Gender and development People

Gender and natural resources

GENDER+  Overview  Natural resources Agriculture Food/nutrition Policy/planning Role of FAO

Land and water

Women play an important role in land and water management. They are most often the collectors, users and managers of water in the household as well as farmers of irrigated and rain-fed crops. Because of these roles, women have considerable knowledge of water resources, including quality and reliability, restrictions, and acceptable storage methods.

Women farmers, using traditional methods, have been effective in conserving soil fertility. Given access to appropriate resources, they practice fallowing, crop rotation, intercropping, mulching and a variety of other soil conservation and enrichment techniques. Over the years, rural women have developed practices for the efficient and sustainable use of the resources available to them. For these reasons it is important to build upon and enhance their skills in land and water management strategies and involve them in protecting and sustaining land and water resources.

Current processes are undermining women's ability to use and conserve scarce land and water resources sustainably. Privatization, population pressure and the dissolution of customary land tenure have reduced the amount and quality of land available to rural communities. More and more people are obliged to use land ill-suited to continuous cultivation. This increases the rate of environmental degradation and deprives them of their livelihoods.

Insecure land tenure reduces people's incentives to maintain soil quality because they have no permanent rights to the land. Access to land affects both men and women. In areas where it is restricted, however, women face the added difficulty of having their requests for land mediated through men. Even the use of small plots must be granted by a husband, inherited from a father or requested from male village elders. If women have their own plots, they are usually small, dispersed, remote and less fertile. In areas with a high divorce or abandonment rate and where land remains with men in the case of separation, women are reluctant to invest time and resources into long-term land improvements such as building irrigation or drainage systems, terracing, planting tree crops or other activities that maintain soil fertility.

When women do not own land, they often have no access to agricultural support services such as credit with which to purchase inputs, to training in land and water development, or to water resources for irrigation.

In many cases, water resource policies and programmes have proven detrimental to women's land and water rights and thus to their sustainable management and use. Interventions such as irrigation often fail to take into consideration the existing imbalance between men and women's ownership rights, division of labour, and incomes. Irrigation raises the value of the land, bringing about social change which usually favours men. In addition, irrigation systems may favour mono-cropping, often for the production of cash crops, and thus may exclude provisions for a more diversified cropping pattern supporting a variety of food crops. Cash crops are usually controlled by men and decisions regarding the scheduling of irrigation water tend to be made without consideration for women's productive and reproductive activities.

Women must be involved in policy-making and planning to ensure the most productive and efficient use of land and water resources to meet present and future food and agricultural demands. Women farmers need to be part of the planning and implementation of land and water management programmes, with full access to inputs and organizational arrangements. Equally important is the increased participation of women in training and extension activities that deal with soil resources and land-use planning, and in water conservation and development.


Genetic resources, particularly plant genetic resources, are increasingly under threat. Rural women in developing countries hold the key to many of the planet's agricultural systems for food production, seed selection and protection of agro-biodiversity. Home gardens are often used as experimental plots where women adapt or diversify wild and indigenous species. Research in home gardens in one single village in Thailand revealed 230 different plant species, many of which had been rescued from a neighbouring forest before it was cleared.

Women play a central role in the development of sustainable agricultural systems, particularly in improving crop and grassland productivity. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that women contribute 30 to 80 per cent of the agricultural labour for crop production, depending on area and economic class. In nearly all rice growing areas of Asia men traditionally perform such activities as land preparation, ploughing, irrigation and leveling of the fields. However, sowing, transplanting, weeding and crop processing are usually women's work. Women in Latin America are also heavily engaged in crop production. Surveys in Colombia and Peru show that female participation in agricultural field tasks ranges from 25 to 45 per cent.

The contribution of women to crop production in the Near East varies widely from country to country, but in many countries it is substantial. Where drought has forced men to migrate, women have increasingly taken on agricultural tasks that were traditionally done by men. Given their varied and complex responsibilities in rural households, women often have a special interest in the diverse and multiple uses of plants. Women farmers play a leading role in maintaining crop diversity and populations of valued wild plant species. They often have considerable knowledge about the characteristics, distribution and site requirements of indigenous trees, shrubs and herbs. Women's knowledge of plants for food, fuel, health and crafts plays a decisive role in the conservation of different species and varieties according to their usefulness to the community.

