to exploit the productive potential of rain-fed drylands and achieve household food security while conserving and regenerating the natural resource base.

The focus of the project’s strategy is to create synergy between women’s labour and degraded fallow lands. By investing their labour in using sustainable technologies and practices to grow staple food crops on fallow lands, landless women farmers can address the following critical issues:

As women build their competence in agriculture, they feel more confident to diversify into animal husbandry and horticulture. The programme provides direct support to women farmers to set up backyard poultries and small vegetable gardens to provide supplementary food for their families, with surpluses sold in the village market.

Source: UNDP. 2001. Sustainable dryland agriculture in Andhra Pradesh.


In Ngurunit, a rural community in the semi-arid lands of Kenya’s Northeastern Province, women are largely responsible for collecting fuelwood and water, among other farming activities, which include herding, and managing livestock. In the past, it took a trip of about four hours from Ngurunit to reach water sources, and when resources dried up, women had to carry out the extra work involved.

In response to this, and in order to improve their livelihoods, rural women have organized themselves into groups with the aim of overcoming the obstacles to their activities: lack of access to water; low agricultural production; and the under-representation of women in decision-making fora. They have tackled the water shortage in Ngurunit by trapping water from the Ndoto Mountains and piping it to three tanks to supply a source of drinking-water. In doing this, the women have also launched a successful collective effort to combat desertification.

This is not the only example of rural women’s successful community participation in Kenya. The Harambee (self-help) movement has existed since independence and has greatly contributed to development activities initiated by women. One of its most famous initiatives is the Green Belt Movement, started in 1977, which aims to prevent the destruction of forest areas. As well as conserving trees, many women are involved in replanting areas of deforestation or desertification. One of Harambee’s strategies is to mobilize women to take charge of their environment and meet their needs and those of their families.

Source: EU. 1998. Women tackle desertification in Kenya. The Courier, No. 172, Nov 98.


Gender is mainstreamed in natural resource management projects by the World Bank’s Natural Resource Management Project in Mali. This means that women are not targeted separately from men. Rather, the entire project staff handles gender issues in day-to-day operations. The project pays particular attention to gender in its skills development programme, decision-making and management processes. It specifically provides for village-level consultation with women and women’s groups on community development activities related to: location and operation of water points; land-use planning; livestock movement and management choice; and location and operation of collective infrastructure, such as food-processing equipment. To ensure that the conclusions of these consultations are observed, a “women’s veto right” has been instituted in these key areas. In addition, the project addresses gender issues in:

Source: World Bank. 2001b. Mainstreaming gender in natural resource management in Mali.


Mauritania is a vast country, mostly covered by the Sahara desert. After two severe and prolonged droughts in the last 20 years, many nomads have been forced to give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle where they could get aid. The resulting pressure on natural resources (e.g. ten times as much wood is cut for fuel than is replanted) has led to new challenges, but also new hopes for the settled nomadic women and men.

Through a programme supported by UNSO/UNDP, women have taken the lead in the crucial stabilization of sand dunes by organizing themselves into planning committees that provide vital links between the village and the authorities. In just three years, the women in one small settlement have covered 80 ha of dune, enclosing it with brushwood fencing that they made themselves. Within the protected enclosures, the women have planted trees which stabilize the sand dunes. The women also produce vegetables to ensure proper nutrition for their families.

In this very traditional culture, women’s involvement in the project has earned them new status. As one woman says, “The best part of it is my life today. Before all a woman did was prepare the food her husband brought her. Today I know what’s going on. I work, and my work is worth a lot to me and earns me money. My husband doesn’t even know where it comes from.”

Source: UNSO. 2001a. Women and desertification in Mauritania.


The argan tree is the second most common tree in Morocco. It is very resistant to drought and heat and grows wild in the arid and semi-arid regions of south-western Morocco, where it plays a vital role in maintaining the ecological balance and preserving biodiversity. It also helps to retain soil and assists in combating water and wind erosion. In addition, the argan tree is important to the local economy: wood is used for fuel, leaves and fruits provide forage for goats, and oil extract is used in cooking, traditional medicine and cosmetics. The tree supports some 3 million people.

