Valuing and using biodiversity

For many women, biodiversity is the cornerstone of their work, their belief systems and their basic survival. Apart from the ecological services that biodiversity provides, there is the collection and use of natural resources. For indigenous and local communities in particular, direct links with the land are fundamental, and obligations to maintain these form the core of individual and group identity.

These relationships extend far back into human history, when division of responsibilities by gender began. Scientists have discovered that already in the early Stone Age (15,000-9,000 B.C.), women’s roles and tasks in hunter-gatherer communities were explicitly linked to biodiversity, with the natural environment in essence determining their status and wellbeing. For example, Owen (1998) describes women collecting and conserving edible plants that contributed 50 to 70 per cent of dietary requirements.

Today, women continue to gather firewood and other bush products for food, medicine, paint and house-building. Wild food enhances food security in many communities during unfavorable situations such as famine, conflicts, and epidemics (Kenyatta and Henderson, 2001). Poor women and children especially may collect grasshoppers, larvae, eggs and birds’ nests, with older women frequently delegating their responsibilities to the younger women in the household.

Women also take charge of many agricultural activities. After men have cleared the land, women sow, weed, hoe and bind the stalks. On their own plots, they manage home gardens, growing a wide variety of vegetables, relishes and condiments.

Women farmers have in fact been largely responsible for the improvement and adaptation of many plant varieties. Through the multivariate process of seed selection, they choose certain desirable plant characteristics and decide on the quantity and variety to be saved as well as the method of preservation. The moment that the crops begin to flower, women begin observing the plants, and later harvest seeds based on their size, grain formation and resistance to pests and insects.

Around the world, women usually oversee small household livestock and sometimes even cattle, including choosing and breeding for preferred traits based on local conditions, such as available feeds and resistance to disease. Also, diversity of livestock and cattle is often linked to diversity of vegetation.

Another women’s task tied closely to biodiversity is the collection of medicinal plants, which may be used for curing ailments while also serving as fodder and fuel or even as manure and pesticide. Women often gather medicinal plants along road banks and fences because so many have access to only the most marginal land. Yet their knowledge is immense, because community well-being depends on it, and preservation of this knowledge is crucial for maintaining biodiversity.


Compiled for this website by:  Garedew  Yilma