The Mighty Shea: How women and men sculpt landscapes - and why this matters for restoration

20 August 2014 | Blogs

The humble shea tree can teach us much about how men and women relate to land differently - and why this matters for restoration. A Gender and Restoration case study, from Burkina Faso.

- By Marlène Elias, Gender Specialist, Bioversity International & CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

In the semi-arid savannas of Africa, just south of the great Sahara, grows the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa). The tree’s wide-reaching branches and undulating leaves adorn vast sections of this region’s rolling parklands, as farmers spare the species when clearing land for cultivation. The tree’s small, green fruit encloses a valuable nut, from which a nutritious butter with skin healing properties may be extracted. Though humble in appearance, the shea tree is vitally important to local ecosystems and local people. Its dense canopy shades crops; its small fruit fills bellies and market stalls; its roots hold soil nourished by its fallen leaves. Less obviously, the shea tree is also a prime example of how considerations of gender may be vitally important for the success of landscape restoration efforts. As I will show, gendered experiences and expertise shape the planting, care, management and stewardship of the species, giving rise to great woodland landscapes like Africa’s savannas.

Across Africa, women and men relate to trees differently, with unique perspectives driven by gendered differences in the division of household labor. In Burkina Faso, where I have worked, male farmers are the ones to clear and plough fields to cultivate staple crops like millet and sorghum as well as cash crops like cotton. Women cultivate these crops with their husbands, too, but also grow a range of ‘female’ crops, such as groundnuts and okra. They will also collect firewood and other tree products, like the fruit from shea or néré (Parkia biglobosa) trees. Post-harvest, women invariably process the food. These gendered duties give rise to different stores of knowledge – on how to use trees, what to plant, gather, or care for. This is most apparent in women’s knowledge of the shea tree.

Through first-hand experience collecting, processing and trading shea products, as well as through teachings passed from generation to generation, women agriculturalists living in the ‘shea belt’ have acquired specialized knowledge of the species. In most countries in this region, women rely on the income they can generate from selling butter extracted from shea nuts. (You’ve no doubt encountered this butter on store shelves in your own country). Women use this butter to fulfill traditional responsibilities for preparing culturally-appropriate food for their household, such as benga, a dish made of beans and rice, or fritters. And they skillfully prepare traditional medicine using shea bark, roots, and leaves. If you suffer from malaria or diarrhea, you may seek a shea-based cure. Shea remedies are also used to increase milk production in lactating mothers.

One result of this use of the species is that women can recognize differences among similar-looking shea trees. They can classify individual trees into many distinct types or “farmer varieties” based on the beneficial properties or characteristics of each. The nut from one variety may lead to more butter. From another there will be tastier, sweeter pulp.

Men use the shea tree too, but in a different way. Male farmers prize the tree for its medicine and food, but also for its shade and its role in improving the fertility of the soil in their fields. However, a study conducted in Burkina Faso found that they typically recognize fewer “farmer varieties” for shea than do women. As they are not the ones to process shea products, they are less knowledgeable and concerned about the traits that relate to differences in butter products, or to the ways to make medicine out of the tree’s derivatives.

Gender drives differences in knowledge of the tree, its care, use and properties, but so too do differences in ethnicity and culture. Burkina Faso’s Moose and Gurunsi people, who are agriculturalists, value shea butter as the primary source of fat in their diet. The Moose and Gurunsi consequently consider shea a priority tree species on their lands. Burkina’s Fulbe people, meanwhile, are herders who rely on fat derived from animal sources. They are more likely to prioritize trees that provide fodder for livestock, like the acacia (Acacia albida). Each ethnic group grows or protects trees with uniquely desired food, fiber, fuel and spiritual characteristics and value. As a result, the dominant tree species found in their landscape reflect culturally-specific preferences and patterns of tree management.

Landscapes are thus influenced by more than just climate, soil and water. They are influenced by socio-cultural systems and the different interests of community members, who rely on distinct tree species or varieties and use their gender-specific skills to manage and utilize these. The shea tree is one great example of how men and women from different backgrounds have differentiated tree-related knowledge and priorities.

Forest restoration promises to not only enhance the ecological integrity of degraded and deforested lands but also to benefit the people who rely on those lands for myriad products and ecosystem services. If we are to restore vast swathes of the globe – a goal embodied in the Bonn Challenge to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested lands by 2020 – we need to bring the knowledge, skills, and interests of different communities and their diverse constituents, both male and female, to bear on the global effort. Only then will it be possible to reestablish resilient ecosystems that yield gender-equitable benefits to present and future generations.

At the very least, we must consult both men and women when looking for the best species to introduce into a degraded landscape. How else will we know which will bear the sweetest fruit?

This piece by Marlene Elias is the first case study in IUCN’s Gender and Restoration case study story series, prepared with the assistance of Aaron Reuben. To read other case studies and learn more about how gender must be considered in restoration planning and implementation, visit our homepage for the series and read our introductory blog.


View of logging road in the Cameroon Forests