Sri Lanka is known for its black tea.  This is a tea plantation in the hill country.  Credit: Erika Drazen

TRI Field Notes: Prioritizing Gender for REDD+ Implementation in Sri Lanka

by Erika Drazen, 2015 TRI Fellow in Sri Lanka

I set out this summer on a nearly impossible task: to trace the invisible. My research started back in October when I attended a conference called “Regional Dialogue on Women’s Inclusion in Landscape Management” led by an organization called Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (WOCAN). I had read about the new discipline of Collaborative Event Ethnography, and thought that this approach should go beyond analyzing the conference itself and include the results and outcomes of the event.

As the graduate school experience of attending conferences became familiar, I began to question their larger benefits. What were the benefits? Were they worth the cost in time, money, and carbon footprint? To answer these questions, I am following something that seems invisible: the translation of knowledge from conference to implementation in a case study of UN REDD Programme. In attempting to trace the invisible this summer, I have found that there is as much to learn from absence as there is from presence.

After spending my first week at the UN Regional Headquarters in Bangkok where I met with my key informant from the WOCAN dialogue, I headed to Sri Lanka for the duration of my research. I had planned my visit since last December, where I was supposed to work with two consultants conducting research on targeted support on gender.

Women from an agrobiodiversity project on traditional tuber varieties.  This project, which won the Equator Prize, helps the women earn an income separate to her husband and become more self-sufficient.

Women from an agrobiodiversity project on traditional tuber varieties. This project, which won the Equator Prize, helps the women earn an income separate to her husband and become more self-sufficient.

In January, however, national elections were held and Maithripala Sirisena, a former agriculturalist, won the presidency from the incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rahapaska is credited with ending the war and jumpstarting development in Sri Lanka, but was also criticized for corruption. The change in government and changes in officials delayed the country’s REDD process. REDD readiness works closely with governments to support the national-level policy and institutional arrangements necessary to begin REDD projects and receive international funding. Since the REDD process was not yet in the implementation phase, I adapted my research accordingly. I spent most of my time in Colombo interviewing relevant UN staff and government officials discussing their views on gender and REDD.

In addition to my research on REDD, an independent study with Professor Amity Doolittle created the opportunity to conduct a case study on the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP). I am examining the factors that enable successful broader adoption of their projects Sri Lanka, one of five case study sites around the world. While for the REDD project I have been “studying up” and therefore staying mostly in Colombo, the SGP project was a chance to see some of the countryside. I visited a project addressing saltwater intrusion, another on conservation of a endemic fish species, an agrobiodiversity project on tuber varieties, one on rush and reed handicrafts, and a project raising awareness of chemicals in pesticides. While REDD has a top-down structure, SGP takes a more bottom up approach.

These two seemingly disparate projects actually intersect in a novel way. Sri Lanka is one of six countries in the world that is piloting Community Based REDD+ projects. The UN REDD Programme describes CBR+ as “a partnership between the UN-REDD Programme and the GEF Small Grants Programme to deliver grants directly to indigenous peoples and communities to empower them to fully engage in the design, implementation and monitoring of REDD+ readiness activities, and develop experiences, lessons, and recommendations at the local level that can feed into national REDD+ processes.” I had the privilege of observing the final decision making meeting where the grantees were decided. Eight projects were selected, focusing on a specific geographic and thematic area dictated by the CBR+ Country Plan, and will be implemented within the upcoming year.

It is hard to believe that my time on this beautiful, fascinating and complex island is drawing to a close. I only have one more week left until I head back to Bangkok to present the initial findings of my research. Aside from learning extensively about REDD and SGP, there have been other lessons from my time in Sri Lanka. Firstly, people always appreciate it when you take time to learn their culture or their language. Secondly, being flexible in your plans and your research is imperative. Things change and get delayed. Timing was a serious constraint for my research, and the summer seems too short. Lastly, living on what is known to some as the “little big island” means that you are never more than two degrees of separation away from the illustrious Professor Mark Ashton.

“TRI Field Notes” share the stories of TRI Fellows as they conduct independent summer research throughout the tropics.  The Tropical Resources Institute (TRI) is a center at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.  For more information on research and fellowships visit