20, June, 2013

ELLA Expert Review: Improving Small Farmer Adaptive Capacity in Semi-arid Regions

Here Dr. Antonio Oviedo, PhD, Programme Officer of the Amazon Programme at WWF-Brazil, offers his perspective on the ELLA knowledge materials on Climate Change Adaptation in Semi-arid Regions.

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ELLA Expert Reviews: As part of ongoing efforts to ensure quality in our research and communications, the ELLA team asks recognised experts to conduct reviews of the knowledge materials in a given theme and produce a short written response. The purpose is to highlight a range of distinct perspectives amongst experts in the field and link readers with additional research, cases and arguments that the original ELLA materials may not cover.

In the spirit of discussion and debate, we encourage you to share your own comments about the ELLA materials and the review in the comments section below.

Given the varied nature of climate change hazards - such as droughts, heat waves, flooding and storms - the stresses caused by the increasing frequency and variability of these events on rural livelihoods are expected to have two major impacts on small-scale farmers. Firstly, existing livelihood options will be reduced. And second, in the short to medium term, there will be greater unpredictability in streams of livelihoods benefits - both direct (i.e. agricultural yield) and indirect (i.e. environmental services) - with semi-arid regions being especially vulnerable to these changes. There are major uncertainties concerning how organisations of small-scale farmers will experience and be affected by climate change. It is therefore imperative that policy interventions focus on building the adaptive capacity of these farmers, rather than on identifying specifically how a given group will be affected by climate change.

The ELLA Guide: Improving Small Farmers' Adaptive Capacity in Semi-arid Regions and the 3 Policy Briefs provide some basic information on climate change adaptation in semi-arid ecosystems including ecological context, types of climate change impacts and a brief description of different adaptation practices. In a general sense, the examples provided in the ELLA materials illustrate potential for climate change adaptation at the household level, but are these measures effective at the ecosystem level? For example, household rainwater tanks and earth dams when combined with well-constructed infrastructure and a high level of coordination across households and collective groups are effective measures against livelihood failures. However, such interventions are no quick-fix and require lengthy processes for participatory management and decision making. The difference lies not in what the intervention is, but in the inputs to the intervention. It is not what the community is doing, but why and with what knowledge.

One important issue that is not addressed in the ELLA materials is scaling-up. Local and regional institutions, such as small-scale farmers’ unions, town halls, schools, and inter-municipal and regional councils, play a vital role in the acquisition, distribution and monitoring of climate change adaptation strategies at landscape level (e.g. river basins), thereby affecting the degree of success and scalability of such practices. Other crucial factors that facilitate the effective scaling-up of adaptation strategies are interventions by external institutions, funding agencies, outside NGOs, and at some level the federal government, along with local collective action. These include disseminating information to reduce the unpredictability associated with climate-related events and trends, technical advances leading to higher crop yields or higher resource productivity and financial and investment support to facilitate more widespread technological changes.  This also includes efforts to reduce the costs of collective action, such as investments in capacity building, leadership training and participatory spaces to improve engagement and monitoring of compliance with rules and practices. The Adapta Sertão experience in Brazil, covered in the ELLA Case Study Brief, provides an important example of how a multi-stakeholder partnership can help to support the scaling-up of successful adaptation strategies.

Another issue I would highlight with regard to the ELLA materials is communication and information. It is common for publications to stress the importance of effective communication about climate change in order to enhance awareness and increase understanding of the subject, as well as ensure continuous engagement of policymakers, social actors and the general public. It is also important to mention key limitations relating to the ways that information is generated and how it is communicated. Climate change is a confusing concept to many. Communication about climate change must therefore be made in a community’s own language and in terms they can understand and which are relevant to the contexts in which they live. This means not only translating scientific texts into local languages but also producing communications materials especially for community audiences.

In this sense, it would be very positive if ELLA materials were adapted for community use. In Brazil, the Climate Witness Project run by the WWF is capturing local perceptions and designing adaptation practices in traditional communities. The case of the Manoel Urbano fishermen in Acre state, western Brazil, shows that a lack of information, or also information that can be misinterpreted or is presented at too large of a geographic scale for farmers to visualize local impact, only confuses community members and reduces their interest in continuing to participate in the adaptation initiative or project.