Plant genetic resources for food are selected by women according to such variables as nutrition and medicinal properties, taste, texture, processing requirements, storage qualities, resistance to pests and diseases, soil and agro-climatic adaptability. There is limited knowledge and recognition of women's roles in seed production, crop management, improvement and protection, or in the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources. Consequently, women are often excluded as participants in, and beneficiaries of, development activities in plant production and protection. More information is needed on the role of women in crop production and protection in order to design extension and training activities that better target them. Technology development must be carried out in collaboration with women farmers in order to benefit from their knowledge and respond to their needs concerning the sustainable use and conservation of plants for crops, medicines, crafts and other purposes.

Animal resources

Women play key roles in raising animals and in harvesting and processing livestock products both for home consumption and for sale. Although men are often the owners (and sellers) of large livestock, it is the women who perform most of the household labour devoted to animals. As males seek off-farm employment, rural women are assuming greater and more varied roles in managing the family farm, including animal husbandry operations.

At the same time, and in response to the expanding urban demand for livestock products, peri- and intra-urban stock raising have increased as income-earning enterprises. It is the women and children who are mainly involved in these activities. In most cities in the developing world, women are also vendors of prepared foods, many of which utilize livestock products.

The contribution of women to livestock production, processing, and to marketing livestock products is often overlooked. Animal health and production extension services are rarely directed towards women and therefore are not sensitive to their needs. Women's roles are increasing in virtually every link of the producer-to-consumer chain within the livestock sector. It is imperative to enhance their access to appropriate technologies and information regarding livestock husbandry and processing of animal products. This requires technologies that are labour-saving and efficient, environmentally friendly and profitable, and that take into consideration consumer needs for products that are safe, nutritious and affordable.

To achieve this goal, policy-makers, planners and development workers must have a better understanding of the relative and often shifting roles of all family members in livestock-related activities, including division of labour, decision-making and traditional knowledge and practices. This will ensure that all actors in the sector are better served, and that women, in addition to men, participate more fully in decisions regarding technology generation and dissemination, and receive training in the technical, managerial and organizational aspects of improved livestock production and processing.

Forests and trees

Women's knowledge of forest products represents a vast database of species which scientists are unable to catalogue. Tribal women in India, for example, know medicinal uses for some three hundred forest species.

Rural women are major caretakers and users of forests. They are the main gatherers of fodder and fuelwood, and they seek out fruits and nuts to provide food for their families. In addition, they use bark, roots and herbs for medicines. Women's gathering activities are very important to household income and nutrition. The products they collect are important supplements to the family diet. Much of what they gather is processed or marketed bringing in supplementary cash income. During periods of famine and shortage, women gather buffer foods which would not be consumed under circumstances of less duress but can be crucial to family survival during a crisis. Beyond the immediate benefits of food and medicinal plants that are consumed by the family or sold on the market, easy access to forest products, particularly fuelwood, gives women time for other activities.

Women contribute to forestry in many significant ways. They play a key role in agroforestry, a farming system that incorporates trees, crops and livestock production. They are active in watershed management where actions to reduce soil erosion, such as maintaining forest cover, lessen the hazard of floods and the silting of reservoirs and waterways. Women also contribute to tree improvement and propagation to ensure the proliferation of useful tree species, and to forest protection and conservation. This, in turn, protects the many animal and plant varieties that depend on forests for their survival and improves the overall health and maintenance of forest ecosystems.

Forests often represent an important source of employment for women. From nurseries to plantations and from logging to wood processing, women make up a significant proportion of the labour force in forest industries throughout the developing world. Although rural women contribute substantially to forest harvesting industries and marketing, their roles are not fully recognized and documented, their wages are not equal to those of men, and their working conditions tend to be poor. In many countries, large areas of communal forest land have been privatized and set aside for agriculture and commercial forestry resulting in widespread deforestation and a decline in access to woodland resources. As a result, women must spend more time collecting fuelwood and other forest products. In addition, as more and more men find employment in the towns and cities, women must take on the work previously done by them. This additional burden leaves little time for the lengthy tasks of collecting and processing forest products which are important to the family economy.

