Rice, Rain, and Harvests: How Vision and Collaboration Can Put Climate Adaptation into Action

By Jessica Thorn, Biodiversity Institute in the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

With the closing of COP19 in Warsaw last month, some may be disappointed that negotiating parties put a hard stop around negotiating adaptation to climate change  for agriculture and land use. Rather than reaching concrete political commitments now, debates remain around what should be done for policy and science in the future. Considering the complex difficulties in bridging gaps between what is and what should be, it is not surprising that the burden will be continue fall on 2.5 billion people depending on subsistence agriculture. This only highlights the utility of considering the future for action now.

Jessica Thorn, of the Systemic Integrated Adaptation program of CCAFS (Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security) reports on an impact evaluation study that was conducted in Nepal in recent months. Her research assesses the impact of adaptations to land management of smallholders on ecosystem processes, goods, and services. And many of the themes that arise hone in on cooperation, collaboration, and knowledge sharing to develop more sustainable solutions.

Standing under the shelter of a local shop in Beora, I watch as women sort, weigh and record their harvest of beans, bottle gourd, tomatoes, and okra. I’m in the eastern region of the Terai Plains of Nepal and between the sounds of the monsoon rains flooding the surrounding rice fields, I listen to the story of Neta Chaudhury: She tells me at 12 years she was committed into an arranged marriage, and like many others in this subsistence community, was set to stay at home for the first 5 years. She couldn’t work or go to school. But one year ago, seeing the example of some women forming the Garima (Nepali for proud) farmer’s cooperative using communal land, and despite criticism received from community and family, she took the role of chair and is now seeing benefits.

With a unified vision, farmers have begun to generate income, improve their families’ nutritional intake, beautify the village, and reduce costs and time spent traveling to buy vegetables from neighboring towns. In the face of the impacts of climate change experienced by farmers across the Terai, this community is an example of what adaptation to climate change to ensure food security means at the local level.

In June 2013, I returned to Makrahar Village Development Committee (VDC), Rupandehi Nepal with Adeyemi Ademiluyi, the Systemic Integrated Adaptation (SIA) communications officer, to conduct a community-based impact evaluation of a climate change adaptation planning pilot program called Farms of the Future (FOTF), completed in summer of 2012. The pilot looked at how farmer exchanges could be used a basis for an exploratory scenarios exercise, embedded in a program to develop capacity for planning and decision-making under uncertainty and change.

This involved a 4-month period where farmers were taken to 3 diverse climate alternatives based on the Climate Analogues Tool. Farmers visited villages to the West – Dang, and to the East - Chitwan, to explore other responses to the environmental and social changes that are predicted for their own village for 2030 – a period conceivable within their lifespan to plan for. They were then involved in a series of community-wide training and planning processes, and received some seed funding to start to put what they had learnt into action.

Across Nepal’s breadbasket, smallholders have in the last 20 years observed a shift of the monsoon season by one month, increased intensity of rainfall, and shortened growing seasons. Farmers regularly are exposed to floods, and hotter months - resulting in crops losses from sedimentation or from surpassed temperature thresholds. Such changes mean farmers have to diversify to new cultivars such as peppermint and sunflower, new methods of cultivation through precision irrigation techniques, and managing new pest and disease vectors using integrated pest management.

Through exploring the perspectives of farmers and partner organizations involved in this project, I uncovered some of the perceived benefits and limitations of the program, which can inform efforts to support planning and decision-making of farmers dealing with impacts of climate change. These benefits highlight how smallholder farmers, through collaboration, reflection, and shared learning can work towards reducing poverty, and enhancing food security in the face of rapid environmental change.

Diversification of crops grown and the role of community farming through the Garima Farmers Cooperative came across as particularly beneficial. In addition to the cooperative’s plans to expand to varieties of vegetables that grow well in shortened growing seasons, a group savings scheme will enable reinvestment in community projects, like aquaculture and poultry farming. Coupled with the project’s soil conservation training on intercropping methods, beneficial and harmful pests, and the preparation of non-chemically based pesticides or fertilizers from a local organization, collaboration with the Forestry Office has meant farmers have started to consider areas beyond their farms, recognizing benefits of carbon sequestration, shade, aesthetic value, and enhanced soil fertility, and planting 500 leguminous trees and shrubs.

But besides these very tangible changes in management, benefits reached beyond community limits. Community-to-community knowledge exchanges helped to share best practices, particularly for those who did not partake in the initial pilot.  During the evaluation, some people also mentioned how participation in the program emphasized the value of education, and the opportunities such an education can bring.

Partnerships are key, and making those connections with well-established formal institutions - embedded in national government and bridging organizations - from the beginning can enhance local agencies’ understanding of real drivers of change, challenges, priorities, and innovations. Such partnerships can allow farmers access to a larger set of training programs and grants, and mean that local staff are trained in participatory rapid appraisal methods. Training on a wider set of skills, such as financial management, conflict mediation, basic literacy and numeracy, and organizational management, can improve the likelihood of updating to new technologies.

I had come to Nepal to ask the question of what is the potential for climate models to inform planning and decision-making, from the perspectives of farmers and those working with them. Working with a people with a great taste for food, celebration, and spirit of generosity and kindness, I uncovered lessons that may also help them find different ways of responding to unprecedented environmental change. As the farmers of the Terai have found value in exploring potential climate scenarios, the lessons from this experience can also help inform those working with small-holders in other contexts. Neta and farmers with whom she worked are examples of how a few committed individuals can make a difference, through brief exposure to options available to them.

Jessica Thorn is a DPhil student at the Biodiversity Institute, University of Oxford.

Read More:

Farms of the Future Photo Blog

Believable Climate Futures Explored by Nepalese - CCAFS Blog

Finding the Future for Farmers in Beora, Nepal - CCAFS Blog

Be on the look out for the upgrade of the Climate Analogues Tool.

Helfgott, A.,  Bailey, M., Sova, C., Thorn, J., Chaudhury, A., Vervoort, J., Upraity, V,, Ademiluyi, A., Kok, K. and Aggarwal, P. (2013) Exploratory exchanges and farms of the future. Technological forecasting and social change. Forthcoming.

Thorn, J. Impact Evaluation for Farms of the Future, Nepal and SIA. CCAFS Report. CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Copenhagen, Denmark.

All photos by Adeyemi Ademiluyi, Kalam Bahadur Chaudhury – May - June 2013

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