BY TONDERAYI MATONHO
WITH the concept of farmer co-operative organisations waning in many rural communities as farmer associations gain traction, many women have branched out to establish village forums through which they keep track of climate change impact.
These emerging collective voices are also seeking to raise the weaker and marginalised groups by addressing local development challenges around climate change.
Regarded as offshoots of community-based organisations (CBOs), these have become a channel through which local women are raising the tempo in community natural resources conservation and management in the wake of destruction of forests and their biodiversity through fuel-wood cutting.
One such organisation is Chitsanza Development Association, a local entity advocating for women empowerment based in Nyanga district.
Chitsanza Development Association director, Diana Sedze, told NewsDay that relevant structures are now available to amplify women’s voices.
“By crafting local by-laws and promoting them with the support of the local Chief and other traditional leaders, they now have the legislative framework to back them up. With this local legal framework, women now do have a voice to raise their concerns and challenges,” she said.
Joyce Tendo, from Nyahokwe Village, Ward 19 in Nyanga district, is a leader of one such village forum culminating from a climate change study circle. Her village is on the western side of the Nyangani Mountain range, part of a drought-plagued region.
She explained in an interview recently how the climate change study circles concept adopted through local training in her village has now morphed into a well-established women’s forum, helping create and preserve community assets such as forest products and water harvesting systems to counter low rainfall patterns and other negative impacts of climate change.
“The impact of climate change in this community, exacerbated by depleted forests, very low rainfall patterns and lack of sustainable agricultural skills such as conservation farming, and limited time for community training, had worsened our plight as women,” she said.
“Through local training received from non-governmental organisations such as the Makoni Organic Farming Network and the Zimbabwe National Environment Trust, we now better understand what climate change is and its threats.”
Tendo said they have been responding well to climate change through developing community action plans guided and directed by the formation of study circles.
“From 2011, when the community training began, these circles have become strong enough through time and this has led to the establishment of women’s forums,” she said.
The forums have since spread around six villages — Charamba, Tundumaro, Mapeta, Sedze, Nyatondo and Bonde — in Ward 19 and Sarutani Village in Ward 22.
The Environmental Management Agency officer in Nyanga, Douglas Manzou, acknowledged the work done by the women.
“Such collective work clearly shows that through forums, women are helping to maintain and, to a greater extent, expand their community knowledge base on climate change mitigation and adaptation,” he said.
“It shows that women’s forums can make a significant contribution to sustainable local development. Before the advent of gender issues, women’s participation in local development was ignored or ridiculed, yet it is obvious that they have a critical role to play.”
Social forestry experts note that forest enterprises increase incomes by sustainably selling products such as fuel-wood, industrial round wood, processed timber products, non-timber forest products or services such as tourism, watershed management or carbon sequestration.
“Policy and practice often favour large-scale forest industry. But recent evidence shows that there is enormous scope for small-scale communities to develop sustainable forestry enterprise,” Forestry Commission training and research manager, Chemist Gumbi said.
Indigenous knowledge systems have been underestimated in developing water harvesting techniques and biodiversity conservation and management, he said.
BirdLife Zimbabwe programmes manager, Toga Fakarayi, said the forums have helped to show that “a more consistent effort to study, preserve and make use of indigenous knowledge systems, especially in forestry, is critical to manage climate change threats at local level”.
He noted that the development is also essential in demystifying the role of modern science and demonstrating that local cultural heritage was equally helpful.
Joseph Tasosa, director of ZIMNET, a non-governmental organisation working in Nyanga district, noted that women play a critical role in rural economies and their access to resources is critical in determining their community and farming strategies and modes of managing the environment.
“The changes and responses underway in rural areas are having a direct impact on women’s lives in both positive and negative ways. Negative impacts of climate change and inequitable land acquisition programmes are undermining women’s traditional land-use rights,” he said.
“On the other hand, through these women’s forums, communities need to understand, for example, why pastures are dwindling and why streams are drying up and the need to respond to these accordingly and how these issues can negatively affect intra-household dynamics.”
Gender experts point out that women’s rights and priorities are still often insufficiently addressed by national development strategies and gender policies. They argue that effectively addressing emerging issues such as climate change and food insecurity requires their full involvement, especially at community level.
The establishment by the United Nations General Assembly of the International Day for Rural Women — to be commemorated on October 15 every year — in 2008, was hailed as an important step in increasing the visibility of the role and contribution of rural women’s forums.
The emergence of village women’s forums through climate change study circles is playing a significant role to this effect, helping to be creative in developing community assets and systems that are helping respond to the negative impact of climate change.
According to the Nyanga Rural District Council officer responsible for environment and development, Kenny Zenda, it is important to incorporate gender dynamics in climate change management.
“Wards 19 and 22 are among a number of local communities which were marginalised because of entrenched patriarchal systems and market forces that had left many women behind,” he said.
“This had mirrored earlier developments which saw social institutions as functioning to preserve patriarchal systems in cultural and farming ecology.”