Food For Thought

Building a sustainable future by creating a culture of inclusion


“No effort to advance sustainable development will succeed that does not take into account half of the world’s population. Women have long been promoting solutions to sustainable development challenges.”
Melanne Verveer, U.S. Department of State, Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues

When we think of tropical rainforests, we probably picture dense forests in myriad shades of green—the dark and littered forest floor, the soaring trunks leading to the vast canopy.  We might think of scarlet macaws and howler monkeys, boa constrictors and poison-arrow frogs, biting insects, three-toed sloths, orchids and epiphytes–a many-storied ecosystem.   We are probably less likely to think of people.  But millions of people call the rainforests their home.  Some of them are indigenous tribes that live off the forest.  Many others practice some form of slash-and-burn agriculture in order to survive.


But rainforests worldwide are under intense pressure from commercial ventures. Each day, at least 80,000 acres of forest disappear.  Another 80,000 acres are degraded.  All over the world, both legal and illegal logging are reducing the size of the rainforest.  Between 2000 and 2005, Brazil lost over 8 million acres of its Amazonian forest, much of it cleared for pasture for beef cattle.  Indonesia, home of this month’s Dining for Women recipient, Health in Harmony, ranks second behind Brazil in loss of rainforest in that time period, with 1.7 million acres lost.  (It is important to note that the size of the rainforests differ dramatically. The current Amazonian rainforest in Brazil is roughly 1.3 million square miles, whereas the total landmass of Indonesia is 735,000 square miles.)  Indonesia’s forests are some of the most threatened on the planet.


The Indonesian rainforests illustrate well the issue of species diversity.  Indonesia has some 3305 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles according to figures from the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Of these, 31.1% are endemic, meaning they exist in no other country, and 9.9% are threatened. Indonesia is home to at least 29,375 species of vascular plants, of which 59.6% are endemic.  Many species of wildlife in Indonesia have been severely impacted by poaching and loss of habitat, include orangutans, and unique species of tigers and rhinos.  The makeup of Indonesian rainforests illustrates the fact that each rainforest is unique, so saving some rainforests without saving others still means species loss.


As Mongabay (a highly respected source on information on rainforests) reports:  “Indonesia’s forests are being degraded and destroyed by logging, mining operations, large-scale agricultural plantations, colonization, and subsistence activities like shifting agriculture and cutting wood for fuel. Rainforest cover has steadily declined since the 1960s when 82% of the country was covered with forest, to 68% in 1982, to 53% in 1995, and 49% today. Much of this remaining cover consists of logged-over and degraded forest.”


And Mongabay also reports that more than 119 million acres (55% of the country’s remaining forests) are concessioned for logging.


Rainforests play a significant role in climate, sequestering carbon and keeping it out of the atmosphere—the primary cause of global warming.  In turn, the forest produces oxygen.  The forests of the world, tropical and temperate, have sometimes been described as the lungs of the planet.   But much of the clearing of rainforest for other pursuits is by burning, which not only removes the forest that produces oxygen and sequesters carbon, but releases tons of carbon into the air in the burning process.


When we lose rainforests, we are losing species of plants and animals that cannot be replaced, the home and culture of indigenous peoples, and–perhaps most critical–the resilience of the planet in the face of climate change.


Women & Sustainable Development


Women in the developing world play a key role (if given the opportunity) in creatively managing natural resources, because they are disproportionately affected by availability and accessibility of the resources they need in daily living—primarily water and firewood.  Women are also less mobile than men.  When the resources in an area are depleted, men more easily move on to cities or other areas to find work.  Women are usually tied to their home, as they have children and perhaps elders to care for.


It is no surprise that it was a woman, the late Wangari Muta Maathi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her Green Belt Movement in Kenya, which has mobilized women to restore and protect the environment.  They have planted over 40 million trees since 1977. Over 30,000 women have been trained in forestry, food processing, bee-keeping, and other trades that help them earn income while preserving their lands and resources. The Movement’s ethos, practices, and results have convinced many communities to adopt sustainable practices wholeheartedly.


Women are also the farmers.  They are 43% of the developing world’s agricultural workforce, and according to US AID, they are responsible for half the world’s food production.  They raise mostly food crops to feed their families and sell in the market.  They do not have the same resources as male farmers.  They are far less likely to have any mechanization, doing all the digging and weeding by hand.  They do not have the same access to inputs, such as good seed and fertilizer—and no access to credit to acquire them.


Women are also responsible for most of the domestic chores, such as processing food crops, providing water and firewood, picking fruit, preparing and cooking food, and caring for children, the elderly and the sick.  They bear the brunt of climate change, since they are the ones responsible for finding water and firewood as those basic resources become more and more scarce.


While women farmers face all the problems all farmers face (weather, market prices, access to water, and the like), they face two major obstacles uniquely gender-based:  Lack of rights to own property (or lack of the ability to assert their rights) and exclusion from formal planning processes regarding land.


Property Rights:  In most developing countries, women are farming land that belongs to their husbands.  Traditionally, the land will never be hers.  In the event that her husband divorces her, she has no claim on the value or use of the land she may have been farming for many years.  In the event of her husband’s death, his family can (and almost always will) seize all property, including the house.  She may or may not be allowed to live on the property.


While more countries are changing the laws to allow women to inherit land from their husband, frequently the husband’s family will intimidate her and seize the property anyway.  There are seldom any legal consequences for doing so.


Exclusion from Land Planning Processes:  A prime example of such exclusion comes out of Indonesia.  All forests in Indonesia, whether or public or private land, are under the jurisdiction of the State.  Yet there are traditional rights and laws at the community level that are administered by customary leaders. These regulations include both traditional and formal laws, and control rights, responsibilities and legal sanctions.