The sustainable utilization of forest resources requires the participation of all rural inhabitants, including women. Although women's needs often differ from those of men, many programmes tend to overlook their needs regarding the forest. Women have unequal access to forestry information, training, education and research. Policy-makers and planners lack adequate data, information and methodologies to respond to women's specific needs. As a result, national capacity for the development, conservation, management and protection of forests and forest ecosystems is constrained.


In 1986 the Core Group on Women in Fisheries was established to serve as a focal point for women in fisheries within FAO. The Core Group serves as an important catalyst in ensuring that fisheries professionals at all levels appreciate the significant and continuing contributions of women in the fisheries sector. It provides these professionals with the managerial and developmental tools and methodologies needed to enhance women's involvement in the sector.

Women's contribution to fisheries is substantial. In some regions women are engaged directly in fish production, fishing from the shore, small boats or canoes, or serving as crews on boats. In many communities, women also play a major role in making and/or mending fishing gear. Where aquaculture is practiced, women's contribution in feeding and harvesting fish is immense.

In most fishing communities women predominate in the handling, preservation and processing of fish products. During post-harvest activities they assist in unloading boats and nets. During the processing activities they work at sun-drying, salting, smoking and preparing fish paste and cakes. The tasks related to these procedures, such as collecting water and salt, or fuel for the smoking ovens, are time-consuming and physically exhausting. Post-harvest losses are often very high due to inefficient technologies, ineffective methods, and inadequate storage facilities. Improvements in equipment and methods can make a significant difference in the quantity of fish available for home consumption and for sale, even without an increase in the size of the catch.

In many regions women have the primary and often exclusive responsibility for marketing fish products. Since the income from the sale of fresh or processed fish often represents an important contribution to a family's overall income, effective marketing is critical in determining the family's standard of nutrition and living. This is especially true where women control this income - they are more likely than men to spend money on alternative sources of food and other basic household necessities.

The role of women in fisheries tends to be small-scale and home-based, however, in some countries they work as wage labourers in large-scale processing operations. In a few regions of the developing world, women are important fisheries entrepreneurs, earning, handling and controlling significant amounts of money and financing a variety of fisheries enterprises.

Development efforts over the last few decades have made it clear that sustained improvements in productivity and the sustainable utilization of fisheries resources can be obtained upon recognition of the crucial role of women. Yet, women in fisheries often lack access to physical and capital resources, to decision-making and leadership positions, and to training and formal education. Access to these would improve the efficiency, profitability and sustainability of their activities. Although large-scale fisheries development projects, mechanization, and improved technology may increase productive capacities, they can also increase the post-harvest work of women. This increased workload is often performed without improved remuneration, or deprives them of traditional forms of employment and income. If a fisheries activity is enlarged or mechanized, it often becomes the domain of men.

It is necessary to ensure that women are equal partners and productive and self-reliant participants in fisheries activities aimed at improving their own and their family's nutritional and living standards. Women must be given the opportunity to acquire appropriate technologies that enable them to make the greatest possible contribution to sustainable development and growth. As experience has shown, the benefits of programmes and projects aimed at men have rarely benefited women and, at times, have made their situation worse. For these reasons, it is essential to increase women's participation and decision-making in fisheries development interventions.

FAO strategies and actions

FAO will promote and improve the collection, analysis, widespread dissemination and use of data and information on the role of women in natural resources. FAO will also seek to increase rural women's participation in technology generation and dissemination, in decision-making at all levels, and in training activities on the sustainable utilization of natural resources. In addition, FAO will work to identify, document and remove the constraints to equal employment opportunities and remuneration for women in natural resources related industries.

Land and water


Animal Resources

Forests and trees


GENDER+  Overview  Natural resources Agriculture Food/nutrition Policy/planning Role of FAO

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