Ingrid Nelson, 2010 CSWS Jane Grant Dissertation Fellow

With GPS unit in hand, Ingrid L. Nelson sets out on her bicycle to survey farmer’s fields for the day.

With GPS unit in hand, Ingrid L. Nelson sets out on her bicycle to survey farmer’s fields for the day.

Reprinted from the 2011 CSWS Annual Review (pp. 14-15)

Fighting for Forests: Gendered Conflicts in Mozambique’s Forest Landscapes

by Ingrid L. Nelson, Department of Geography

Slow-growing miombo woodlands, which have supported rural Mozambicans with fuel, food, and fodder for centuries, are being decimated by two recently emerging global forces: China’s illegal timber extraction, and the indirect impacts of large-scale land acquisition by transnational corporations, especially for biofuel and fast-growing monoculture eucalyptus plantations. This is altering the sustainability of and ownership rights over thousands of hectares of forest and farmland. While rural Mozambicans have historically faced significant challenges to their livelihoods, the scale and pace of these two processes is unprecedented since colonialism, and raises serious concerns for Mozambican farmers who often do not hold secure tenure rights, and who lack access to the negotiating table with national elites, private companies, and illicit timber traders. Such imbalanced power can be even more pronounced for women, whose rights to land and forest resources are often not acknowledged or supported.

My research combines the issues of forest resource rights, land rights, and gender. I am studying how rural families are negotiating new inheritance rights for women (due to recent feminist legislation) within their communities, particularly where communities have mapped their land rights according to the country’s progressive land and forest laws. My research also provides a portrait of how deforestation of native species—largely due to illegal logging—and “reforestation” of nonnative species such as eucalyptus, together are transforming forest ecology and men’s and women’s livelihoods.

Thus far, my project has consisted of three overlapping phases between September 2009 and November 2010. One phase involved interviewing leaders in the feminist and environmental movements in Maputo concerning their experiences in raising men’s and women’s awareness of their land and forest rights. I spoke with these organizations about their visions for the future of their movements and the future of the country’s forests and forest dwelling populations. A second phase involved observing and interviewing the staff of a development organization, Rural Association for Mutual Assistance (ORAM), in Zambézia. Aside from community radio, NGOs such as ORAM are the primary source of civic education in rural communities. Very few women are using formal law to pursue rights to their land, fields, or goods beyond asking for help from local leaders on an individualized basis. Recent programs by organizations such as ActionAid International, however, are beginning to train community “paralegals” to educate their own community members and to work as liaisons with district judges and other authorities. Gender is now a central focus of these programs.

A traditional healer or “curandeiro” cuts bark from a medicinal tree with her hoe. She will boil the bark with several other herbs to give to a child ill with malaria. The nurse on a government salary in the community hospital has been absent for several weeks and the community cannot access the malaria drugs locked in the hospital.

A traditional healer or “curandeiro” cuts bark from a medicinal tree with her hoe. She will boil the bark with several other herbs to give to a child ill with malaria. The nurse on a government salary in the community hospital has been absent for several weeks and the community cannot access the malaria drugs locked in the hospital.

The majority of my time in the field involved a third phase of observing, interviewing, and conducting questionnaires in two communities in Zambézia province. I studied the ways that community forested land is appropriated, and the linked social and ecological impacts of this appropriation. One community in Maganja da Costa district has been trying to establish an association to sell their timber commercially with the help of ORAM, but legal and illegal timber buyers are in an intense turf war with this community association. As precious timber such as chanfuta, pau ferro and panga panga are taken for as little as $3 each, the surrounding resources such as mushrooms, insects, medicinal herbs and wild vegetables, upon which men and women survive, are becoming scarce. As men’s masculine identities change with their new jobs as timber carriers (earning $3.95 per day), the burden of farming increasingly falls upon women. The cash earned by the men will not be enough to supplement the drop in food production in these families. Conflicts over forest resources tie local ecology with trade and politics across international borders, as Chinese domestic markets and consumers in North America and Europe serve as destinations for these rare hardwoods.

The second research community lies farther north in Gurué district, is predominantly matrilocal, and has little to no forest and a heavy dependency on its land for subsistence agriculture, with some men participating in migrant labor. ORAM helped one part of the community map its land rights, but many in the community are struggling with land conflicts. Some men in the community recently threatened and burned down a campsite run by a company establishing teak timber plantations (implicated in a form of land grabbing through “re-forestation”). Recently, the governor created a new plan to insert timber monocultures into particularly resistant communities. Local leaders must now each have their own “forest” (consisting of at least one hectare of eucalyptus). In this community male leaders are taking their wife’s or sister’s land, cutting the regenerating native tree species, and planting eucalyptus provided by state and private companies.

In August 2011 I will return to Mozambique to bring my preliminary results back to the rural communities where I worked, in order for community members to critique my research findings. When they have an opportunity to refute, modify, reiterate, and emphasize key themes in the research, they create new ideas, questions, and strategies. Returning is important for building a long-term working relationship with these families over many years as resource pressures shift and as civic education and better implementation of the law expand.

In the final week of the month-long trip, I will return to the capital, Maputo, to reach out to the broader public at the national and international level. I plan to deliver a presentation and develop several debates with policy, private, activist, civic, academic, and other interest groups at the national Women’s Forum offices, inviting national television and community radio reporters to the events. These debates will highlight the points of conflict and agreement within the environmental and feminist movements concerning the gender dynamics of illegal logging, plantation forestry, and changing land rights. These discussions are crucial to my dissertation analysis of how different interest groups are shaping the goals for the future of the country’s forests and land rights. I analyze these debates together with the debates that I observed at the World Bank’s conference on Land and Poverty in Washington D.C. in April 2011 and the International Land Coalition’s membership meeting in Tirana, Albania, in May 2011.

There is a growing global movement of activists, farmers, scholars, and practitioners who are strategizing together for food sovereignty, land rights, and supporting more ecologically sustainable practices (check out the work of GRAIN at, the International Land Coalition at, and “friend” the Mozambican environmental organization Justiça Ambiental on Facebook to follow their campaigns). Forests and gender are fundamental to food sovereignty and land and resource rights campaigns. A gender perspective continues to be crucial to environmental and social justice, because so many women are experienced collective organizers, farmers, and forest resource experts. Without support from the UO Center for the Study of Women in Society, writing up my dissertation would not be possible. ■

—Editor’s Note: At the time of this publication, Ingrid L. Nelson was a doctoral candidate in the University of Oregon Department of Geography. She was also pursuing a graduate certificate in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. The U.S. Student Fulbright and the Society of Woman Geographers Evelyn Pruitt fellowships supported her fieldwork. She was a 2010-2011 Jane Grant Dissertation Writing Fellow (CSWS) as she finished writing her dissertation.

In 2014, when this article was posted on the CSWS website, Ingrid L. Nelson was an assistant professor, Department of Geography, University of Vermont.