Women and agro-biodiversity
Women's key roles as preservers of agro-biodiversity and plant and animal genetic resources are only beginning to be recognized. The risk of losing women's knowledge in this area is yet another negative effect of limiting women's access to educational opportunities and the failure of research institutes to focus on the roles and needs of women in agricultural production and food security.
Because of their multiple roles and responsibilities as providers of food, fodder, fuel, health care, and other household needs, rural women generally have a knowledge of the various uses of a great many plants, animals and forest products. Their management of ecosystems and plant and animal resources is often based on knowledge preserved by women over the centuries. This is not static, as women farmers are continually experimenting with and improving upon plant and animal resources. Women's choices of plant and animal resources are based on adaptation to local environmental conditions, the multiple uses of these resources for fuel, fodder, clothing, household items, medicinal purposes, sources of income and the creation of complementary systems of mixed farming.
Box 10 - Women's Knowledge of Plant and Animal Diversity
"...homegardens often provide a wide variety of vegetables, relishes and condiments. These homegardens are also experimental plots where women try out and adapt diverse wild plants and indigenous species. Research on 60 homegardens in Thailand revealed 230 different species' many of which had been rescued from a neighbouring forest before it was cleared".
FAO, Women - Users, Preservers and Managers of Agro-Biodiversity, 1996.
Women in south-east Mexico keep as many as nine breeds of local hen, as well as local breeds of turkey, duck and broilers in their solares (back gardens). In selecting for the best breeds, they consider 11 different characteristics. These include egg production, ease of sale, broodiness, appearance, heat and cold tolerance, growth rate and eating qualities. The women can easily distinguish the breeds and species on each of the characteristics. Using this ranking, the most preferred birds are indigenous turkeys and ducks.
S. Anderson, Domestic Animal Diversity. Genetic Resources, Rural People 's Knowledge and Biodiversity, 1995.
Women are the main producers of cassava in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and are almost entirely responsible for its processing. In the Amazon, for example, their knowledge was found to have spread over hundreds of kilometres, through an informal system for conservation and expansion of the biodiversity of cassava which they had developed. In this system, when a woman had married, she took her mother's cassava varieties with her. She continued to test and experiment with old and new varieties and discuss their qualities, planting or cooking potential with her new family.
H. Zwiefel, "Modern Biotechnologies in Agriculture: Impact on Women in the South", Biotechnology and Development Monitor, 1995.
Lack of awareness by agricultural researchers of the multiple uses and advantages of local varieties has contributed to the development of genetically uniform varieties which is resulting in the rapidly diminishing number of plant and animal varieties. There is a real danger of losing important agricultural knowledge by failing to pay attention to women farmers' practices.
Improving women's access to agricultural education would not by itself guarantee that such knowledge is preserved. It is also necessary to:
· recognize the value of women farmers' knowledge and skills;
· establish linkages between women farmers and agricultural research institutes to enable these institutes to better understand and focus on the priorities of women farmers;
· ensure that women's knowledge of agro-biodiversity is preserved and guarantee their rights to use plant genetic resources; and
· improve women's participation in setting research priorities.
Box 11 - Women's Indigenous Knowledge
"Women have been particularly excluded from research programmes, despite the fact that in most cultures they are the principal food providers and important custodians of agricultural biodiversity, and that their knowledge is based on sophisticated cultural and scientific practices. There are important gender differences in the skills and knowledge that men and women have for the conservation and utilization of biodiversity. In many societies women hold primary responsibility for household food provision and other household tasks such as repairs. They therefore focus more than men on maintaining the complex web of relationships of diverse food production systems and the multiple uses of crops which ensure balance and sustainability".
Vandana Shiva, "Farmers Safeguarding Biodiversity through their Crop Production", Dynamic Diversity, intermediate Technology Development Group, 1996.