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Opportunities for advancing women’s sustainable and green livelihoods

In the context of changing climates and increased stresses on the natural environment, women farmers need consistent, relevant and intelligent support, in a timely manner, to secure their critically important roles in food security, health and biodiversity conservation. There are important lessons from the Caribbean in this regard

Two waves of change – long term climate change and immediate term economic crises – are bringing the issue of food security into sharper relief – particularly in those Caribbean countries where food security is already volatile and faces a series of risks and challenges. Climate change adds urgency and the need for renewed focus and priroritisation as well as ensuring that adaptation is wholly integrated into natural resource management, land use policies and especially into broader long-term macro-economic frameworks.

Within this broader context, there is a need for concurrent change and adaptation at three distinct but inter-related levels: at the community levels where women are most engaged, at national government level in addressing the country’s diverse needs, and at the international community level which still persists in supporting industrial farming methods and export over domestic market developments. Without a synergy of effort among these three levels, food security will continue to be compromised. It follows then that any and all policy relating to food security from production to harvest to storage and waste management must involve women.

The successful roll-out of a food security policy in the Caribbean small island developing nations (SIDS) rests on the meaningful and comprehensive engagement of the farming and fishing communities—both women and men—in working together to determine solutions. By the same token, if the functions, roles and needs of the small-scale farmer and fisher and particularly the role of women are not integrated into the overall agricultural/land use and climate change strategy of the region, then governments will not reap the benefits of investing in this constituency. Caribbean SIDS can no longer afford to discount or underplay women’s role in local fisheries, farming and food security.

In the Caribbean, the number of hot days in the year has been rising and the number of cool days declining. Climate models suggest that there will be drier wet seasons and longer dry seasons in future. Rising sea levels are expected to increase the saltwater intrusion of coastal freshwater aquifers. Rising temperatures have already led to coral bleaching and declines in marine biodiversity in many parts of the tropics. Climate change is expected to result, among other things, in an increase in sea-surface temperature, decreases in sea-ice cover and changes in salinity and acidity, all of which could affect productivity. [1]


As the international development community’s acknowledgement of women’s farming roles takes root, so does the set of policy solutions targeted at women as farmers, as heads of household and as those ultimately responsible for providing for and caring for their communities. More often than not, these solutions are presented as an extension of rural services that have, for many structural reasons, not reached women yet, to make sure that they do in fact reach women as effectively as they might reach men. The underlying assumption behind the design of policy solutions is that farmers are treated as ‘clients of a service delivery system’ rather than vested players in ‘designing and delivering the system’.

Most policy, trade and aid decisions that impact rural women are made in a non-participatory, top-down, one-directional way; and in an effort to redress this, supplemental policies are often appended – to compensate for structural gaps; almost as an after-thought - to make sure that women ‘benefit’ from these policies and are ‘accounted for’. Some of the policies, instruments and tools targeting women include legal provisions, such as the right to vote or the right to own land; financial services including micro credit and rural cash infrastructure; and practical training such as marketing, processing and small business training. These are important and valuable services if they in fact help to empower women.

That is what is not yet evident. The evidence on the ground suggests otherwise, that these `solutions` do not value or take into account women’s socio-economic productive roles, nor their cultural knowledge, intelligence or legacies. This raises important questions. Do these ‘solutions’ enable women to be actors in their own decisions, or do they further compromise women, placing them in greater debt, at deeper risk, and in positions of further weakness and silence? Who presents the economic arguments for bringing more farmers – women and men – into the global market as mass producers of commodities for export and consumers of (imported) food? How are women empowered to protect their rights to take farming decisions that prioritize and first satisfy local food needs before cash crop production?

In anticipation of an intensification of women’s, and communal, struggles over natural resources, and the continued ‘invisibility’ of their societal and productive roles, how can they plan for the future of their rights, their security, and their sustenance? When the stresses of climate change are then added to this struggle, how should women plan for the future?


While the circumstances and contexts of each case study are quite distinct, there are elements and issues that are common to most farming women. Since colonial times, commercial crops and farming methods have fallen in the ambit of male roles and responsibilities. Women played secondary and supporting roles, assisting in planting seeds for the crop, weeding, harvesting and other menial tasks.

Growing local food crops or landrace species for local diets, however, has been left to women almost entirely, with minimal investment or infrastructure to strengthen either the sector, or women’s roles in that sector. Where they are still intact, home farm own-production plots continue to supplement year-round food needs for the community, are an important risk mitigation approach at the household level and continue to remain the remit of women farmers. These farms, unlike commercial crop plantations, are likely to contain a wide range of traditional varieties, planted in a diverse ecological farming system, which together are often less susceptible to changing climate conditions. In addition to their hardiness, many of the traditional varieties meet the nutrition needs of local populations better than many imported foods. The reality often is that the ‘convenience factor’ of preparing imported processed foods – particularly when it comes to staples – and women need to weigh the opportunity costs of one against the other.

Caribbean women hold a vested interest and stake in food systems – as producers, consumers and managers. These are distinct roles but also roles which are intertwined and inter-dependent. In the context of changing climates and increased stresses on the natural environment, women farmers need consistent, relevant and intelligent support, in a timely manner, to secure their critically important roles in food security, health and biodiversity conservation. They need to be central in the solution by managing a peer-to-peer network of training, knowledge sharing, and distribution of information to ensure their sustainable livelihoods and the long-term sustainability of their communities.


