WHAT BIODIVERSITY LOSS MEANS FOR WOMEN
Updated: Aug 3
"The personal cost for women of both declining abundance and richness of biodiversity in terms of quality of life and health can be far-reaching, damaging and potentially even fatal."
The loss of biodiversity affects everyone. More than ever, we know we are enduring a combined climate and nature crisis with increasingly visible consequences not just on the natural world but on us as human beings for whom nature provides direct benefits. Recent global assessments have made this abundantly clear.
Yet such generalised statements mask the fact that different groups of people are affected in markedly different ways by biodiversity loss. Given women make up half the world’s population, it seems surprising that we know very little about how women fare compared with men when it comes to coping with the consequences of biodiversity loss in their daily lives.
To develop policies and practice to address these impacts requires much more nuanced evidence of those differential impacts across geography, age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and gender. What works for some may well not work for all or may even be harmful, without us being fully aware of it.
Evidence and policy addressing how women are affected by biodiversity loss is the focus of a new report published by the UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs. I was fortunate enough to be a co-author and part of the IIED team which prepared it. This turned out to be a fantastic opportunity to interview many inspiring women from around the world who have made this subject their lifetime’s work, and to read the experiences of many others submitted through the study’s survey.
While the report’s key findings speak for themselves, I wanted to provide a few personal reflections which I have taken away from the project.
For me, the most important of these is how biodiversity loss is intimately interconnected with powerful social and economic consequences for women around the world.
The personal cost for women of both declining abundance and richness of biodiversity in terms of quality of life and health can be far reaching, damaging and potentially even fatal.
This makes it even more remarkable how little published and peer reviewed evidence there is about how biodiversity loss affects women in particular and even less on the multidimensional aspects of women’s identities. There is virtually no evidence at all related to girls. That said, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence which requires further substantiation. When it comes to assessing the effectiveness of policy interventions, the same weaknesses in rigorous data collection reoccur. Monitoring and evaluation of efforts to address such gendered impacts are few and
there is heavy reliance on individual case studies to act as beacons of hope, rather than genuine scaleable systemic solutions.
When you start to search for policy responses and reports on this topic it quickly becomes clear that the climate impacts upon women and biodiversity loss impacts on women are conflated. Even the otherwise admirable 2021 report of the Gender Equality Advisory Council to the G7 leaders falls into this trap. It’s clear we need a slightly more sophisticated narrative to unpick the similarities and differences in these agendas is needed – while climate change and biodiversity loss may both affect women’s health and livelihoods for example, not all specific policy responses relating to biodiversity loss and climate change are or should be the same.
The characterisation of the women’s roles in relation to biodiversity loss is complex but I was struck how a lot of reports characterize women as victims of biodiversity loss. While it is undeniably true that women are uniquely vulnerable, it is also true that women can be beneficiaries of biodiversity and as such are also important stakeholders in negotiated action on biodiversity conservation affecting the local communities of which they are part. Many also claim roles as agents of change through being part of decision-making processes and proactively driving action.
Nonetheless I was brought up short by testimony that even being at the table where decisions are being made doesn’t guarantee women’s interests are fully taken on board, be that at a local community forestry forum or at an international biodiversity convention.
I was also struck by the difficulty we found in identifying any men working explicitly on biodiversity and gender issues during our search for interviewees. While there are some academics out there, the international policy space is (perhaps understandably) dominated by women working on this issue. This needs to change so that the differential impact of biodiversity loss on women is not just seen as a women’s issue but as a global question of gender equality and equity which has implications for everyone.
While our report focused on the developing world where direct dependence on biodiversity for livelihoods and subsistence through sustainable use is in plain sight, I was yet again reminded that there is also a developed world dimension to the issue we were addressing. Those consequences of being starved of contact with nature through lockdowns, through infrastructure eroding green spaces and the inexorable decline in biodiversity even in nature-rich special places all take their toll on mental health and well-being which we cannot fail to ignore.
Lastly, our report was also asked to address questions of policy in terms of recommendations. I was particularly struck by a couple of key findings; firstly, how little analysis and policy response has been developed to address the questions of both legal and illegal wildlife trade, where gender dynamics are both overlooked and underestimated.
Women selling bushmeat at roadside in Laos Credit: Alamy Stock Photo.
Secondly, how potentially powerful a human rights-based agenda could be in underpinning future international biodiversity processes. The landmark 2021 UNHCR Decision that everyone has the right to a clean, safe and sustainable environment could have powerful repercussions for women and this has been a focus of international NGO efforts and action around the negotiations of the targets within the new global biodiversity framework due to be agreed at the UN Biodiversity Conference in December 2022. Let's hope a key step will be to adopt a target specifically focused on women at that meeting!