Women and natural resources: how nature, gender and social divisions intersect

To conserve snow leopards and natural resources better, we must understand and identify the important roles that women can - and do - play in local societies. In a recently published paper, Snow Leopard Trust researchers examine the role of women and the nuanced intersection between gender and social divisions in the governance of irrigation water in the Spiti Valley - a critical area for snow leopard conservation.

A team from the Snow Leopard Trust and our India partner, the Nature Conservation Foundation, has examined the vital – if often informal and overlooked – role that women inhabit in the decision-making process in local communities, and the ways that access to and control over the commons informs gender roles. 

The study, led by SLT’s Conservation Scientist Dr. Ranjini Murali, focused on the women of the Village Kibber in Spiti Valley. This village was prominently featured for snow leopard conservation in the Everest issue of National Geographic magazine. Our earlier studies in this region had shown how women tended to develop more negative attitudes towards snow leopards as a result of livestock predation by the cat, and why it was so important to specifically partner with women in community-based conservation. Thanks to Dr. Murali’s pilot efforts, Kibber had become one of our first partner villages in India to formalize the role of women in protecting snow leopards through a conservation-linked handicrafts program.

In this high-altitude village, most people are involved in farming and animal husbandry. Agricultural lands are almost exclusively owned by men, while irrigation is managed by women. Men, often assisted by women, are mainly involved in some maintenance of crop fields, ploughing and harvesting. Day-to-day activities – primarily involving irrigation and weeding – are undertaken by the women, who also maintain the water channels and prepare the fields before and during the growing season.  For many generations, women have been the primary arbiters of the irrigation system for the village. This arrangement is thought to have been in place for centuries.

Our researchers found that though formal rules exist, women do change them. Despite not owning the lands, this important role in food production has given the women a voice over a crucial element of their social structure, as they decide how and when water is distributed across the fields. For instance, the second day of irrigation is reserved for households with sick or pregnant family members – a small example of the kind of empathy that women can bring to a governance system.  

The study, however, also revealed that women’s control over management of water was not homogenous. Although all women had a role in the irrigation system, control was exclusively in the hands of women from traditionally ‘higher’ social classes; the upper-caste, traditionally landowning households. Women from other families had access, but no formal control. The women from the higher social classes derived this status from their husbands or family patriarchs who traditionally owned cultivable land. This subset of women decided on the daily distribution of water, acted as arbiters over disputes, and on the timing of the irrigation cycles. 

In the paper, our researchers related their findings to other studies, one of which showed that when women were involved in community forest management, forests were in better condition and outcomes were more rule-based. As our scientists point out in the paper “If the Sustainable Development Goal of “no one left behind‟ is to be achieved, it is essential that the perspectives, knowledge, and interests of both men and women be integrated into decision-making.” 

Across the snow leopard range, people and biodiversity share space. Understanding how local communities govern natural resources is essential for identifying management strategies that can lead to positive and equitable human well-being and strong biodiversity outcomes. Engaging women in conservation decision-making and integrating their perspectives, values, and knowledge can ensure more equitable conservation and human development, and, indeed, more sustainable biodiversity outcomes.  

We are thankful to the Whitley Fund for Nature for supporting this work and for their continuous support to snow leopards over the last 15 years.

The journal entry can be accessed here. To request a full copy of the article please email info@snowleopard.org

Ranjini Murali, Ajay Bijoor, and Charudutt Mishra (2021). Gender and the Commons: Water Management in Trans-Himalayan Spiti Valley, India. Ecology, Economy and Society–the INSEE Journal, 4(1), pp.113-122.

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