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Land, Forests, Water: Natural Capital And Security for Women

Ojong Enokenwa Baa is based in South Africa where she works as a Gender Consultant with the Centre For International Forestry Research (CIFOR.) She is part of a team that focuses on women and land tenure security. She spoke with Dominic Black about being part of the latest course from the Women’s Land Rights Institute, how it will help her work and the impact of climate change on women. 

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

DB: One thing you mentioned in your email to me was ‘how natural capital such as land can reduce the vulnerability of marginalized groups and households.’ Can you explain that for me, for someone who’s a non-specialist: how does land reduce the vulnerability of marginalized groups or households?

Ojong Enokenwa Baa: So in many aspects, Dominic. One of them is, the ability to own natural capital is broad, but in one sense you might want to look at land, forests, water – those are all natural capital. In a community where people have access – not just access but ownership of this natural capital – full ownership, the full bundle of rights, the right to use, the right to sell, the right to transfer, you know? Having complete ownership of such natural capital reduces their vulnerability, especially in communities where they are very limited in other capitals such as social capital.

Social capital you know, may relate to social protection schemes. In most of our African countries, for example, we really do not have social capital or social grant schemes, you know, where the government comes out to support people. So of course people will tend to rely on natural capital – so they will rely on land for agriculture, forest resources, and water. The absence of this natural capital will make them more vulnerable compared to people who are in a context where there is that high social protection from the government.

So vulnerability will be higher for such people, especially now that people face the double jeopardy of climate change. In these communities, if there is climate change and people still lack access to this natural capital or resources, then of course they will be more impacted by shocks and stressors. That’s why I was saying that in communities where people lack natural capital their vulnerability will definitely be higher. 

DB: When you talk about different stressors and you mention climate, how is climate playing out for people in vulnerable communities, particularly women?

OEB: How it affects women…so they will most likely rely only on natural capital, which is land – forest resources. In the event of climate change where there is land degradation, where there is drought or flood, you will discover that most of this land will be eroded and the value of this land will really depreciate. And of course this is the only asset that women in particular rely on for agriculture, or for harvesting of non-timber forest products. 

So the lack of these resources as a result of climate change will leave women more vulnerable because this is what most of their livelihoods depend on. And of course we know in most of these contexts women provide for subsistence farming because that’s what sustains the household. 

And of course in most contexts we know it’s much easier for men to migrate into the cities or bigger areas for job opportunities. Women will often not have those opportunities. And so if they stay behind and have to rely on these resources, they become more affected and more vulnerable.

DB: That all makes perfect sense. When you use the word ‘intersectionality’ what do you mean by that term? 

So Dominic intersectionality is like saying ‘so many things intersecting,’ interacting together. So, do not look at an individual, for example a rural woman, as a rural woman who maybe, you know, lacks the capability of doing things. In a particular situation she might be vulnerable but that does not mean she might not have meaningful skills.

So always try to approach things from that lens of so many things intersecting or interacting at a given moment. I’ll give a very simple example: I say ‘As a black woman, I should not be viewed from a particular lens to say, as a black woman I am always vulnerable.’ As a black woman I might be vulnerable when placed in a context with other races, for instance whites. I might be more vulnerable or marginalized when compared to maybe a white male, for example. But I might not be vulnerable when compared to a black lady who is uneducated. 

So, what we are trying to say is vulnerability should be approached from multiple angles: look at multiple things that are happening within that individual’s life. How are these things coming together? How are they intersecting? How are they interrelated to one another to present a view of an individual, within a given situation, as vulnerable? Bearing in mind that in another situation, that same person might be privileged.

‘The course with WLRI really helps you understand

the framings around women’s land rights.

It helps you unpack the different concepts.

It gives you clarity.’

DB: You’ve been taking part in the course on women’s land rights offered by The Women’s Land Rights Institute. Why were you attracted to the course?  

A lot of what I do with CIFOR centres around women and land rights across Africa, Asia and Latin America so I felt there was a need for me to understand concepts that were kind of ambiguous. I needed clarity on how to apply some of those concepts and frameworks which I didn’t really have a mastery of, especially the legal aspects. So when I came across the course I thought yeah, I need this course to deepen my knowledge, gain a better understanding, learn appropriate ways to explore some of those frameworks and tools around women and land rights.

DB: And so far, what have you discovered?

OEB: Well it’s been amazing. So actually, when I started the course one of the things that first caught my attention was how they approach theories and frameworks and I’ve learned a lot during this short period of time. One of the first things I learned was that there is a difference between a rights holder and a land holder. You know, those were terms that I thought were the same, but I was shocked when I got to know they are actually different terminologies. We also learned different concepts around collective land tenure systems, private land tenure systems, individual and collective systems, and how this applies across different contexts. 

One of the things I have noted so far is they are quite unique, and how it’s applied in a particular context or region might not be the same. For instance, in Africa how you would see communal land tenure systems might not be the same as in Asia, for instance: in Bangladesh or Kyrgyzstan. So those are the kind of things I am exploring which I’m so happy and excited about.

DB: When it comes to your day to day work, how will the course help you?

Yeah so some of the challenges I had in my day to day work was making the distinction between legal frameworks, because I really don’t have a law background. So in order to really analyse and critique issues relating to gender and women you really need to understand them from that whole legal perspective, you know? You need to understand those legal analyses for you to make a good assessment of a land rights situation in a particular context. 

So, I think those were the kind of challenges I had. But with this course I have been able to have a deeper understanding of legal analysis in different contexts when it comes to women and land rights.            

DB: What’s your feeling about how the course has been structured, interactivity and so on?

EOB: Yeah I actually like how the course has been structured. We actually started with understanding what rights are all about: property rights, tenure, different systems. We later moved on to collective rights, moving from the individual to collective, and marital property rights. And truly, this is an aspect that I lacked understanding around, especially marital property rights and how it applies across different contexts and countries. 

So for instance, the legal grounds for maybe a woman, a widow, a married woman, to claim marital rights could be different across countries. So we go along having these different experiences, drawing from different case studies around the globe, you know, really deepening our understanding of how countries apply some of these different policies and principles, and how it all impacts women. 

So, it brings more of an intersectional approach, which is often what you will not find even literature. Like when literature addresses some of these issues they might want to focus on a particular angle, but with this course we have been able to touch from different angles using an intersectional lens, and I think that’s what really stands out for me.

DB: Would you recommend the course and why?

EOB: Definitely. I would really recommend this course for anyone who is into research with a focus on women, on land rights, on tenure systems, on tenure security, land tenure regime systems. Why would I do so? I would do so because the course really helps you understand the framings around women’s land rights. It helps you unpack the different concepts. It gives you clarity. I would recommend the course any day, any time, and yeah, I think it’s a game-changer for me, given how I now approach my work with CIFOR, how I analyse, how I critique, how I interpret legal framings, policies, documents, reports. So I think yes, it’s a course worth doing. I would recommend it any time, to anyone.

Ojong Enokenwa Baa is a Gender Consultant with the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). You can find out more about the work of CIFOR by clicking on the link below.

And you can find two recent publications from CIFOR here: 

‘Women’s Land RIghts in the Gambia: A socio-legal review’

‘Women’s Land Rights in Ethiopia: A socio-legal review’

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