Unfortunately, in less than a decade, more than a third of the argan forest has disappeared, and its average density has declined from 100 to 30 trees per hectare. In collaboration with the Université Mohammed V of Rabat and the Institut Agronomique et Vétérinaire Hassan II of Rabat, IDRC has initiated a project to improve the tree’s production potential, so that it can regain its key position in the agricultural systems of the region, thereby preventing further environmental degradation and improving the economic well-being of people in south-western Morocco, particularly women.

The project’s main objective is to establish and support local women’s cooperatives that will work to increase the production and marketing of argan oil. Project activities focus on training women in techniques for processing argan products, management and accounting, and literacy. So far, the project has had some very significant results, including:

Source: CGIAR. 2000. Helping Moroccan Women Preserve the Argan Tree at the Gateway of the Sahara.
IDRC Project Number 978602.


In the early 80s, Keita District (Tahoua Department) was considered to be a region with grave problems of land degradation. A major effort was needed to reverse degradation and improve the local economy. The “Keita Project” was financed by the Italian Government and implemented by FAO, with support from the World Food Programme (WFP). Desertification control was a vital element of the project, and the planting of trees and the participatory approach have played a constant and major role. Between 1984 and 1993, the project benefited from 6 million man- and woman- days of work on planting trees, digging wells, erecting dune fences, etc. (men only represented 5 per cent of the labour force, mainly because of migration, a proportion that changed into 35 per cent in 1989). The project also provided training and helped villagers construct new schools, roads, community centres, clinics and mills.

From the very first phase, it was clear that it would be essential to work with the people and to understand issues such as husbandry and land use, the mechanisms of land degradation, the various roles of trees and the potential of people and communities. This analysis resulted in a better understanding of the real problems and potential of the region - which were very different from the initial assumptions - and guided the subsequent choice of methods for rural development. The project recognised the crucial role played by women in combating desertification. It facilitated women’s access to income-generating activities (garden and fruit production fruit, sheep production, etc.) and promoted their participation to local and national organisation activities. Time-saving technologies, based on surveys were introduced by the project.

Experience in Keita has shown that the popular recognition of the many products and socio-economic services provided by trees in the region, makes it easy for extension services to develop readiness and generate interest for introduction or reintroduction of trees by local communities.

Source: FAO. 1994. Le projet de développement rural intégré de Keita
- Projet financé par la coopération italienne

South Africa

The Herschel district in the eastern drylands of South Africa suffered vast degradation during apartheid as people were forced to settle in generally low-productive areas. The decline of the rural economy of this district had a major impact on the urban environment as generation after generation migrated to the city in search of an income.

In its implementation of the Convention to Combat Desertification, South Africa is emphasizing the role of women in the National Action Programme process. Work has been initiated to promote alternative livelihood strategies. Among the many new income-generating activities that women in rural communities have developed is the production of traditional reed mats, which is being commercialised for use in the construction of a campsite for tourists. This is leading to new income for rural families, reduced pressure on natural resources and the increased active participation of women in planning and decision-making.

Source: UNSO. 2001b Women and desertification in South Africa.


Land in the El Odaya area of Sudan is intensively used for agricultural production and livestock raising. Overgrazing and agricultural expansion have contributed to significant land degradation. A general decline in soil fertility caused by the reduction of fallow periods has also occurred. Continued population growth, livestock raising and increasing demand for agricultural land are likely to intensify land degradation.

The basic aim of the UNDP/UNSO project was to establish an institutional structure to promote individual and community involvement in the regeneration, conservation and proper management of natural resources. This was achieved through the establishment of Village Council Development Committees (VCDCs) that provided a framework through which local people would be able to manage environmental resources in a sustainable way. The project was designed to follow a “bottom-up”, participatory approach incorporating the following activities:

Through the women’s subcommittees, women were integrated into local environmental activities, thereby gaining power, access to and control over community resources. Training and access to revolving funds facilitated women’participation in income-generating activities, and they participated in health activities, improved stove fabrication, soap making, tailoring and leather craft training. Access to credit represented another key method of strengthening the role of women.

Source: UNSO. 1990. Integrated resource management for desertification control.

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