Conservationists should all be feminists (commentary)

Conservationists should all be feminists (commentary)

  • A new plan for global biodiversity conservation was set forth in December, when the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
  • Target 2 of the framework has garnered most of the media attention, but given women’s key roles in conservation on a global level, a more radical outcome would likely result from the successful implementation of Target 23 on gender equality.
  • In advance of International Women’s Day on March 8th, three authors argue that now is the time to recognize women not only as conservation stakeholders and biodiversity protectors, but as agents of change.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.

Our planet is in crisis.  Human activity is driving accelerating climate change and biodiversity loss across the globe. The devastating impacts of both processes are disproportionately felt by women and Indigenous communities, globally. Radical, transformative change is needed now to halt and reverse current trends, and to conserve the species and ecosystems upon which we all depend for our wellbeing.

The direction for much conservation policy and practice in the decade ahead was set this December 2022, when Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), an ambitious plan for achieving the vision of a society “living in harmony with nature.” The adoption under the GBF of a target to protect 30% of the planet’s land and seas by 2030 (Target 2) has garnered the bulk of the media attention  (and controversy) but more radical — as well as more inclusive, equitable and effective in the long term — would be the successful implementation of Target 23, on gender equality.

The CBD over the years has adopted many gender-related decisions — mostly as related to gender balance and representation (Booker et al. 2022). Yet Target 23 is different. As a stand-alone target, parties to it are committed to monitoring and reporting on progress made towards gender equality under the convention. The target sets out not only women and girls’ equal rights to participate effectively in biodiversity action and policy (a commitment also set out under the related Target 22, on ensuring equitable decision-making) but further affirms women and girls’ equal rights and access to land and natural resources. In other words, Target 23 tackles issues of who gets to use and benefit from biodiversity, as well as who gets to participate in making decisions about its management and protection.

For biodiversity conservation to succeed, women need a seat at the table. Here, DRC Minister for the Environment, Eve Bazaiba, speaks with COP15 negotiators. Image by UN biodiversity via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Target 23 reflects the reality that gender equity is fundamental to achieving the goals of the GBF. The inclusion of a gender-specific target in the final document is due to the dedicated efforts of an alliance of committed campaigners — Indigenous peoples, local communities, women, feminists, and their allies among parties. Gender matters for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use because women — and people with diverse gender identities — access different spaces, use different resources, and have different priorities than men. This leads to different and unique knowledge about — and experiences with — nature. The various social roles that women fulfill in their communities — as mothers, daughters, teachers, healers, and leaders — puts them in positions to build lasting and effective conservation action.

Unfortunately, women are often not given opportunities to participate fully in conservation planning and action, despite the fact that women and girls disproportionately bear the costs of biodiversity loss (Booker et al. 2022). Such marginalization undermines their human rights and also jeopardizes the legitimacy of conservation projects, in both the short and long term.

The value of involving women and girls in sustaining and managing biodiversity makes common sense and is becoming more widely acknowledged within academic and policy circles. Despite this, progress on gender equity in conservation practice has been slow, with a range of barriers to progress remaining.

There are consistent calls for more evidence on the value of integrating gender considerations into biodiversity conservation, including throughout the latest CBD Gender Plan of Action adopted at December’s meeting. Yes, more research is important and can help to document women’s contributions, and also to better understand, in different contexts and regions, what specifically it is about the dynamics between men and women — in households, communities, and wider society — that impact conservation. As researchers, we understand the value of data. Yet we also feel compelled to ask: is this request for more data simply an excuse to delay action and continue with business as usual? Where are the requests for more data on how privileging men’s participation supports conservation?

A hummingbird hawk-moth
A hummingbird hawk-moth in Iran. Image by Ali Bakhshi via Pexels (Public domain).

Consider what we already know:

  • Decades of scholarship show that involving women in natural resource management decisions delivers positive outcomes for nature, leading to, for instance, stricter and more sustainable resource extraction rules, greater compliance, and more transparency and accountability (Agarwal 2009,). Yet women are consistently marginalized from decision-making processes, with devastating impacts on nature and women’s well-being (Rocheleau et al. 2013).
  • Numerous case studies show that when given the opportunity, women take leadership roles and are innovators in conservation, whether it’s revitalizing shellfish fisheries in northern Spain (Frangoudes et al. 2008) or establishing new markets for local organic vegetables in rural Indonesia.
  • When women benefit from biodiversity, research shows they invest in their families and the community, including in girls’ education, enhancing gender equality and wellbeing for the future generations.

What additional evidence is needed? For policy-makers, we (as academics looking towards making change) have been told, it is the hard numbers, the arresting statistic, the quantitative evidence that will convince government ministers and spur on legislative action. But this too is a form of marginalization: existing power structures privilege one way of knowing, and devalue the kind of grounded, contextual, qualitative information drawn from lived experience, and produced by communities, civil society and social science.

To Indigenous and rural women in particular, who depend most directly on biodiversity and who are also the most marginalized in conservation planning and action, the link between gender, biodiversity and wellbeing is not an academic problem in need of further evidence in quantitative formats: it is a reality that deserves proper recognition and a seat at the negotiating table.

So what is needed now? With the adoption of Target 23 along with Target 22 ensuring “gender-responsive representation and participation in decision-making” and of the Gender Plan of Action designed to support and promote gender-responsive implementation of the overall GBF, there is an opportunity for transformational change in conservation practice. Now is the time to recognize women not only as stakeholders, but as agents of change.

View more of Mongabay’s coverage of gender and conservation here.

