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Cultivating Women’s Forest Stewardship: The 100 Champions Network

March 6, 2024

By Rahpriyanto Alam Surya Putra and Anuja Patel

Women and youth planting mangrove seeds in Surabaya’s Mangrove Park social forestry concession, November 2023. (Photo: Zenia Zahara / The Asia Foundation)

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, which can be found in products from chocolate to biodiesel. But palm oil plantations, along with mining, logging, and other extractive industries, have taken a heavy toll on Indonesia’s forests, with grave consequences for both the global climate and the local communities that rely on these forests. In the unequal fight to protect their lands and their livelihoods from these powerful economic players, access to information has become a vital strategic asset for Indonesia’s forest communities.

Dewi Sartika is a woman in one such community. Because of their traditional role as family caregivers, women are often more alert when vital forest resources such as local foods or fresh water are threatened by development. When palm oil interests began to encroach on her community’s land, Dewi set out to educate herself. She sought public information from the government, information such as legal documents confirming her village’s land rights and maps of village boundaries.

As is often the case, Dewi faced resistance from all sides. Invoking traditional cultural norms, the community questioned whether her husband should allow this activity. The government resisted her requests. But eventually, Dewi obtained the information she needed to make her land rights case to the local government. We call Dewi a village champion.

Founding the network

Since 2015, The Asia Foundation’s Indonesia office has been implementing the SETAPAK program, a UK-funded environmental governance program that supports sustainable livelihoods, particularly for women and other vulnerable groups, while protecting Indonesia’s forest resources from destruction by extractive industries. Encouraged by the resourcefulness and determination of women like Dewi, the Foundation has helped to establish the 100 Champions Network, which encourages women to assume leadership roles in preventing deforestation by producing sustainable forest products, a solution called social forestry. A Foundation survey of 1,865 households, using the University of Michigan’s LivWell tool, found that when women are meaningfully involved in social forestry and community forest management, it leads to increased household incomes, more sustainable forest governance, and greater gender equality.

To reach these women, The Asia Foundation works closely with a network of local civil society organizations (CSOs) in each province to foster “gender focal points.” These are experts who help organizations to bring gender equality into the mainstream of their programs, to identify women champions in their area, and to hold periodic local and national meetings to advance environmental governance. Importantly, these gender focal points promote dialogue between the women champions and government officials, the private sector, members of parliament, and other stakeholders to give their advocacy maximum effectiveness.

Women champions from 14 provinces of Indonesia gather to discuss forest policies and related issues, November 2023. (Photo: PUPUK Surabaya)

The network’s impact

The 100 Champions Network initially struggled to enlist other women forest defenders. They focused first on developing a core membership of women champions who could take the lead in reviewing public information; demanding enforcement of laws against illegal poaching, mining, and logging; drafting proposals; becoming paralegals; and leading social forestry programs and participatory mappings. These champions were recruited from communities heavily affected by deforestation, and they worked closely with local CSOs.

These CSOs also needed help, to work effectively with the women champions. The Asia Foundation conducted a series of trainings, including how to mainstream gender equality in climate and environmental programming and how to use analytic tools familiar to CSOs to conduct gender analyses. These trainings helped start the conversation about why women were largely absent from social forestry work and how to elevate their voices, capacities, and confidence.

An Indigenous woman from West Kalimantan Province during a policy dialogue with the national government and other stakeholders, November 2023. (Photo: Zenia Zahara / The Asia Foundation)

Within a year, the CSOs reported that local women affected by extractive industries were making more and better use of public information, writing policy briefs, checking permits and the legality of company operations, and filing legal cases against those companies when they broke the law. This type of information is often hard to find, sometimes nonexistent, and frequently withheld by government officials despite the legal right of all Indonesians to access public information.

Through these efforts, women leaders were able to stop illegal poaching, mining, and logging in many parts of Indonesia and launched efforts to reclaim some of the damaged forests. In Sumatra’s Bengkulu Province, for example, the 100 Champions Network convinced the governor to allocate 65 percent of designated social forestry concessions specifically to women’s groups. These concessions have become a formal part of provincial policy. In South Sulawesi, women-led social forestry enterprises developed a partnership with five buyers of their nontimber forest products. This partnership has brought them access to markets that they previously could not reach, improving their livelihoods while preserving forest resources.

The 100 Champions Network today

Today, the 100 Champions Network has more than 200 gender champions, who continue to lead the work. Each year, they participate in a national meeting to share their ideas, experiences, and aspirations. These gatherings also include training in applying for social forestry permits, gaining jurisdiction over land, and establishing face-to-face contact with representatives from government ministries, including the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, to take their case directly to policymakers. The response from ministry officials, it should be noted, has been positive.

The 100 Champions Network shows what can happen when women have an opportunity to lead in climate-sensitive domains such as forestry. Women’s leadership is essential for solutions that leave no one behind and address the needs of all. As Dewi Sartika’s story demonstrates, women’s leadership is not just nice to have—it is essential to create lasting, community-led solutions.

Women newly elected to 100 Champions Network committees, November 2023. (Photo: PUPUK Surabaya)

Rahpriyanto Alam Surya Putra is the director of The Asia Foundation’s Environmental Governance Program in Indonesia, and Anuja Patel is a program officer in the Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Program. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

1 Comment

  1. It’s a first for our country and it will drive action to improve women’s lives and forest sustainability in the future

    Reply

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