Adding to the case study examples included in the materials, I would highlight the following initiatives being carried out in Brazil:

(i) Adaptive Capacity and Barriers to Climate Change (WWF-Brazil). This initiative focuses on the adaptation processes of traditional Amazon communities, whose livelihoods focus on farming, fishing and harvesting rubber. The choice of a particular adaptation practice has important implications in relation to the number and types of barriers that will arise in its implementation, barriers that will have to be dealt with through the choice of different adaptation practices.[1] The transformation of farming or any productive systems will help users to overcome obstacles that are more complex than those resolved by implementing adaptation measures designed to respond to a specific climate change event. In order to understand the reasons for the emergence of a specific barrier in adaptation processes, the WWF initiative uses an analytical approach based on socio-ecological systems[2] and the adaptive management cycle[3].  For example, the ELLA Policy Brief: Water and Climate Change: Improving Access and Management in Semi-Arid Brazil shows that in isolated communities where water management must be improved to reduce scarcity, it is not only necessary to identify the physical facilities required to improve access to water resources. Instead, it is also vital to understand the changes that must occur in users and in institutions and the way they interact, including perceptions and ways of thinking about the environment, the use of information and strategies for collaborative decision making in conjunction with other government bodies. Users and institutions will only achieve such changes if the governance system in which they live is also adapted to them and to their needs.

(ii) The Varzea Project (IPAM/WWF) promotes the co-management of fisheries in the lower Amazon. I highlight below some of the project’s key lessons[4] that relate to institutional arrangements and collective action, as these are relevant to similar initiatives in semi-arid areas

  • The central problems of community management are organisational rather than technical and have to do with creating the conditions under which individuals can work together to achieve common objectives
  • Communities want more government participation, not less, but they want government support for their rules, which are not necessarily those of government policy
  • Creating a formal co-management system requires not just new policies, but new institutions and new roles, and developing new ways for stakeholders to relate to each other
  • For community work, first start with a core group of committed individuals with a clear idea of their overall objective, rather than seeking to convince an entire community to participate.  If successful, others will join the initiative later
  • Emphasise concrete actions that generate visible returns and build confidence in the group’s capacity to work together to accomplish common objectives.  These returns do not need to be economic, but do need to show that objectives are being achieved

Overall, where I think the ELLA materials succeed is in highlighting four important points. Firstly, local institutions are ubiquitous in local-level rural efforts to adapt to climate variability. It is important to highlight this point because of the nature of debate about the role of institutions in climate change adaptation. Such discussions tend to focus on national and state-level institutions considered necessary for facilitating adaptation, and miss the point that adaptation is inherently local and therefore it is critical to include local institutions in adaptation planning and implementation. The ELLA case studies, however, provide little detail about which institutions were involved in the adaptation practices being described and what role they played.

The second point to be highlighted from the ELLA materials is the importance of civil society groups in adaptation processes, either as individual actors or in collaboration with public institutions. Civil society institutions are not only active in facilitating different kinds of adaptation practices; they also often play a mediatory role between external agencies and local communities.

The third point is that learning itself requires practice and monitoring. It is not possible to learn the theory behind the cases presented in the ELLA materials at a university or during a training workshop and then apply it in the field; rather learning comes from the practice itself. Adaptation is a classic case of learning by doing or ‘action-research’.

Finally, it is worth highlighting that unlike the situation for climate change mitigation, private and market institutions have been relatively absent in facilitating adaptation in rural areas. This absence represents a potential area where governments could begin to design incentives to attract private institutions to take on a more central role in facilitating adaptation.

[1] For a longer discussion of these barriers, see: Oviedo, A. 2012. Adaptive Capacity and Limitations to Climate Change. Paper presented at the 6th Community based adaptation conference, April 2012, Hanoi.

[3] Margolius, R., Salafsky, N. 1998. Measures of Success: Designing, Managing and Monitoring Conservation and Development Projects. Island Press, Washington, DC.

[4] For a more extensive discussion of these lessons, see: WWF. 2008. Developing Community-based Management Systems for the Amazon Floodplain. WWF, IPAM, Brasilia.

Dr. Antonio Oviedo has a PhD in Public Policies and Environmental Science from the University of Brasilia, Brazil, a master’s degree in Geography from the University of São Paulo, Brazil, and a degree in Agronomic Engineering from the University of Taubaté, São Paulo, Brazil. He has 26 years of experience in crop-weather modelling and adaptive management of natural resources. Since March 2001, he has been the Programme Officer for the Amazon Programme at WWF-Brazil. Previously he was a professor at the University of Taubaté in the Agronomic, Geography and Architecture Departments, and he has developed projects and scientific research in LBA-NASA, INPE (National Institute of Space Research), EMBRAPA (Brazilian Agricultural Research Agency), World Meteorological Organization and the Environmental Secretary in the Jacareí Town Hall - São Paulo, Brazil.


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