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close this bookGender aspects of woodfuel flows in Sri Lanka (1999)
close this folder6. Gender aspects of the commercial woodfuel flow
View the document6.1 Two emerging scenarios
View the document6.2 Heavy and light work
View the document6.3 Distinction between work for money and subsistence work
View the document6.4 Production and reproduction spheres
View the document6.5 Techniques, tools and modes of conveyance
View the document6.6 Concluding remarks on gender and trade

6.1 Two emerging scenarios

From the perspective of gender the distinctions between rural and urban woodfuel flow systems, and between gathering for self consumption and for trade, are related to the following:

i. The distinction between "heavy work" and "light work";

ii. The distinction between "production and reproduction" or "work and services";

iii. The distinction between work that provides cash returns and that which provides non-marketed goods and services;

iv. The techniques, tools and modes of conveyance used in the respective flow processes.

The analysis reveals that woodfuel gathering for self-consumption is considered a much lighter task than supplying woodfuel for the urban market. The work involves collection in small quantities for daily use. In rural areas, many tasks are performed daily with some marked peak events associated with activities like branch pruning or tree felling. The commercial flow system differs because it is a large-scale business, which involves large scale harvesting, transportation and delivery.

6.2 Heavy and light work

The difference in men's and women's engagement in the fuelwood flow mechanism has been described in association with the nature of work and with a gender ideology that has been forced on the division of work. Who defines the 'heaviness' or the 'lightness' of the work and how it is differentiated in the woodfuel flow process are interesting questions. Analytical interpretations based on group discussions to some extent help understand how the work is differentiated. 'Heavy" work is defined in relation to the activities exclusively performed by men. These activities include, 'tree climbing', 'tree felling', 'cross-cutting' large trunks of trees, long distance transporting using conveyances like lorries, tractors, bullock carts and hand carts and splitting billets at fuelwood depots. Although headloading is a heavy task, it is exclusively done by women and also considered a manageable activity for women to attend to alone. Fuelwood gathering for domestic use seems to be considered "light" as a result of the low priority given to work for subsistence or domestic well-being. Other reasons are the non-monetisation of the work done and the fact that the goods procured by women are "free".

Even if women walk several kilometres to collect a bundle of wood and carry it home in a headload it is not considered heavy work. The heaviness of course has nothing to do with the weight of the wood, but is differentiated in relation to the "strength" of the gender which performs the work. Such definitions are purely subjective. In addition, according to a group interview, the risky tasks are considered to be men's work. It is believed that tree climbing, tree felling, cross-cutting etc., are not safe for women to perform. Concern over the safety of the work for women is emphasised, especially where cash or trade is involved, but the potential adverse effects of women's exposure to smoky kitchens or of carrying excess weights are not considered risks. It appears therefore that gender roles are allocated not only according to the physical nature of the task but also largely according to whether the work is done for cash or for domestic well-being.

The scale of the work done also seems to be an important factor in defining whether work is men's work or women's work. In large scale operations, men's labour is considered essential, while in small scale operations, like splitting branchwood for home consumption, it is not seen as work needing to be performed solely by men. For example, carrying fuelwood bundles in headloads is not considered unsafe for women, but transporting them in advanced conveyances to depots is. A further, and perhaps more important, reason for defining work as men's or women's work relates to how the work is done and where it is performed. Work is considered heavy, and thus men's work, when relatively larger equipment is used. It is also considered beyond the capacity of women when it is to be performed for a long stretch, e.g. from morning till dusk. Although women interviewed were reluctant to accept that they are physically weak and unable to attend to the hard work, the traditional work norms related to women's gender are re-enforced in the woodfuel business. Often women themselves believe that it is disgraceful for them to climb trees, fell trees etc., whereas men believe that it is disgraceful for men to make women attend to these tasks.

A point to be noted here is that women themselves accept that tree climbing, pruning upper branches, felling trees, cross-cutting wood trunks are beyond their capacity, and these are men's work. These activities, according to their own explanations are too heavy for them to attend to, and they are reluctant to go against the social norms. In addition, there are no better technologies available for women to adopt to fulfil these tasks.

6.3 Distinction between work for money and subsistence work

Fuelwood collection for self-consumption is perceived as a completely separate domain. The data presented in Chapter 2 affirms that, even where woodfuel is supplied from local sources foe commercial uses, as in the case of Kundasale area, the system is dominated by men. This means that work to produce marketable goods is considered to be masculine work. Men's marketable and mobilizable labour is used to provide marketable goods. Women's labour is not recruited for activities related to commercial supply or distribution.

