If women had adequate representation in forestry institutions, would it make a difference to them, their communities and forests as a national resource? Bina Agarwal, director and professor of economics, Institute of Economic Growth, answers this question in her recently released book Gender and Green Governance.

According to Agarwal, forests constitute not just community and national wealth, but global wealth as well. But for millions, forests are also critical for livelihoods and their daily lives.

‘Between 1995 and 1999, I travelled extensively across India and Nepal and found a paradox: Forests were indeed becoming greener but women’s problem of firewood shortages persisted and in many cases had become more acute. Also, despite their high stakes in forests, women continued to be largely excluded from forest management. I coined the term “participatory exclusions” to describe this. However, the current book is less about women’s exclusion. I ask: What if women were present in forest governance? What difference would that make?’ Agarwal said in an interview to The Times of India.

‘Economists researching environmental collective action have paid little attention to gender. Scholars from other disciplines focussing on gender and governance have been concerned mainly with women’s near absence from governance institutions. The presumption is that once women are present all good things will follow. But can we assume this? No. Rural women’s relationship with forests is complex.

‘On the one hand, their everyday dependence on forests for firewood, fodder, etc., creates a strong stake in conservation. On the other, the same dependence can compel them to extract heavily from forests. As one landless woman told me: ‘Of course, it hurts me to cut a green branch but what do I do if my children are hungry?’ Taking an agnostic position, I decided to test varied propositions, controlling for other factors,’ she added.

Talking about her findings, Agarwal said, ‘First, women’s greater presence enhances their effective voice in decision-making. And there is a critical mass effect: If forest management groups have 25-33 per cent female members in their executive committees it significantly increases the likelihood of women attending meetings, speaking up and holding office. However, the inclusion of landless women makes a particular difference. When present in sufficient numbers, they are more likely to attend meetings and voice their concerns than landed women. So, what matters is not just including more women, but more poor women.

‘Second, and unexpectedly, groups with more women typically make stricter forest-use rules. Why is this the case? Mainly because they receive poorer forests from the forest department. To regenerate these they have to sacrifice their immediate needs. Women from households with some land have some fallback. But remarkably, even in groups with more landless women, although extraction is higher, they still balance self-interest with conservation goals, when placed in decision-making positions.

‘Third, groups with more women outperform other groups in improving forest conditions, despite getting poorer forests. Involving women substantially improves protection and conflict resolution, helps the use of their knowledge of local biodiversity, and raises children’s awareness about conservation.’