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Study concludes that nature benefits when more women make land management decisions

A study published in the journal 'Nature Climate Change' suggests that involving women in local governing bodies could help reduce deforestation while addressing local inequalities at the same time.

The cause of conservation is advanced more assuredly when more women are included among the groups making land management decisions, new research finds.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) and published in the journal Nature Climate Change last month, explored whether or not gender quotas for local governing bodies could help reduce deforestation while addressing local inequalities at the same time.

Many of the world’s threatened forests are collectively owned and managed by small community groups. Because women frequently have no decision-making powers in those groups, some legislatures and local governments have mandated that a certain number of decision-makers must be women.

Women have stronger environmental preferences but having a seat at the table and a payment for foregoing the immediate benefits of cutting down trees empowers them to act.

Krister Andersson, researcher, Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado Boulder

Gender quota policies in countries like Argentina, India, and Rwanda, for instance, have stipulated that 30 per cent or one-third of membership and executive leadership in local governing bodies be women. Since 2009, Nepal has required that at least half of local committees representing forest communities be women.

But those examples are the exception to the rule, suggested study co-author Krister Andersson, a political science professor and researcher at CU Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Science. “When policymakers think about what to do to increase conservation around the world, gender quotas don’t even come up as a viable policy instrument,” Andersson said in a statement. “This study suggests they should.”

Previous research has found that women are more concerned about inequality than men, feel a closer connection to the environment, and are more likely to support conservation efforts. “We wanted to know what would happen if you offered financial incentives for groups to conserve and made sure at least half the members were women,” Andersson noted.

The authors write in the study that their results “show that gender quotas make interventions more effective and lead to more equal sharing of intervention benefits.” They add that their findings “demonstrate that there is potentially even greater benefit when quotas are progressively set at full gender parity” rather than the common 30 per cent or one-third standard.

For the study, the researchers traveled to 31 villages near collectively managed forests in three developing countries — Indonesia, Peru, and Tanzania — and asked 440 forest users in those communities to play a tabletop simulation game in which they had to make decisions about how many trees to harvest from a shared forest. The participants were divided into groups of eight, and half the groups were required to have women as 50 per cent of their members. The other half of the groups had no gender quotas.

First, all participants played a round of the game where were they were told they’d be given a small payment of 5 tokens for each tree they chose to harvest, and were asked to anonymously choose how many trees to cut down. Next, the participants were told that an external organisation would pay their group 160 tokens if they made the group decision not to cut any trees down, such as would be the case if the community was enrolled in a Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) programme, and that they could elect a leader who would decide how to distribute the tokens among the members of the group.

PES is a conservation strategy that essentially involves paying individuals or groups to protect the ecosystems that furnish essential “services” like clean water, habitat for wildlife, crop pollination, and carbon sequestration. PES schemes are growing in prevalence around the globe.

“We found that the groups with the gender quota reduced their harvesting rate far more when the incentive was introduced and also distributed the payments for conserving more equally,” lead author Nathan Cook, a postdoctoral research fellow at CU Boulder, said in a statement. There was no meaningful difference between the decisions made by the groups in the absence of a financial incentive, but once an incentive was offered the groups with gender quotas reduced their harvesting rate by 51 per cent while the control groups cut theirs by just 39 per cent.

In other words, the groups with gender parity kept more trees standing in response to a PES scenario and shared the payments more equally amongst themselves. The researchers say that they attribute this outcome to the gender compositions of each group, not necessarily to leadership by women.

There wasn’t much difference between the choices made by groups that had selected a woman as their leader versus a man. Instead, the consistent outcome was that when at least half of the members of a group were female, that group chose to cut down fewer trees — especially once a shared financial incentive was introduced.

“It appears that it is not the gender quota by itself that is making a difference, but rather the combination with the conservation incentive,” Andersson explained. “Maybe women have stronger environmental preferences but having a seat at the table and a payment for foregoing the immediate benefits of cutting down trees empowers them to act.”

Cook summed up the study’s findings by saying, “The big takeaway here is that when it comes to environmental conservation, the presence of women matters.”

This story was published with permission from

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