FAO Programme ::: Natural resources

Understanding gender dimensions of natural resources management is a starting point for reversing environmental degradation

Land, water, climate and biological diversity form the natural base of agriculture, essential to rural development and sustainable livelihoods. The growing demand for food, water, fibre and energy is disrupting agro-ecosystems, eroding biodiversity and depleting land and water. Those impacts will be exacerbated by climate change.

Natural resources must be used in a way that meets today's needs, while conserving them for future generations. That will require action to develop capacities, from global to farm level, for their sustainable management and regulation.

FAO's strategy for sustainable management of natural resources calls for a variety of measures: improved water productivity in farming systems, conservation and sustainable utilization of agricultural biodiversity, and responsible governance of access to land.

Gender dimensions of natural resources management

The developing world's 1.3 billion rural poor make up the world's largest group of natural resources managers. Understanding their roles and responsibilities - including the gender dimensions of natural resources management - is a starting point for reversing environmental degradation.

Women manage natural resources daily in their roles as farmers and household providers. Typically, they are responsible for growing subsistence crops, and often have unique knowledge of local crop species. To meet family needs, rural women and girls walk long distances to collect fuel wood and water. Despite their reliance on natural resources, women have less access to and control over them than men. Usually it is men who put land, water, plants and animals to commercial use, which is often more valued than women's domestic uses.

Gender inequality is most evident in access to land. Custom prohibits women from owning land in many countries. Frequently women have only use rights, mediated by men, and those rights are highly precarious. Landless rural women often depend on common property resources for fuel wood, fodder and food. In many countries, overuse of those resources poses a serious threat to rural livelihoods and food security.

Without secure land rights, farmers have limited access to credit - and little incentive - to invest in improved management and conservation practices. Women and men are more likely to make environmentally sound land management decisions when they have secure ownership and know they can benefit.

Improved water management, especially irrigation, is critical to higher agricultural productivity and conservation of the resource. Women farmers have limited access to irrigation networks or, when they do, to irrigation management decisions: membership of water users' associations is often linked to land ownership. Women's limited water entitlements force them to use subsistence agricultural practices that may lead to soil erosion, a major source of instability in watersheds.

Over generations, small-scale farmers have shaped a wide diversity of crop species and animal breeds. Commercialization of agriculture, driven partly by global trade in high-yielding crops and animals, is responsible for a rapid decline in agrobiodiversity, which threatens not only local production but, ultimately, global food security.

To protect their natural resources, rural women and men must be empowered to participate in decisions that affect their needs and vulnerabilities. Addressing the gender dimensions of natural resources management will help policy makers formulate more effective interventions for their conservation and sustainable use.

FAO's targets 2008-2013

To mainstream gender equity in its programmes for sustainable management of natural resources, FAO has set itself the following targets to 2013:

Land issues and gender
Develop training modules on gender and land rights, and use gender analysis as an integral part of land use planning.

State of world land and water resources     
In reporting on the state of world land and water resources, address differences in women's and men's access, control and ownership.

Water management projects     
Collect and disseminate sex-disaggregated data on agriculture water management and include gender analysis in water management projects.

Plant genetic resources
In reporting on implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, address women's access and share of benefits.

Land cover and GIS    
Develop geographic information systems that integrate gender-related environmental and socio-economic data.

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