A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil, Jakarta – Enik Maslahah, 49, is quite attuned to the environment she lives in, despite being a relatively recent transplant to Kalimantan.
As a facilitator of Kemitraan's Villages Care For Peatland (DPG) program in South Kalimantan, she has found a link between the quality of the handicraft that women from her local community make from purun, a type of sedge grass found in swampy areas, and the condition of the peatland they live on.
"If the purun handicrafts that get produced are not of good quality, it indicates that the peatland here has degraded and is no longer fertile," Enik said in a recent statement.
"On the other hand, [making purun crafts] is a source of income for the local women."
Since migrating to Amuntai, the capital of North Hulu Sungai regency in 2017, the mother of one has become more aware of the link between the oppression of the environment and the oppression of women.
In her own community, the lack of access to jobs weighs heavily on the local customs, preventing women from taking on outdoor work that could pay the bills. Most women resort to making purun handicrafts instead, Enik said.
Even at the village council meetings, where residents are usually empowered to speak up about issues that affect their communities, people don't always take women seriously.
"Coming from a background of low income and education, purun craftswomen find it hard to muster the courage to participate in village planning discussions," she said.
Women are playing an increasingly critical role in rural communities that both protect and rely on peatland for a living, but existing social barriers give them very few chances to empower themselves and their communities, especially when it comes to conserving the environment.
The Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) recently found some evidence to suggest that women make for better caretakers of peatland than men, according to its Villages Care For Peatland Index (IDPG) issued late last year.
It measures the progress in restoration efforts seen in 172 villages, out of the total 257 villages observed in 2019.
According to the index, about 65 percent of villages that had women facilitate the program have shown marked progress, while only 5 percent are worse off. The results are comparable to those of community efforts led by men, with 66 percent showing progress and 6 percent getting downgraded.
The index found that 89 percent of peatland villages led by women had gained "adaptive, restored or empowered" status, while 85 percent of those led by men got similar results. Only a third of all DPG program facilitators in 2019 were women.
While the results are nowhere near conclusive, BRG deputy for promotional education and partnerships Myrna A. Safitri said the figures were worth looking into, especially in the context of eco-feminism.
"We haven't really dug into the reason these figures emerged like this. We will leave that to the researchers," Myrna said in a recent virtual discussion.
The IDPG is used internally by the BRG to measure the progress that the program has achieved to formulate its annual work program. The agency aims to establish the program in 500 villages by the end of 2020.
Myrna said that the women facilitators of the DPG program showed a higher level of professionalism than the men and an ability to persuade other villagers to participate in restoration efforts.
They have been able to educate local residents about farming on peatland without resorting to slash-and-burn methods, and more recently, they persuaded local women to sew masks to distribute for free to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the rural community.
But they still have a hard time with the power relations that put women at a disadvantage, especially in bureaucracy.
"Even though they have been given the chance [to empower their communities], the current social structures have made it impossible for women to gain leadership roles," Myrna said.
Their relationship with poverty also has much to do with how women relate to conservation efforts.
On Kalimantan and Sumatra, where peatland fires still often occur annually, traditional farmers used to employ slash-and-burn methods to clear land for agricultural production.
Since the massive forest fires of 2015, the government has actively discouraged such tactics with the threat of criminal charges.
But unlike rural men, who have more employment alternatives, women often have no choice but to commit destructive deeds to keep their families afloat.
Men and women have different responses to the loss of local sources of income, according to a study conducted by Daju Resosudarmo, an environment researcher at the Australian National University (ANU).
While men tend to migrate outside their communities to look for jobs, women are often forced to stay at home and carry the burden of becoming both breadwinner and domestic worker – and even putting out the fires on peatland.
"They would often describe themselves as mothers and fathers at the same time," she said last week.
Burning peatland, while destructive to the environment, provides opportunities to convert peatland into more productive rice fields, and the ashes that result from the blaze can be used as fertilizer. Refraining from such practices would have a great impact on rural women's livelihoods.
"Mothers tend to think about the consequences [of stopping the use of slash-and-burn methods] in their households," Dayu said.
For Enik, the DPG program provides ways out for women who find themselves pinching pennies, including by setting up Women and Peatland support groups.
"These groups are important for women living in areas near peatland, [...] providing them a space to improve themselves and express their ideas, as well as improve their self-confidence," she said.