Women meeting with Tewa, the Nepalese Women’s Fund and the Prakriti Resources Center, a sustainable development and environemtnal NGO, in Nepal.
Women meeting with Tewa, the Nepalese Women’s Fund and the Prakriti Resources Center, a sustainable development and environmental NGO in Nepal. Photo courtesy of Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action.

Gender quotas on management boards is a good starting point, but it is not enough.  Women need capacity-building training and quality employment opportunities from the biodiversity sector, rather than the limited benefits offered by alternative livelihoods such as craft-making and beekeeping. And women need land and tenure security to support biodiversity in the lands which they use and depend on.

In Kenya, one Maasai woman who is herself fighting the uphill battle of trying to make it in conservation tourism and planning as a woman explained the problem as such:

“Maasai women have little or no access to land ownership. A woman farmer can be given a second rate plot of land by her husband to provide for food for the family. However, if she cares for the land and improves soil fertility she could risk losing the piece of land to the husband, and so she has little or no control over how the land is used, and so, in matters [related to] conservation she has little or no say over it. Yet again women can be the best in conservation of the environment as they use and interact with natural resources on a daily basis; ranging from small scale agriculture, to harvesting wood fuel and water to caring [for] animals. Strengthening Maasai women’s land tenure so they can access and control land and its resources would really help in conservation of the environment.”
– Debra Seenoi, Narok County, Kenya, via

Clearly, and as set out in Target 23, women need equal and secure access, ownership and control over land and natural resources to realize benefits from sustainable management and provide incentives for conservation.

Yet while many countries now recognize women’s land rights on paper, customary practices and social norms often constrain these rights in practice (Goldman et al. 2016). Decision makers and practitioners can work towards structural change here, not least by tackling entrenched gender norms that assume male ownership of property. This will require a cultural shift for all conservation actors — from those working in the largest NGOs (Westerman 2021) to those involved in local natural resource management groups — to reflect on their own assumptions about the role and value of including women in conservation, and on the gender norms that act as fundamental barriers to true equality. Such work is already happening and provides important models.

Yehimi Fajardo is a young conservationist who founded Alas Association, an NGO dedicated to the protection of birds in the foothills of the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Nicolás Bustamante Hernandez for Mongabay.

But to contribute to deep and lasting change conservationists will need to truly listen to and engage women as well as men in participation and decision-making practices in policy board rooms and community meetings.  Such participation is often constrained by social norms and assumptions by conservation workers that men are the decision makers and knowledge holders (Goldman et al. 2021) as well as by commonly held notions of masculinity and femininity that can be harmful to society (Perry 2017). For instance, ideas of men as the ‘natural bread winners’ can influence their decision to take part in the illegal wildlife trade (Massé et al. 2021), while ideas that women lack power can exclude them from conservation-related work.

A feminist position (in research, advocacy and policy work) calls for changes that can liberate us all from gendered roles, domination and oppression, globally (bell hooks 1981). With ambition on our side, Target 23 could set a course for transformative change in gender relations and inequality, going beyond making sure that women are seen, heard, and paid attention to in conservation work. Rather, it is about making sure that gender is acknowledged as a factor impacting all conservation work and outcomes. As we set out on a new path to save nature and humanity with the GBF as our framework, it’s clear that new levels of radical collaboration are needed.

Isn’t it time, then, for all conservationists to be feminists?


Marie-Annick Moreau and Emily Woodhouse are faculty members of the University College London’s Department of Anthropology, and Mara J. Goldman is an Associate Professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder in the Geography Department & Environment and Society Program, Institute for Behavioral Science.

Editor’s note: This commentary’s title chosen by its authors, “Conservationists should all be feminists,” was inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Also, many (but not all) references linked above appear in a policy brief the authors and their colleagues recently published at the website of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), ‘Why gender matters for biodiversity conservation,’ view that here:

Banner image: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service MENTOR Program works with conservation leaders like these women in Africa to boost their wildlife and habitat conservation skills. Image courtesy of USFWS. 


Agarwal, B. (2009). Gender and forest conservation: The impact of women’s participation in community forest governance. Ecological economics, 68(11), 2785-2799.

Booker, F., Allison, H., Nash, F. and Green, A. (2022) Women, girls and biodiversity loss: an evidence and policy review. DEFRA, London.

Frangoudes, K., Marugán-Pintos, B. and Pascual-Fernández, J. (2008) From open access to co-governance and conservation: The case of women shellfish collectors in Galicia (Spain). Marine Policy 32 223–232.

Goldman, M. J., Jagadeesh, S. N., Ngimojino, T. M. O., & Gowda, L. M. (2021). Women’s stories and knowledge of wildlife and conservation practice in northern Tanzania and South India. Oryx, 55(6), 818-826.

Goldman, M. J., Davis, A., & Little, J. (2016). Controlling land they call their own: access and women’s empowerment in Northern Tanzania. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 43(4), 777-797.

hooks, b. (2014). Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Taylor and Francis.

Massé, F., Givá N. & Lunstrum, E. (2021). A feminist political ecology of wildlife crime: The gendered dimensions of a poaching economy and its impacts in Southern Africa. Geoforum 126: 205-214.

Perry, G. (2017). The Descent of Man. London: Penguin Books.

Rocheleau, D. E. (1995). Gender and biodiversity: A feminist political ecology perspective. IDS bulletin, 26(1), 9-16.)

Westerman, K (2021) Unpacking the perceived benefits and costs of integrating gender into conservation projects: Voices of conservation field practitioners. Oryx 55(6) 853–859

World Bank (2012). World Development Report 2012 : Gender Equality and Development. World Bank.

See related coverage here at Mongabay: 

Funding for women-led conservation remains tiny, but that’s changing fast

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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