As family members, women and men work together on the farm, with men generally taking on heavier work (including ploughing and aspects of harvesting, and fishing at sea) and helping out with arduous work;

A noticeable increase in the number of female-headed households (FHH) in the region, however, means that more policies need to target this constituency of farmers. FHHs have a higher dependency ratio; have fewer assets and less access to resources; and tend to have a greater history of disruption. These have broad systemic economic, ethical and ecological implications for rural women, for their families and by extension, for their communities. It is no coincidence that in the islands studied, when women producers came together as cooperatives it was often because they were single parents needing to come together to strike up bargaining power vis a vis hiring of male labour, access to markets and ‘looking out for each other’;

Women farmers grow a wide range of fresh vegetables, greens and herbs, tubers and pulses to supplement food that they buy, they care for small livestock and poultry, they also have a prominent economic stake in the inland and coastal fisheries sector which is repeatedly underplayed;

Fishers are most commonly portrayed as men going out on boats to catch the fish while women work as fish sellers and processors on land. This generalization of the professional roles of men and women is largely correct, but a closer examination of gender in fisheries reveals a more complex inter-related situation depending on the cultural context, with women very often underwriting the capital outlay costs for fishing vessels. A study on poverty levels in CARICOM fishing communities [2] states that women, except in special cases are barely actively engaged in fishing, most of them perform their work within the processing industry. That might be the case, but this does not do justice to the fact that more and more women have a direct stake in the sector that goes beyond visible labour. They underpin the sector with their collateral investment and are also participating in off-shore and inland fishing. Conversations with fisher women draw tenuous links between the urgency of managing declining and threatened fisheries and farming methods, integrated forestry/watershed management, integrated coastal zone management and local knowledge about biodiversity [3].


Women, more so than men, have an immediate day-to-day role in allocating resources within the household, including food and water;

The responsibility of providing and planning the household meals generally falls more on women than on men – they have a direct influence not only on income allocation but on family diets and nutrition;

Women have a direct vested interest in ensuring that safe and clean water is used at household level.


Most rural women appear to have a long-term viewpoint on what food security actually entails compared to men, particularly if they have a say about what they grow and for whom;

Women also have much more to say about sustainable practices in nutrition, in health provision as well as in production - and about the use of chemicals and pesticides;

Women and men have different resources and experiences at their disposal to deal with climate change and climate variability;

It follows then that food security and climate change responses and the policies developed around adaptation to and mitigation against climate change – need to be gender-sensitive and build on these different priorities in order to effectively benefit from women’s capacities and vested interests. There are numerous studies in the last three decades that make the case for engaging women in sustainable development. [4] As such the issues and the policy emphases are not that new. As climate change strikes with increasing frequency, ferocity and in different forms, we are witnessing patterns and evidence that show time and time again that there are important differences in the gendered roles that rural men and women assume in these situations.

Appreciating and supporting these roles can be the deciding factor as to whether rural adaptation or mitigation is an efficient use or a waste of resources, and whether community responses are reactive or proactive, spontaneous or planned, sustainable or unsustainable.


It is necessary to put agriculture at the heart of international climate change negotiations. Investing in a food-secure model using small-scale fiscal stimuli that mobilise the untapped potential of local producers is imperative. Small-scale processes can provide a mechanism to foster sustainable solutions to the problems of food and water security and spread benefits more evenly across communities of farmers and consumers alike. Small-scale farmers and organic, agro-ecological methods are the way forward to solve the current food crisis and meet the needs of local communities. The benefits of organic farming as a means to address food security and ecosystem resilience abound, including:

• Shifting to organic farming is an attractive alternative for small farmers in the Caribbean, as the demand for organic produce and products continues to grow.
• Organic farmers are able to apply local resources and knowledge as well as non-chemical inputs to their farming systems, conserve their soil and land quality and revive indigenous agricultural practices.
• This in turn can have a positive long-term impact on local food security and promote a return to cultures and systems of holistic environmental management.
• The principles of organic farming can be extended to the fishing sector and coastal zone management.
• Greening agriculture in developing countries and concentrating on smallholders can reduce poverty while investing in the natural capital on which poor people depend.
• Greening the small-scale farming sector by promoting and disseminating sustainable practices could be the most effective way to make more food available to poor and hungry people, reduce poverty, increase carbon sequestration and access growing international markets for green products.

The farming sector in many Caribbean islands sits at a decisive juncture. Options include sustaining ‘business-as-usual’ practices—which will take their ecology, economy and food security down one (disastrous) trajectory—or the adoption of a long-term vision and transformative pathway which invests in the country’s food economy while shifting the structural foundations of both economy and ecology to better adapt to climate change.

See also, and research study available at:


[2] Diagnostic Study to determine poverty levels in CARICOM Fishing communities
[3] There are numerous shared migratory fish stocks in the region and the fishing industry is highly important, including the industrial, artisanal and recreational sectors. Rather than a decline in overall landings, indications of overfishing can be observed through changes in species composition of landings, where species higher in the food chain decline over time. The unsustainable exploitation of fish stocks and other marine resources is a primary transboundary issue in the region.

* Nidhi Tandon, originally from East Africa and is based in Toronto, Canada, where she works as an independent consultant. Nidhi is a social activist, animator and writer working with women and with marginalized communities to raise their voices in a globalized economy.



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