Understanding “Women and Environment” in the Caribbean

Nicole Leotaud, Executive Director of the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI)

March 8, 2019

In 2020 the global community will mark the 25th anniversary of the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women and Adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.  2020 will also mark the five-year milestone in implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, 2019, women around the world are reflecting on what has been achieved, what still needs to be done, and what are new emerging issues.  “Women and Environment” has emerged as one of the areas of concern.  As we reach and exceed planetary boundaries, lose biodiversity and face escalating threats from climate change, a key starting point in the Caribbean needs to be understanding what the issues are to inform actions for policy and practice.

We need to recognise and celebrate that “Women and Environment” has been identified as an area deserving attention as part of the Beijing+25 process.  Gender is recognised as a cross-cutting issue in the environmental sector.  It is now standard for policies, plans and programmes on the environment to at least mention gender; it is less common for gender issues to be fully unpacked and clear directions provided.  A key barrier is inadequate understanding of what are the issues and therefore what actions need to be taken in policy and practice.  There are number of key questions across interlinked environmental, social and economic dimensions related to “Women and Environment” in the Caribbean.

How are women depending on natural resources for their livelihoods? We can celebrate efforts of pioneers working in the Gender and Fisheries Team (GIFT), convened by the University of the West Indies Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (UWI-CERMES).  In the small-scale fisheries sector, women are mainly operating up the value chain as vendors and processors and are often left out of initiatives targeting fisherfolk.  CANARI is pleased to be a part of this collaboration seeking to better understand issues around gender and small-scale fisheries in the Caribbean, and to advocate for better policies and practices for gender equality.  But similar work is needed on smallholder agriculture, forestry and tourism as other key natural resource-based livelihoods.  How can women have a fair voice in decision-making processes in small scale fisheries, forestry and other sectors?  What is the impact on food security and poverty, especially in vulnerable rural communities?

How can we support women entrepreneurs? In general, many small and micro enterprises (including in the informal sector) are owned or operated by women, and this holds true for those businesses based on the use of ecosystem goods and services, like handicrafts, natural medicines, ecotourism, agro-processing and others.  CANARI’s work with women entrepreneurs in Trinidad and Tobago found that government policies do not adequately enable the development of natural resource-based enterprises operated by rural women and that female  entrepreneurs need capacity building and support to separate their domestic and enterprise commitments.  CANARI capacity building efforts with these and other entrepreneurs include developing the Local Green-Blue Enterprise Radar to help community entrepreneurs, male and female, assess how they can better deliver economic, social and co-benefits.  How can we better support women entrepreneurs through enabling policies, fiscal regulations, micro-finance and effective capacity building?  How are these enterprises contributing to improving and maintaining livelihoods and reducing poverty within rural communities?  What social and environmental contribution are they making?  How can we measure these impacts?

How are women entrepreneurs vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters? Natural-resource based enterprises are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural hazards such as hurricanes.  For example, stronger storms cause floods, landslides and power outages.  Drought periods mean less water for key crops and processing.  Building on early work with the women micro-entrepreneurs in Trinidad and Tobago, CANARI developed a methodology to ‘climate-proof’ micro-enterprises based on the use of natural resources.  But it is challenging to see how to reach the scale needed to build resilience of women entrepreneurs across the Caribbean in the face of increasingly devastating annual hurricane seasons interspersed with severe droughts in dry seasons.   What is the vulnerability of rural women entrepreneurs?  What impact is this having on poverty and food security?

How are women affected by degrading natural ecosystems which are increasingly at risk due to climate change? Caribbean populations are already facing serious challenges due to climate change, which is exacerbating issues related to natural ecosystems that have already been degraded (for example by pollution, land clearing and over harvesting).  Water scarcity is becoming an annual norm in many Caribbean islands.  Outbreaks of infectious diseases are expected to increase due to climate change.  Agricultural production is at risk due to droughts.  Infrastructure and public services are disrupted by stronger storms and hurricanes.  Lives are lost due to floods and landslides.  Coastal property is being destroyed.  What impact will this have on women’s health and security, and in turn on families?  What impact will this have on social stability within countries and displacement and cross-national migration?

How are women engaging in natural resource management?  Women, and young women, seem to be playing an increasingly important role in the environmental sector in the Caribbean.  Women have entered traditionally male-dominated sectors like forestry and fisheries and are dealing head on with practical challenges.  Some years ago, CANARI engaged in the Caribbean Women in Forestry (CAWFOR) initiative out of Trinidad and Tobago, which aimed to strengthen consideration of gender issues in forest policies.  This was driven by female forest officers in the public sector, who wanted to give voice to the practical challenges they faced in this male-dominated field.  They engaged other women working on forest-based livelihoods and forest conservation and started with seeking to influence forestry agencies.  Broader environmental management and policy arenas are increasingly dominated by women, as female university graduates are moving up the ladder to hold senior positions in government and inter-governmental agencies as well as in civil society and academia.  How is this impacting on how these sectors are operating?  How can these women play a leadership role in addressing the challenges faced?

Right now, we have more questions than answers.  The Caribbean needs focused attention on research to understand these issues, with targeted advocacy and capacity building to address complex and interlinked environmental-social-economic challenges centred around women’s relationship with the environment.  CANARI looks forward to collaborating with others on this journey.