Gender and development People

Posted October 1998

Women: Users, Preservers and Managers of Agro-Biodiversity

prepared by the Women in Development Service (SDWW)
FAO Women and Population Division

ON THE EVE of the 21 st century, rural women in developing countries hold the key to the future of the Earth's agricultural systems and to food and livelihood security through their role in the selection of seed, the management of small livestock and the conservation and sustainable use of plant and animal diversity. Rural women's role as food providers and food producers links them directly to the management of genetic resources for food and agriculture. Centuries of practical experience has given them a unique knowledge and decision making role about local species, ecosystems and use acquired over.

The poorest farming communities are those that live in marginal and heterogeneous environments that have benefited least from modern high yielding plant varieties. Up to 90% of the planting material of such farmers may be derived from seeds and germplasm produced, selected and saved by themselves.

Such subsistence farmers cannot afford external inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides, veterinary products, high quality feeds and fuel for cooking and heating. They rely on maintaining a wide plant and animal breeds and strains that are adapted to the local environment in order to protect against crop failure and animal disease or death, to provide a continuous and varied food supply and to ward against hunger and malnutrition. In many areas, the majority of smallholder farmers are women.

Some trends and figures relating to agro-biodiversity

  • Some 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost since the 1900's as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and "landraces" for genetically uniform, high yielding varieties.
  • 30% of livestock breeds are at the risk of extinction: 6 breeds are lost each month.
  • Today, 75% of the world's food is generated from just 12 plants and 5 plant animal species.
  • Of the 4% of 250,000 to 300,000 known plant species that are edible, only 15-200 are used by humans and only 3 (rice, maize and wheat) contribute nearly 60% of calories and proteins obtained by humans from plants.
  • Animals provide some 30% of human requirements for food and 12% of the population live almost entirely on products from ruminants.
    Source: FAO
  • Gender responsive policies, agreements and support

    Giving due recognition

    Chapter 24 of Agenda 21 (UNCED, 1992) recognises the importance of women to sustainable development and has as one of its key objectives the promotion of "the traditional methods and the knowledge of indigenous people and their communities, emphasising the particular role of women, relevant to the conservation of biological diversity and the sustainable use of biological resources" and the ensured "participation of those groups in the economic and commercial benefits derived from the use of such traditional methods and knowledge".

    The Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP, 1992) clearly recognises the "...vital role that women play in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity" and affirms "...the need for the full participation of women at all levels of policy making and implementation for biological diversity conservation ".

    FAO's Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (1996) acknowledges the role played by generations of men and women farmers and plant breeders, and by indigenous and local communities, in conserving and improving plant genetic resources. The Global Plan of Action promotes a more rational approach to in situ and ex situ conservation by focusing on developing links between conservation and utilization, and strengthening local capacities.

    Important international policies and legal agreements acknowledge the key role that women play, especially in the developing world, in the management and use of biological resources. Despite this increased recognition at international levels, little has yet been done to clarify the nature of the relationship between agro-biological diversity and the activities, responsibilities and rights of men and women. In fact, women's key roles, responsibilities and management practices for the conservation and improvement of animal and plant genetic resources and their intimate knowledge of plants and animals remain "invisible" to technicians working in the agriculture, forestry and environmental sectors as well as to planners and policy makers.

    The lack of recognition at technical and institutional levels means that women's interests and demands are given inadequate attention. Moreover, women's involvement in formalised efforts to conserve biodiversity remain low because of widespread cultural barriers to their participation in decision making arenas at all levels.

    Modern research and development and centralised plant breeding have ignored and undermined the capacities of local farming communities in modifying and improving plant varieties. With the introduction of modern technologies and agricultural practices, women have lost substantial influence and control over production and access to resources to men who benefit more from extension services and have the ability to buy seeds, fertilisers and the required technologies.

    Women as users and preservers of agro-biodiversity

    As farmers, rural women are responsible for growing and collecting food and for deciding how to use diverse natural resources to fulfil daily household needs (crops and wild plants, tree products, wild and domesticated animals). To understand the importance of gender issues in plant and animal biodiversity we have to recognize that men and women have different roles within livelihood systems that comprise farms and gardens, common property resources, such as pastures and forested lands, as well as protected areas. In addition to staple food production in the fields, 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 plant 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.