In June 2012, the Right and Resources Initiative published Gender Justice: Forest Tenure and Forest Governance in Indonesia, which includes three case studies from which the following issues arose:

  • There are webs of power within the household, clan, community, state and market that women must negotiate (male customary leaders, male members of the family, male neighbors, male state forest guards, etc.)
  • Although a husband and wife may acquire rights to property together, or the wife may have procured rights to land herself, the husband actually has control.
  • Customary leaders, husbands and other male members of families make decisions without involvement of women, which has led to women losing access to, or control of their lands.
  • When NGOs work with communities on forest governance, they almost invariably work with customary leaders who are all men.
  • NGOs often ignore gender-based problems as well as various forms of gender injustices that relate to forest tenure and forest governance.  Meetings may be held at times women can’t come.  Sometimes, only one member of the household is invited—always the man.  Women who do attend are not equal participants, and are likely to have less education than the males, making them less likely to participate or to be taken into account.
  • Male heads of households don’t share what transpires in meetings regarding land rights, rules, and regulations with their wives, who can lose access to their lands without that information.


There is another factor at work in Indonesia:  Ibuism, which defines women as only wives and mothers.  “Ibu” is the Indonesian word for mother.  In the 1950’s and 60’s, there was a very active women’s rights organization in Indonesia with over a million members—working on the same gender issues we are working on today:  Child marriage, education, sex trafficking, sexual harassment, the rights of working women, and the like.  The concept of Ibuism— defining a woman’s status as that of a wife and mother, with the assumption of working for family and country with no expectation of anything in return—was introduced under Sukarno, the famous Indonesian dictator.  This redefinition effectively ended the women’s rights movement.  Ibuism was continued and enlarged by the succeeding government, the New Order, that came to power in 1968.  This attitude continues to this day, with the few women’s rights groups working mostly in urban areas.  It is an ongoing challenge.


Sustainability as it relates to the our Health in Harmony project

Health in Harmony partners with Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI), an Indonesian non-profit organization. The Indonesian name means Healthy Nature Everlasting and the acronym, ASRI, means harmoniously balanced.  ASRI works with the local population to end slash-and-burn agriculture and create healthy soils for organic farming from the existing parcels of agricultural land.  This serves to preserve rainforest, as no new land is cleared.  Several farms are already in operation.  Part of the soil-amending process, as well sustaining productivity, makes use of manure from goats and cattle.  Dining for Women will provide funds to extend an existing program to supply goats to widows (marginalized in Indonesian society), who can sell the manure to organic farmers and accelerate the cycle of soil improvement. ASRI has also involved the community in forest restoration.


In addition, the women in the Goats for Widows project benefit from ASRI’s organic farming training, which is teaching women how to grow organic kitchen gardens to provide vegetables to sustain their families and to sell in the market—with their goat manure as fertilizer.


The approach is very promising–increasing the health and income in the community, empowering widows to be self-sustaining members of the community and raising their status in the society, and in protecting the forest.



UN Millennium Development Goals


Goals that are addressed by Health in Harmony in Indonesia


Goal 3:  Promote gender equality and empower women

Target: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary

education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education

no later than 2015.


Indonesia has achieved the goal of eliminating gender disparity in education.  While Goal 3 has only the one specific target, it has a much broader meaning, as gender parity is tracked with regard to women in the workplace and their level of formal representation in elective office.  Women hold 18.2% of the seats in parliament, and one cabinet position (Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy).  Women have held many cabinet positions over the years. Megawati Soekarnoputri was President from 2001-2004, and Vice President before that.


As in many developing countries, there can be significant differences in education, opportunity, and achievement between large urban areas and the rural areas.  Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world by population and the 15th by land area.


There is also a growing Islamic movement in Indonesia, in which more conservative forces support more restrictions on women, but there are growing women’s movements as well.


Goal 7:  Ensure Environmental Sustainability

Target: Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and program and reverse the loss of environmental resources:


An increase in forests in Asia is having a small effect on slowing the increase the greenhouse gases, but the effect is minor.  The increase is almost entirely the result of reforestation efforts in China, India, and Vietnam—not Indonesia.


Target: Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss:  A new forest is not a replacement for a forest that has been destroyed.  The biodiversity in plants and animals has been lost.   The rapid deforestation of existing forests exacts a heavy cost in loss of species.  The rate of loss overall is decreasing, but continues at the rate of about 12.8 million acres per year worldwide.


According to The Millennium Development Goals Report 2012:  “A decrease in forest area impacts negatively on the many socioeconomic benefits and services that forests provide. It is hard to assign a dollar value to these benefits, but they include livelihoods for a large proportion of the world’s population, especially in developing countries, and serve as economic safety nets in times of need. Globally, forest management and conservation provide employment for around 10 million people, and many more benefit directly or indirectly.  Aside from timber, forests provide food, fodder, wild meat, medicinal plants and materials for utensils and construction. Research suggests that women in the developing world are integrally involved in the collection, processing, marketing and sale of these products.”



Our special thanks to Donna Shaver, Author, DFW “Food for Thought” September 2012

Factsheet:  Women Farmers and Food Security.  The Hunger Project.  2008.

Gender Equality and Development.  World Development Report 2012.  World Bank.

List of Female Cabinet Ministers in Indonesia.

SFM fact sheet 7:  SFM and Gender. (Sustainable Forest Management)  Collaborative Partnership on Forests.  2012.

Siscawati, Mia and Avi Mahaningtyas.  Gender Justice: Forest Tenure and Forest Governance in Indonesia.  Rights and Resources Initiative.  June 2012

The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011: Women in Agriculture.  United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2011.

Suryakusuma, Julia.   “Is state ibuism still relevant?”  July 2012.  Inside Indonesia

The UN Millennium Development Goals 2012.  The United Nations, New York, 2012.

Women in National Parliaments