With her small stature, thoughtful gaze and warm smile, at first glance, Piwen Langarap comes across as a quiet grandmother of 60 years or so. But once she starts talking, you quickly realise how appearances belie this powerhouse personality that has been leading conservation in her small island community of Pere village, in Manus Province, Papua New Guinea, for more than thirteen years. Piwen’s passionate leadership, as well as her determination to care for the environment and her people comes blazing through.
In March, in honor of International Women’s Day, we celebrate women and all the contributions they make to business, society and life. Unfortunately, the participation of women is not always seen as integral to success in environmental conservation. However, in the Asia Pacific region, Piwen and many other women like her are changing these views by becoming leaders in conservation and role models in their communities.
Piwen has been supporting conservation in her community and now increasingly focuses her efforts on elevating the voices of other women and helping them become leaders in their own right. She has been elected by her peers to coordinate women across Papua New Guinea to share experiences and best practices for leadership. As Piwen says, “Women are best suited to lead conservation in the communities, because as mothers we are concerned about food. Conservation is about food security, water security, income generation and livelihoods, which are the concerns of a mother.”
As it does in other parts of the world, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is working with Piwen and her peers to support their emerging leadership in managing the natural resources they depend on. “In the past, the traditional role of women in my community was mainly confined to household chores like cooking, laundry, fishing, washing sago, gardening, taking care of children and submitting to orders from their husbands, because men are the heads of the family and are male leaders of the extended family and are also the leaders of the clans they are married to,” said Piwen.
But today, through partnerships such as with TNC, women are encouraged to participate in leadership roles, in income-generation projects, decision-making and in forming groups for advocating women’s development needs in the community. “Many of the traditional roles of women in my community have changed with new roles being integrated into women’s roles. Today, we see more women in our communities participating in decision-making processes as well as working in partnership with men in advancing developments,” says Piwen.
For example, women in Piwen’s province are taking the lead on ensuring their own food security by seaweed farming. On their islands, the earth has been infiltrated by seawater due to climate change making traditional farming very difficult. So, the women collect seaweed that has washed up on the beaches and mix it with sand, which is then used as a type of fertilizer to help grow hearty African yams. These yams grow well in large plastic drums, and a good harvest can feed a family for a couple of weeks. The women are taking further steps and forming a support network to share lessons learned, new ideas and best practices. TNC is now supporting training so that women across the province can exchange ideas and learn new methods of growing drought- and salt-resistant crops, as well as composting.
“Women use the environment every day, so they are on the front line. I am leading women and conservation in my community. I am confident conservation will work, because if I can do the difficult work, I can help women, and together we will spread the work across Papua New Guinea,” says Piwen.
In Pere, and many communities in Asia Pacific, women are the primary resource managers for their families, growing and harvesting food and gathering water and firewood. In fact, women account for 60 to 80 percent of all food production in developing countries, yet they are often left out of decisions about how to manage the very natural resources they need to use to feed their families.
“At the community level, we are all completely dependent on our natural resources for our livelihood, and at the same time, we are affected by the impacts of climate change. We need to take action so that we can survive,” says Piwen.
The heavy responsibility they carry for food production means that the loss of natural resources is often felt disproportionally by women. When food, fuel and water resources become scarce, women and girls must travel farther and work harder to get them, which can place the women and girls in unsafe situations and lessen the time and resources available to them for education and economic opportunities. All of these factors perpetuate gender inequality.
A growing body of scientific evidence shows that increasing women’s ability to take care of their natural resources creates a win-win situation for nature and people while improving human well-being. It can empower women, increase employment opportunities, improve women’s ability to plan for their families and result in more positive outcomes for conservation. Women’s leadership not only helps other women, it can empower an entire community.
Piwen adds, “Since I started working on our environment, I’ve received so many blessings. I’ve seen the positive benefits in my life, which gives me the strength to continue. I have a great sense of satisfaction.”
For a short video from The Nature Conservancy, click here.