Bina Agarwal: The Links Between Environmental Wealth and Gender Justice

“The seeds of poverty for men may lie in the exclusion of women.”

That was a provocative theme of the sixth and final presentation at the Forum on Social Wealth lecture series at UMass Amherst, delivered by feminist economist Bina Agarwal on May 18. Agarwal — author of A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia and professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University — warned against romanticizing “community” as a benign institution for managing natural resources. The realities are more complex.

Consider common forests in India. Over 70,000 groups such as villages manage 21% of India’s forest lands, said Agarwal. A generation ago, these forests supplied rural Indians with more than 90% of their firewood, more than 70% of grazing lands, and between 10 and 20% of their household income. When famine strikes, forests also provide emergency food. This general picture also holds true in China and sub-Saharan Africa, where some 90% of households use biofuels (wood, dung, crops) for domestic energy needs.

But who exactly is the “community” that manages access and use of common forests?

In India, it tends to be male-dominated executive councils even though women depend on these commons more than men. Women own less land and animals than men, have less cash and access to markets, and have more everyday needs that must be satisfied through the commons. Thus, any enclosures of the commons — by the state or market or village patriarchy — tend to hurt women disproportionately.

This injustice persists, said Agarwal, because women are often excluded outright from village decisionmaking, or allowed only nominal or passive roles. Agarwal calls this dynamic “participatory exclusion“ — the outward semblances of access or participation, but in reality, little influence or power.

Participatory exclusion is one reason that India villages suffer from shortages of firewood amidst plenty. Shortages are tolerated because they can be discounted as a “women’s problem” — something to be invisibly and stoically borne. A man loses stature if he seeks to rectify a “women’s problem.” Yet this neglect means that Indian women must spend more time gathering wood, and searching for substitute fuels such as crop waste, dung and weeds, all of which pose serious health problems. Women who endure the smoke and soot of rural kitchens have 50% higher mortality rates versus men, and suffer more cataracts and respiratory problems.

“Is this a necessary price for protecting a forest?” asked Agarwal. No, she argued. More wood can be sustainably taken from forests, but most male-dominated village councils do not want to take the extra steps (e.g., monitoring of wood gathering) to allow it. Wood-gathering is seen as the unpaid labor of women collecting a non-monetized resource. Fuel shortages are seen as a women’s problem, not a community problem.

When women have little voice, such results are not surprising, said Agarwal. Involve women, and you will begin to improve management of the forest, enlarge the natural wealth and improve social equity.

This analysis suggests that a more complicated picture than “markets bad, community good,” at least for rural villages in India. Markets may, in fact, help women emancipate themselves from repressive communities. But markets may have their own limitations in conserving resources. So how to move forward?

Rather fall into another simple dualism, Agarwal insists that women must be able to bargain for their own interests in many domains at once — in their families, within their communities, in the market, and before the state. It’s not enough to say, in the face of market and state failures, let families and communities decide — because families and communities may impose their own hidden inequities and participatory exclusions.

Agarwal spoke with lucid eloquence about a thorny issue. I highly recommend her lecture, “ Environmental Wealth and Gender Justice: From Paradox to Potential.” A text and video version of it will be posted on the website of the Forum on Social Wealth soon.