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Women-users, preservers and managers of agrao-biodiversity

Women-users, preservers and managers of agrao-biodiversity

On the eve of the 21 st century rural women in developing We countries hold the key to the future of the Earth's agricultural systems and to food and livelihood security through their roles in the selection of seed, the management of small livestock and the conservation and sustainable use of plant and animal diversity

Rural women's key role as food providers and food producers links them directly to the management of genetic resources for food and agriculture and has given them a unique knowledge and decision making role about local species, ecosystems and use acquired over centuries of practical experience.

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. 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 diversity of crops and wild plants 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 small-holder farmers are women.


    · Some 75% of plant genetic diversify has been lost since the I 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 animal species.

    · Of the 4% of the 250,000 - 300,000 known plant species that are edible, only 150-200 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 agriculture and 12% of the population live almost entirely on products from ruminants.


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 the agricultural, forestry, and environmental technicians as well as the planners and policy makers. The lack of recognition at technical and institutional levels means that their interests and demands are given inadequate attention. Moreover, women's involvement in formalised efforts to conserve bio-diversity remain low because of women's poor representation at policy and decision making levels.

Modern research and development and centralised plant breeding have ignored and undermined the capacities of local farming communities in innovating and improving plant varieties. In those areas where women have traditionally held control, because of modern technologies and perceptions. women have lost substantial influence and control over production and access to resources to men who benefit from extension services and have the ability to buy seeds, fertilisers and the required technologies. In this way women lose also their status and self determination and are not compensated in any we>.


As farmers, rural women are responsible for growing and collecting food and for the integrated management and use of diverse natural resources to fulfil daily household needs (crops and wild plants, tree products, wild and domesticated animals) An understanding of gender issues in plant and animal bio-diversity requires a look at men and women's different roles and relations as part of their overall 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 homegarciens are also experimental plots where women try out and adapt diverse wild plants and indigenous species. Research on Go homegardens in Thailand revealed 230 different rent species, many of which had been rescued from a neighboring forest before it was cleared.

The different live hood 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 their capacities and incentives to conserve agro-biodiversity


Through their different activities and resources management practices. men and women have developed different expertise and knowledge regarding the local environment, the plant and animal species and their products and uses. These gender differentiate-d local knowledge systems play a decisive role in the conservation in-situ (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.

The 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.

Women'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 (leaves, fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, edible roots and tubers) or as medicines and sources of income. This has important implications for the conservation of plant genetic resources.


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 pests and diseases; soil and agro-climatic adaptability; nutritional, taste and cooking qualities; food processing and storage properties.

In many regions, women are also responsible for the management, including reproduction, of small livestock. As for plants, the choice of preferred traits in the breeding of animals includes adaptations to the local conditions such as available feeds, 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 favorable microenvironment and better manage space and time, several plant species that complement each other are frequently inter-cropped and mixed farming is often practiced (crop, livestock and agro-forestry).

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


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

Growing awareness of genetic erosion and the pressing need to develop mechanisms to encourage farming communities to nurture and conserve and the utilise and improve plant genetic resources has led the international community to recognise the concept of Farmers' Rights. As stated in resolution sifting' adopted by the 25th Session of the FAO Conference, these are the "rights arising from the past' present and future contribution farmers in conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources, particularly those in the centers of origin/diversity". The purpose of these rights is stated to be-ensuring full benefits to farmers and supporting the continuation of their contributions". Key questions remain on how to implement Farmers' Rights in a way that respects the contributions of the venous actors. not match their increasing responsibilities for food production and management of natural resources.


The promotion of a long term strategy of conservation, utilisation, improvement and management of genetic resources diversity for food and agriculture requires:

Adherence to the above points 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 challenge for the next generation is the safeguarding of agro-biodiversity by paying greater attention to diverse and integrated agricultural systems, especially those managed by women that provide food and livelihood security. 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.

Women and Population Division

Sustainable Development Department,

Food and Agriculture Organization

of the United Nations,

Viale delle Terme di Caracalla,

00100 Rome Italy

Telephone 39 6 52251

Telefax 39 6 52253152

Telex 625852 FAO 1


Produced by AIDOS, Via dei Giubbonari 130, 00186 Rome, Italy

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