Women biodiversity research teams
About the Implementing organization
Name: Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN)
Year of establishment: 2001
Type of organization: Community-based association or organization / Legally recognized non-profit status / Indigenous group or organization / Ethnic minority group or association
For years KESAN has trained local forest rangers to monitor Karen lands for poaching and illegal logging. Given the strenuous and dangerous work, rangers are predominantly men. KESAN wanted to empower women more directly in forest stewardship and increase ecological monitoring in the Peace Park area. It is challenging for women to travel far from their communities and many women – especially young women who had less connection to traditional knowledge because of the conflict – believed that land and natural resource governance is men’s responsibility.
In an innovative solution, KESAN designed a program to train, and support all-female ‘Biodiversity Research Groups’ to embolden women with knowledge and skills about ecological research and environmental protection. KESAN’s approach taps into the deep desire for education and respect for knowledge felt by many young Karen. In all-female teams, women feel safer than they would alone or with a mixed team. Women learn skills of plant and animal (fish and frogs) identification, scientific and traditional names of species, and techniques for monitoring. The research groups conduct ecological surveys, collect detailed data about the species they find, analyze their data with KESAN, and share findings in community education meetings. The Women’s Biodiversity Research Groups are also extra eyes in the forest – monitoring and reporting signs of illegal orchid harvesting, poaching, logging and other ecologically damaging activities.
Forests / Mountains / Wetlands / Rivers / Wildlife
Type of Action
Protection / Sustainable use / Awareness and education
Sustainable Development Element
Jobs and livelihoods / Food security / Water security / Health
The Women Biodiversity Research Teams are advocates for environmental conservation within their communities, and are respected for their knowledge about the forest. KESAN’s team of women researchers in Khe Shor Ter Community Forest has identified 93 species of wild orchid and produced a poster showing the Karen and scientific name of each species, and distributed this in villages. The awareness raised by this poster has been successful in reducing illegal harvesting of orchids, valued for medicinal properties, for sale to China. The team has also drafted a report on their findings, and is working to document the orchid names in other ethnic languages. The same team is now compiling data to produce a poster for mushroom species. Another team is expanding their ecological surveys to include fish and frogs. The additional monitoring made possible by the women’s research has aided the community’s rangers and land managers in tracking and reporting illegal resource extraction activities.
Sustainable Development Impacts
Members of the Women Biodiversity Research Team gain access to knowledge about traditional medicines, foods, and materials in the forest and how to sustainably harvest them. KESAN’s training combines scientific skills with traditional knowledge that can support women’s livelihoods and sense of pride in their culture. For example, women learn about techniques to harvest, prepare, and use plants for medicine, food, and handicrafts. These skills assist women with their livelihoods, food security, and health as a result of increased access to local medicines (which can be life-saving in remote areas). The women also earn a very small stipend in recognition of their contribution to the Karen’s efforts to protect their forests and preserve traditional ecological knowledge. The monitoring for illegal activities and fish species provide very valuable data to communities, Karen authorities, and KESAN about water quality indications and potential sources of pollution.
The Women Biodiversity Research Teams strategy is a relatively new program for KESAN and is limited to a handful of teams. However, the effectiveness of the approach and its low cost make it an excellent candidate for scaling across the Salween Peace Park area and beyond. It is relatively easy to support the research teams as they operate fairly independently after initial training. As well, it could easily be added to KESAN’s efforts in other communities across Karen state, or the existing grassroots efforts of other organizations. It would be powerful to link together a growing network of Women Biodiversity Research Teams so they could share their findings and techniques with each other and gain a growing understanding of environmental issues at scales larger than their local community forest, and the power of compiling ecological data sourced from local efforts across an entire nation.
The model itself – of engaging women in ecological research by offering all-female teams, skills and knowledge that are relevant to many women’s lives, and a chance to gain respect of their communities because of their expertise – is one that could be replicated in almost any context where there is a goal of increasing women’s engagement with environmental protection and scientific research. Replicating this approach could be enabled with a relatively small amount of funding to document the techniques and tools used and provide training to those supporting the Women Research Teams. The members of the original research teams could also help other communities form their own research teams.
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