(August 2000) Cristina Espinosa and Lorena Aguilar from the Social Policy Program of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) recently visited PRB to give an informal seminar on “Gender and the Environment: Reflections from Central America.” Aguilar led the discussion, which focused on IUCN’s work in the region. She presented a set of nine modules that IUCN has developed with regional collaborators on how to incorporate gender into environmental projects, focusing on key elements such as proposal writing, the project cycle, and tools and indicators for monitoring and evaluation. Aguilar also described the challenges she faced in persuading seven regional governments to sign statements pledging to incorporate gender into their environmental policies.

Both Christina Espinosa and Lorena Aguilar are recognized for their work in sustainable development. Espinosa is IUCN’s Social Policy Program Coordinator, based in Gland, Switzerland, at IUCN headquarters. She earned her doctorate in anthropology from the University of Florida, Gainesville, where her dissertation focused on social and economic variables affecting the use of wildlife in two protected areas of the Eastern Peruvian Amazon. She has extensive experience in research, teaching, lecturing, and consulting, and has published extensively on gender, rural livelihoods, and sustainable development. Based in Costa Rica, Aguilar is IUCN’s Senior Gender Advisor and the Social Policy Coordinator for MesoAmerica.* She has experience in rural development, archeology, and environmental health and has authored over 40 publications on these topics.

* MesoAmerica includes both Mexico and the countries of Central America — Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica.

Here are excerpts from that interview:

PRB: Can you give some examples of how gender intersects with conservation and environmental issues? What do you mean when you talk about gender equity and the environment?

Espinosa: Let’s take an example from the use of wildlife. It is usually assumed that men are the ones who fish, the ones who need to be reached to make fishing practices sustainable. As a result, conservation efforts in this area are focused on them. But women also fish, typically for domestic purposes. Women are also very involved in the processing of fish. This is important because conservation has to focus on a whole chain of activities, not just one isolated activity. The entire chain needs to be addressed before you can achieve your goals, and the whole set of actors, both men and women, need to be targeted. And this is just one example; there are many more.

Aguilar: There is no way to talk about sustainable development when 50 percent of the population is not involved. We’re talking about the appropriate distribution of control over natural resources. And it’s not just a women’s issue. There are many poor communities of men and women that have little power over the natural resources that surround them. There are many cases in which concessions of natural resources are made to organizations that do not necessarily include women and do not necessarily include the local community. The people who live there should have a say in how the resources are used. If they do, they can help ensure that they are used in a sustainable manner.

PRB: IUCN’s work in Central America has received a lot of attention, specifically in helping to elicit policy declarations from several regional governments on gender and the environment. Could you discuss how these statements came about?

Aguilar: In the beginning, we were asked by four ministries to help them integrate gender issues into their work. They asked us what would be the most valuable way to accomplish that: a two-day workshop, a lunch session? We responded that they needed to invest in a process. Gender is not something you can do in an afternoon workshop, it takes time. If you want to really mainstream gender, it means changing other people’s perspectives. That does not happen overnight. We started by helping out El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Mexico. Then Nicaragua, Honduras, and Panama decided they wanted to work with us, too.

In the beginning, the challenge for us was to move from theory to action. We had already spent a lot of time talking to the ministries about gender, but when they actually asked for help, we had to spend a lot of time preparing to actually do the work. There was so little writing that had been done on gender-sensitive environmental policies that we had to spend a tremendous amount of time during the first few months just doing research. It was a challenge to come up with something new that could be adapted to the population concerned.

Over an eight-month period, we were able to help six environment ministries issue gender-policy declarations. Each one of these statements outlines its ministry’s commitment to promote gender equity and provides the basis for a more concrete action plan that will spell out specific goals and strategies for achieving them. After an additional eight months, Mexico issued its own declaration. This was a big accomplishment for us. We learned that the approach we had developed worked for both little and big countries.

We also got involved in the regional integration process that is taking place in Central America. As a part of this process, all the ministries of environment in the region get together for discussions. This summer, they made a common statement on gender and environment. This statement is very important because it was built on the policies from the various countries, and it will support the individual country policies. I thought this was going to take us a couple years.

PRB: Why did countries in Mesoamerica lead the way on this issue, making policy statements on gender and the environment before anyone else? Was it because the IUCN targeted this region or were other factors involved?

Espinosa: I think it was a combination of factors. IUCN is working around the world, and there is a lot of diversity both between regions and within regions in terms of human rights, democracy, and so on. In the case of Mesoamerica, I think one contributing factor has been the post-war efforts to build democracy and to take social and environmental concerns into account when making policy in many countries. There has been a focus on reconciliation and human rights, an environment that is conducive to our work.

PRB: What kind of impact do you think these policy declarations will have?

Aguilar: These are not elaborate documents, only about 10 pages, but they are very helpful to us. In a sense, these policy declarations have given us a unique umbrella to hold. Now we can go to any director, to any program head and raise the gender issue and we will be able to say, “It’s the law.” It gives us more leverage in our work and allows us into the system.

But there’s still much to do, of course. Our work scares some people. Latin America is quite traditional in many ways and it can be a very “macho” society. The reaction to our work could be fear that women are trying to take over society. So we are concerned that these gender policy statements will not be implemented, that they will be left on the shelf to gather dust. We have to make sure that does not happen.

PRB: Now that these policy statements have been made, what is IUCN doing in Mesoamerica?

Aguilar: El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Mexico have created new gender units within their environmental ministries. We have to make sure that they become integral parts of their ministries’ organizational structures. The other thing is that we are in the process of training all program heads from El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico. And we are training people in the field, too. So this is a very busy time for us.

PRB: What do these gender units in the environment ministries do?

Aguilar: They are to monitor, evaluate, and do follow-up work on the mainstreaming of gender into the ministries larger work. For example, most of these ministries are typically busy developing new policies and laws, and these units make sure that gender is taken into account. While we work a lot with the ministries, it’s important that the ministries have units that do this kind of work internally.

PRB: Are you looking beyond Central America? What do you expect to find in other regions?

Espinosa: We certainly intend to build upon this work and work with countries in other regions. As for what we expect, I think it will vary quite a bit within each region; that has certainly been the case in Latin America. Our strategy is to choose countries where we think we can make a difference and get results. And of course, we look for governments who express interest in our work.

PRB: Any last thoughts?

Espinosa: Conservation is about people, and how to distribute costs and benefits. Right now, there are relatively few who enjoy the benefits, but many who pay the consequences of environmental degradation and of restrictions on use of natural resources. We want to bring about a more equitable situation. This is not going to come about without changes in perceptions and behavior, and that is where we come into the picture.

We need to question some of our assumptions — about science, about our lifestyles, about gender, about what is appropriate for nature and for human development. We need to see through a different kind of lens. … This will help people understand that conservation and development involves everybody, and that it must be fair for it to be sustainable.

For More Information

IUCN’s website: www.iucn.org