    The different livelihood strategies and interests, land tenure arrangements and organisational structures of different user groups (by gender, age, class, ethnicity and occupation) as well as uneven power relations in access to, use and control over land, animal and plant resources directly influence each group's capacity and incentive to conserve agro-biodiversity.

    Men and women hold different sets of knowledge

    Through their different activities and resources management practices, men and women have developed different expertise and knowledge regarding the local environment, plant and animal species and their products and uses. These gender differentiated local knowledge systems play a decisive role in the in-situ conservation (in their natural habitat/ecosystem), management and improvement of genetic resources for food and agriculture because the decision of what to conserve depends on the know-how and perception of what is most useful to the household and local community.

    Women's and men's specialised knowledge of the value and diverse use of domesticated crop species and varieties extends to wild plants that are used as food in times of need or as medicines and sources of income.

    This local knowledge is highly sophisticated and is traditionally shared and handed down between generations. Through experience, innovation and experimentation, sustainable practices are developed to protect soil, water and natural vegetation, including biological diversity. This has important implications for the conservation of plant genetic resources.

    Local knowledge and sustainability: Some examples

    During drought, famine and civil war, and even during the hungry season that is common to so many rural subsistence societies for survival, men and women rely heavily on their knowledge of wild foods. This may be prior knowledge that is still in the hands of the elderly or it may be new knowledge acquired through experimentation with different plants. In India and Southeast Asia at least 150 forest species have been identified as sources of emergency food.

    A study of some Andean peasant communities in Peru showed that all family members harvest the crops but seed selection and reproduction for the next harvest and crop management and use (consumption, exchange or sale) are women's responsibility. For centuries, peasant communities have organised seed fairs after the harvest to spread and exchange seeds. Women play a major role by identifying and presenting the best seeds and in this way nurturing the conservation and diversification of plant genetic resources. In the Encanada district of Cajamarca alone, up to 1600 accessions of 12 native Andean crops were presented in a 1993 seed fair. Although the Cajamarca Province is not the richest region in tuber diversity, local women recognise up to 56 potato varieties.

    In parts of Zambia, cassava leaves are the main and sometimes the only dark leafy vegetable. Women are well acquainted with the local varieties and select them for their palatability, and their ease of harvest. Introduced varieties, promoted for their starch yield, are not as acceptable as leaf food and are too tall for women to harvest easily.

    In Malaysia, among the Murut people, it is the women who are responsible for the management of planting materials, in making decisions on what planting materials to be used, time of planting, and in collection and storage of seeds. These women intentionally create pure lines. It is documented that among Karen women it is a common practice to exchange seeds with their relatives living in distant mountains. Some accounts reveal that women even walk for days after harvest season to visit their relatives and bring samples of the seeds that they have selected and developed. These seeds are then exchanged for seeds developed and selected by their relatives.

    Women are major livestock managers in the Andes of Latin America and own a major portion of the animals. They do all the tasks of herding: directing animals to appropriate pastures, watching against straying and predation, returning them to corrals at night, etc.

    "Scientists" and decision makers in selection and improvement of plant varieties

    In smallholder agriculture, women farmers have been largely responsible for the selection, improvement and adaptation of plant varieties. The selection of certain varieties is a complex, multivariate process that depends on choosing certain desirable characteristics (for instance resistance to pest and diseases; soil and agroclimatic adaptability; nutritional, taste and cooking qualities; food processing and storage properties).

    In many regions, women are also responsible for the management of small livestock, including reproduction. As for plants, the choice of preferred traits in the breeding of animals includes adaptations to the local conditions, available feeds and resistance to disease.

    The fact that plants and animals are often produced for a number of purposes adds further complexity to the selection process as multiple traits are sought. For example, sorghum may be grown for the grain and the stalk, sweet potatoes for the leaves as well as the root, and sheep may provide milk, wool and meat. Moreover, to create a favourable micro-environment and better manage space and time, several plant species that complement each other are frequently intercropped and mixed farming is often practised (crop, livestock and agro-forestry).