A noteworthy feature is that where supplies are from the sources owned by the households, women's labour is used as free family labour. Women attend to the activities related to woodfuel supply for home consumption. As their labour is not spent on work providing money, the long hours of wood gathering and headloading is associated with ensuring household welfare, and domestic chores. Women themselves have noted that saving their labour is of little interest to the household because there is no demand for women's labour in the production sector or in the formal service sector.

Women of wealthy families view woodfuel availability as a symbol of household self-sufficiency, And women of low income earning families are uncertain about the alternative uses of their labour either to earn cash or save household expenditure so they undertake the burden of collection more as a means of contributing to the satisfaction of household needs. In terms of the opportunity cost of women's labour, the effort is not economic when it depends on remote sources. The average wage that a woman earns from casual work in the area is in the range of Rs. 12-15 per hour, whereas the converted price of fuelwood gives about Rs. 3-4 per hour for gathering and portaging fuelwood on headloads.

This situation suggests that the economic profitability of fuelwood gathering for self-consumption can be rationalized in terms of women's contribution to their families. For women, it is not a production loss because most of them have no alternative ways of using their labour. Further research is necessary to provide a full coverage of the whole issue, to incorporate the loss of women's energy, and the health costs such as repetitive strain injuries that women have reported during a detailed study conducted in Sri Lanka.

On the one hand in the rural sector women's work in the fuelwood flow mechanism cannot be simplified and isolated from household livelihood strategies, relief of poverty etc. On the other, it is a matter of local sustainability. If fuelwood is available for free gathering where the hidden cost is their labour, women themselves have the self-interest to gather fuelwood. A completely different situation emerges with regard to the commercial flow, because activities concerning the commercial supply of woodfuel are placed outside the domain of women, the domain of welfare, and the domain of daily survival.

6.4 Production and reproduction spheres

The marked differences between the rural and urban sectors in the pattern of men's and women's engagement in the woodfuel flow throw light on the debate on men's productive roles and women's reproductive roles. In the rural flow mechanism women's greater engagement in fuelwood gathering for self-consumption is a reflection of the connection between household needs and women's domestic chores. Their free labour or helping hand provided for fuelwood supply for rural industries show that their interest is to get some cash for the household out of fuelwood sales. In contrast, in urban areas where women do not have access to supply sources, it has become a purchased commodity and nearly Rs. 10-12 is spent on it daily.

Fuelwood gathering as an activity and a responsibility is part of the domestic chores of women in rural areas. As has been noted earlier it helps women to save expenditure and also reduce the pressure on the household budget. The conventional practice of considering fuelwood management to be a woman's domestic activity has been weakened in the urban domain. In urban areas, generally men have to bear the cost of fuelwood, particularly in low income earning families, on top of other cash needs.

The exclusion of women's labour from commercial woodfuel systems, or the fuelwood business, however is a result of the separation of women's reproductive roles from large-scale operational systems. The "heavy" or masculine work is considered unsafe for women due to their biological nature. It has been perceived that such work harms the reproductive or the child bearing capacity of women, could disturb pregnancies, or create delivery problems etc. It was found that during pregnancies and for a period of about 4 months after child delivery women are not allowed to split wood, stretch and cut branches above ground, and carry heavy headloads etc. These normal practices reinforce the idea that large-scale operations in the woodfuel business are unsuitable for women. Some activities have been placed outside women's domain simply for biological reasons, while others, particularly their engagement in woodfuel flow mechanisms or business, are avoided on the grounds that men should seek paid labour opportunities to support their families while women should attend to domestic chores.

It was found that there is no demand for women's labour for such work in the woodfuel trade. This is an area where women are perceived as inconsistent and inefficient workers. But both gender groups also accept that men are inefficient in attending to domestic chores while women are relieved not to have to undertake the work that men attend to. Neither group believes that major changes in role allocation will have a positive impact upon the household.

6.5 Techniques, tools and modes of conveyance

The techniques used from the level of felling trees to splitting wood are traditional. For instance, tree felling is done by cutting the trunks at the root collar at ground level and no incidents of using advanced tools like power-saws have been noted. Trimming is done using an axe. Cross cutting is done using hand saws. Not only are these techniques primitive and involve intensive work, but the tools are also conventionally handled by men. In addition, technologies have never been introduced to ease women's work and provide more opportunities for them.

This applies to the mode of conveyance too. All 4 modes of conveyance: lorries, tractors, bullock carts and hand-carts are not operated by women. Women do not drive lorries; not because it is considered exclusively masculine work, but due to the conventional norm that it is not a dignified occupation for women. In addition, driving has no fixed working hours, or a fixed work location. Even the smallest mode, the hand carts, are not considered a conveyance that women can handle on their own account.

