Farmers in the poorer areas of the world are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The international community is expected to step up efforts to help them adapt to the new circumstances. TBI stresses that such interventions will need to be designed based on a profound understanding of local perceptions and needs.
Between 31 October and 12 November, leaders from 196 countries will meet in Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. The need to act with urgency has never been clearer, as was stressed in the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is widely recognized that countries will need to increase commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition to emission reductions, COP26 will also be used to discuss ways to help countries with adapting to the effects of climate change that are unavoidable. Countries in the Global South are centre stage in this discussion, as their populations are particularly vulnerable to climate-related stresses and shocks, such as droughts and floods. In a joint statement, a group of more than 100 developing countries demands that at least 50% of climate finance is used to help the most vulnerable to adapt to the impacts of global warming.
Supporting mitigation and adaptation in the landscape
An increasing number of NGO-led initiatives aim to combine mitigation and adaptation objectives, by better managing trees and forests in climate-smart landscapes. This usually implies support for agroforestry, restoration and sustainable forest management. Climate-smart landscape management increases the absorption of carbon, while at the same time decreasing people’s vulnerability, because forests and agroforests are more resistant to the effects of climate change than monocultures. Moreover, they provide environmental services that are crucial to sustain long term agricultural production in the face of climate change, such as the reduction of soil erosion and the regulation of water cycles and local temperatures.
However, if such climate-smart landscape initiatives do not account for local perspectives and short term needs, they are not likely to be successful. Developing effective programmes requires a profound understanding of people’s current adaptation strategies and how those are influenced by their perceptions of climate change and vulnerability. Tropenbos Indonesia and Tropenbos Ghana therefore developed and implemented approaches to assess local perceptions related to climate stressors, adaptation and vulnerability. The results were used to inform ongoing initiatives in the Indonesian Ketapang landscape, and in the Ghanaian Sefwi-Wiawso, Juabeso and Bia landscape.
The Indonesian assessment laid bare a tension between the objectives of the ongoing landscape initiative on the one hand, and the prevalent perceptions of farmers on the other. The landscape initiative aims to decrease farmers’ dependence on monocultural oil palm cultivation, because it is thought to increase people’s vulnerability in the long term, for example through draining peatlands and increasing the risk of fires. Moreover, studies have suggested that oil palm is highly susceptible to production losses when faced with prolonged droughts. At the community level, however, there was very little awareness of these risks. In fact, many farmers considered oil palm to be less vulnerable to climate change than most other crops, and therefore thought of oil palm cultivation as an important adaptation strategy.
The Ghanaian assessment found that farmers are actively taking on adaptation measures, such as the integration of trees on cocoa farms and crop diversification. However, farmers stressed they still face many barriers to further develop such adaptation strategies, mostly due to a lack of access to financial capital and government support. This finding stresses that NGO programmes to support adaptation should build on ongoing efforts, as developed by the farmers themselves, and should focus on taking away barriers, while increasing incentives.
In both Indonesia and Ghana, the assessments underlined that farmers perceive their vulnerabilities as the result of both climatic and non-climatic threats (and the quality of the responses to those). So, adaptation actions are often informed by a broad combination of changes, and there is a need to recognize and understand the interplay between the various climatic and non-climatic stressors.
When promoting adaptation in climate-smart landscapes, intervening organizations need to be aware of the ways in which farmers understand their own vulnerabilities, and what they are already doing in response to changes. This will help to understand differences in perceptions between various actors, and possible trade-offs. It will also help to uncover knowledge gaps concerning the long term outcomes of short term adaptation strategies. There is thus a need for two-way communication, where practitioners listen to what farmers have to say, and also actively share knowledge with them. Only then will interventions align with local priorities, while effectively addressing gaps in knowledge and awareness that may exist.