    Recognition of this sophisticated decision making process is gradually leading breeders and researchers to realise that a community's adoption and selection of improved and new seeds of food crops and animal breeds depends on their being tested and approved by men and women farmers.

    In Andra Pradesh state in India, individual women farmers and Sanghams, women's co-operatives, helped entomologists of the Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics to carry out a successful pigeon pea programme to develop improved pest resistant lines. Researchers examined women's traditional pea varieties and offered several lines that were resistant to the main enemy, the pod borer, and came closest to the farmers' seed preferences. The women assessed their performance not only in terms of yield but also on the basis of 10 different criteria including leaf production, pod borer damage, taste, wood biomass, quality market price and storability. Three of the four improved lines were rated by the women as being superior to their local varieties and were adopted to be grown alongside their own which they retain for superior taste. They maintain a mix of varieties to reduce pest attack.

    Farmer's rights

    Through their daily activities, experience and knowledge women have a major stake in protecting biological diversity. However at national and local levels rural women today are still hampered by restricted rights to the resources they rely on to meet their needs. In general their rights of access and control over local resources and national policies do not match their increasing responsibilities for food production and management of natural resources.

    Given that men and women farmers' knowledge, skills and practices contribute to the conservation, development, improvement, and management of plant genetic resources, their different contributions should be recognised and respected in terms of Farmers' Rights. Farmers' Rights are defined as follows: "Rights arising from the past, present and future contribution of farmers in conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources, particularly those in the centres of origin/diversity". The purpose of these rights is to "ensuring full benefits to farmers and supporting the continuation of their contributions."

    The concept of Farmers' Rights was developed to counterbalance "formal" Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and patents. These formal mechanisms of recognition give little consideration to the fact that, in many cases, these innovations are only the most recent step of accumulative knowledge and inventions that have been carried out over millennia by generations of men and women in different parts of the world. Nevertheless, key questions remain on how to implement Farmer's Rights in a way that respects the contributions of the various actors.

    How to address gender and agro-biodiversity?

    A long term strategy for the conservation, utilization, improvement and management of genetic resources diversity for food and agriculture requires:

    Efforts for the promotion and safeguarding of agro-biodiversity will facilitate the provision of appropriate support to the different actors, protect local men and women's interests, enhance food security and enable the development and implementation of sustainable, effective and equitable agro-biodiversity programmes.

    The challenges for future generations is to safeguard agro-biodiversity by protecting and promoting the diversity found in integrated agricultural systems, especially those managed by women. The maintenance of plant and animal diversity will protect the ability of men and women farmers to respond to changing conditions, to alleviate risk and to maintain and enhance crop and livestock production, productivity and sustainable agriculture.


    Balakrishnan R. (1997). Gender and Biodiversity. Paper presented at the FARM Programme Regional Training-cum-workshop on "Application of Biotechnologies to rainfed farming system, including bioindexing participatory approach at community level".

    Bunning S. and C. Hill (1996), Farmer's Rights in the Conservation and Use of Plant genetic Resources. A Gender Perspective. Paper presented at a Seminar during the second Extraordinary Session of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

    FAO. (1996). Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and the Leipzig Declaration. Rome.

    FAO/SDWW. (1996) Fact Sheet: Women - Users, Preservers and managers of agro-biodiversity. First Version.

    IPGRI. 1991. Geneflow. A Publication about the Earth's Plant Genetic Resources. International Board for Plant Genetic Resources.


    Accession: Plant sample, strain or population held in a genebank or breeding programme for conservation or use

    Ex situ conservation: Literally, 'out of place'; not in the original or natural environment, e.g. seed stored in a genebank

    Genebank: Facility where germplasm is stored in the form of seeds, pollen or tissue culture

    In situ conservation: Literally, 'in (a plant's) original place

    Landraces: A nearly, cultivated form of crop species, evolved from a wild population

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