Although retail distribution in carts can be seen as a small-scale operation, house-to-house deliveries are not performed by women. Cart delivery involves intensive work. Here too, it is not considered to be dignified work for women. The behaviour and occupations of women are not defined in terms of needs to earn cash; or on the grounds of equity and equal opportunities, but on the social construct of what constitutes a dignified way of living for a woman. The questions that need to be raised here are how can the woodfuel trade be promoted as an income earning venture for women, how can gender disparities be eliminated, and what efforts can be made to promote opportunities for women in the woodfuel trade.

6.6 Concluding remarks on gender and trade

The findings of the survey of the rural and urban sectors, which coincide with self-consumption and trade respectively, point to the fact that fuelwood has entered into the domain of men with its commercialisation. Rural women, particularly those in the urban hinterland, recognise the commercial demand for woodfuel. As a result, women themselves make adjustments at the household level, by saving marketable segments for sale, using less demanded segment/types for household cooking. The fuelwood management practices, although limited to a few who produce an excess, are partly influenced by market opportunities, and are important aspects in the whole flow process.

Market opportunities are not confined to urban areas, but exist in rural areas also, among domestic consumers, as well as industries. The small scale woodfuel trade primarily centred around a few types like coconut husks, fronds and branches, give some income for women, who are the managers of household produce, although the amounts earned are insignificant and irregular. Women are excluded, when it comes to fuelwood for rural industries and urban demand, and their labour is replaced with men's labour.

To a great extent this is a drastic transition. This transition is not due to women's lack of interest in dealing with commercial opportunities. This is mainly a result of the separation of the production side from the trade. The trade mechanism begins with harvesting of trees/felling trees and cutting branches for sale. So the tree managers, or the production source managers are not considered part of the system, nor do the returns go to those who have been engaged in the production mechanism. As a result the payments for labour and the investments go to those who are engaged in the commercial flow mechanism, implying that there is no stimulus for women to increase production for local self-sufficiency, for income, or for employment.

The demand for women's labour in the process is insignificant, so although women are in need of income earning opportunities they are excluded from the commercial woodfuel system. From the development perspective there are three critical points. The first is that this sector has made no effort to contribute to uplifting women's living standard by way of introducing women-friendly technologies to stimulate women to become engaged in the flow process. The second is that no significant efforts have been made to turn fuelwood production and supply into an income-earning venture in rural areas. Although, fuelwood has become a commercial and marketable commodity, which conventionally has been freely procured, very limited opportunities have emerged for the small-scale producers to enter the trade. Although women deserve such opportunities as local tree resource managers, opportunities have so far only evolved around the large-scale production systems.

The factors creating a demand for woodfuel, and stimulating users to use wood energy are not known to the producers. The commercial fuelwood users, which consist mostly of the urban domestic sector, and to a lesser extent industries both in rural and urban areas tend to think that they are exploited by traders, and have no sense of the share that goes to producers. The small-scale producers, among which women play a prominent role have no sense of market mechanisms, its trends, needs and their own future potential to enter and contribute to and benefit from the commercial venture. Not only is the system controlled by a few well-established supply centres, the depots, but also women cannot compete without assets and without organising themselves. The women's lack of assets and the lack of institutional support for women to enter the system has allowed men to dominate the system. Women's lack of resources, primarily the ownership of land or the production systems is a reason for women's exclusion. On their part they have no rights to organise producer friendly and user friendly mechanisms.

From the perspective of local sustainability the needs to stimulate small-scale producers to be equipped to cater for the markets can be stressed. For instance, as has been noted earlier, local supplies are relatively cheaper for local industries so if women can organize and produce in relatively large quantities they will directly benefit. Moreover, with the depletion of large scale sources of supply such as the Dry Zone forests and the reduced supply of rubber and coconut trees in times to come, the local industries will turn back to local producers and urban traders will link with the hinterland areas.

This implies the need to narrow the gender gap, and enhance the contributions or returns to women from commercial mechanisms. Gender planning, however, is outside the biomass energy Sector in Sri Lanka. Due to lack of locally accepted formally organised tree planting programmes, and processing technologies, women's responses to market trends are insignificant. Clearly the commercial woodfuel demand has to be recognised and taken into consideration in planning for the future.

In the rural sector women can potentially integrate woodfuel production into their local production systems and resource management activities. Thus they can contribute to the rural wood energy based industries by way of relieving industries from over-exploitation, and organising local production to connect directly with the end users, the industrialists. The village-based supply centres, if promoted, can be managed with little investment.