Women, Men and Trees: Gender, Power and Property in Forest and Agrarian Landscapes


Rocheleau, Dianne, and David Edmunds. 1997. “Women, Men and Trees: Gender, Power and Property in Forest and Agrarian Landscapes.” World Development 25 (8): 1351-71.

Authors: Dianne Rocheleau, David Edmunds


This paper proposes a revision of the concept of property commonly associated with land in analyzing the gender dimensions of tree tenure. Unlike two-dimensional maps of land ownership, tree tenure is characterized by nested and overlapping rights, which are products of social and ecological diversity as well as the complex connections between various groups of people and resources. Such complexity implies that approaches to improving equity using concepts of property based on land may be too simplistic. Rather than incorporating both women and trees into existing property frameworks, we argue that a more appropriate approach would begin by recognizing legal and theoretical ways of looking at property that reflect the realities and aspirations of women and men as well as the complexity and diversity of rural landscapes. Through a selective review of the literature, particularly in Africa, and illustrative case studies based on our fieldwork, we explore the “gendered” nature of resource use and access with respect to trees and forests, and examine distinct strategies to address gender inequalities therein. A review of the theoretical and historical background of land tenure illustrates the limitations of “two-dimensional” maps associated with land tenure in delineating boundaries of nested bundles of rights and management of trees and forests by different actors. The introduction of gender adds another dimension to the analysis of the multidimensional niches in the rural landscape defined by space, time, specific plants, products, and uses. Gender is a complicating factor due to the unequal power relationships between men and women in most societies. These power relationships, however, are subject to change. Rather than adopting an artificial dichotomy between “haves” and “have nots” (usually linked with men and women, respectively, in discussions of land tenure), we argue that gendered domains in tree tenure may be both complementary and negotiable. If resource tenure regimes are negotiable, they can be affected by changes in power relations between men and women. This idea has important policy implications. In many discussions of tenure, rights are often assumed to be exogenous or externally determined. The negotiability of tenure rights gives policy makers and communities another lever with which to promote a more equitable distribution of rights to the management and use of natural resources.


  • This article explores gender and resource tenure, and in particular the gendered nature of resource use, access, control and responsibility with respect to trees and forests. The article looks at an important dimension of gender and property rights: how land rights issues are interlinked with gender and natural resource issues and how rights to access and control resources are negotiable and often overlap, interact and conflict with rights to land. The study of gender and resource tenure is significant because it reveals important information about how land tenure reforms can impact women, and shows that the implications of redistribution and resettlement policies extend beyond land occupation, to resource use and control.

  • The author examines three different approaches to the complexity and dynamism of gendered resource tenure regimes: (i) differences in men’s and women’s rights to own land with formal title; (ii) differences in the spaces and places in which men and women use trees and forest resources and in which they exercise some control over management; and (iii) differences between men’s and women’s access to trees, forests and their products through several, nested dimensions (i.e. gendered space, gendered access to resources within a given space, gendered access to products of a given resource, and gendered access by season or other measure of time)

  • Example of overlapping property rights: among Swahili people on the Kenyan coast Muslim women may own cashew trees on lands owned by male relatives. Their rights extend to restrictions on land uses incompatible with cashew production.

  • However, systems are built on an assumption of continuous occupancy by multiple users embedded within kin groups; they do not accommodate land market practices that treat land as an exchangeable and interchangeable commodity. Consequently, formalization of property rights can disrupt this dynamic

  • Also examines the gendered nature of space (focussing on de facto rights based in customary norms and everyday practices): “Women’s spaces are not always as easy to identify in the landscape as separate fields might be. They are frequently found in the “in-between” spaces not deeply coveted by men but still quite useful to women”(Rocheleau et al., 1355)

  • The article emphasizes the importance of social relations to the question of resource access and the need to focus on decision-making processes and social organizations as well as fixed and formal rules of tenure structure in assuring both women’s and men’s access to and control over natural resources.

  • Also looks at differences at a household and community scale of women’s access to resources, depending on factors such as age, order of marriage (in polygamous households) and wealth.

  • Examines women’s strategies for gaining access to trees and forests in the context of increasingly privatized land: "engage in activities which reinforce their rights to common areas, such as resistance to the privatization of bush and forest (Edmunds, 1997), or joining women’s groups performing work in common lands.”(1360) (e.g. women’s labour exchange groups)


“The combination of gender and resource tenure concerns has stretched the tenure question beyond two dimensional maps of land ownership to address multidimensional realities, characterized by social and ecological diversity and complex webs of connection between various groups of people and the resources that sustain them.”(1351)

“The juxtaposition of simple, unitary blocks of land as property, with the complex, gendered systems of tree use, access, responsibility and control alerted forestry and agroforestry field workers, planners and policy makers to the multidimensional nature of resource tenure in general, even under private property regimes.” (1352)

Topics: Gender, Gendered Power Relations, Gender Equality/Inequality, Land Tenure, Rights, Land Rights, Property Rights Regions: Africa

Year: 1997

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