31, January, 2013

ELLA Expert Review: Reflections on the Definition of Adaptation Initiatives in Latin America’s Mountain Regions

Here Dr. Jorge Recharte, Director of the Andean Programme at the Mountain Institute (TMI), presents his perspective on the ELLA knowledge materials on Climate Change Adaptation in Mountain Environments.

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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.

The aim of the ELLA documents – elaborated by a team of Practical Action specialists with a long history of experience working in Latin America – is to capture best practices in adaptation to climate change in mountain regions of Latin America, in particular the lessons that could be potentially shared with other continents. The effort makes sense considering that some impacts expected from climate variability and change, such as droughts and floods, will pose similar challenges to mountain peoples across different continents.

However there is a crucial step that it is not clear in the ELLA documents: defining what is meant by an intervention that aims to improve adaptation to climate change.  It is one thing to consider extant technological or other institutional adaptations to climate which are intrinsic to all production systems in stochastic environments like tropical mountains. Considering that adaptation actions – whether spontaneous or planned – are those that respond to specific climate impacts affecting specific resources in specific contexts, readers can profit from the extensive review conducted by ELLA by asking themselves how to apply the technologies or actions to respond to the concrete climate stresses affecting their locality.

In the ELLA materials, the researchers have included a wide array of best practices in agriculture, agroforestry, water management and local knowledge that is associated with decades of successful rural development in the Latin America region and with millennia of indigenous technological development. Clearly, in a general sense, the examples reviewed in the ELLA research illustrate potential for environmental adaptation, but are these the same as adaptation to climate variability and change?

Making the distinction between, on the one hand, adaptation to the colossal consequences of ongoing changes in the climate of mountain regions and, on the other hand, historical environmental adaptations, is crucial.  One often hears some variant of this observation: climate change adaptation projects are business as usual in rural development, except that they use new climate-related jargon.  Instead, I want to argue that we are facing a different context, and therefore we should be explicit about what it is meant by adaptation to climate change. My own perspective on this issue developed during my time as a practitioner managing the implementation of an adaptation project in the high mountains of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.

I therefore reviewed the ELLA documents from the following assumption: Are the best practices or examples of adaptation initiatives that are reviewed at the national, regional or local scales responses to specific tensions or stresses originating in climate variability or change? Actually, I would argue that only some of the experiences covered fall under this specific category that I have in mind.  Examples like the agroforestry case study, institutional actions like countries’ national climate change adaptation plans, or the study of glacier recession are the most obvious of those that take a specifically climate change adaptation focus.

Prior to pointing to some examples of these kinds of initiatives, I would like to make my point more explicit.

Defining adaptation – including actions and initiatives – as responses to specific climate impacts calls for spelling out what are the most significant expected impacts on landscapes, production systems and human society in general, and at any given scale, from subnational to local. This in turns calls for an understanding of coupled societal and bio-physical vulnerabilities, such as the nature and significance of impacts on specific resources, both currently and under future socio-economic and climatic scenarios.

From this perspective, one first general point to consider is the fact that high elevation areas in the tropics are warming more rapidly than areas lower in altitude.  This means that impacts will be felt earlier in high mountain areas than in the lowlands, and that mountains are subject to more extreme climate events, loss of frozen soils, and hence instability and increase in the risk of glacial lake outbursts in glacier areas.  In addition, there is the likely upward expansion of lower ecosystems belts that will extinguish alpine belts, like the páramo or puna, that play a major role in regulating water.[i]

High-altitude mountains, like the Andes, are facing specific and very large impacts associated with global warming and possibly changes in the frequency of El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events.[ii]  For example, it can be reasonably assumed that in a few decades, glaciers in southern Peru and Bolivia will lose most of their capacity to regulate water in the dry season. At the scale of major watersheds, like the Cordillera Blanca, this is estimated to be near 30%.[iii]  However, at more local scales, this climatic stress will affect in even more dramatic ways the mountain ecosystems located below the glaciers and the livelihoods of communities living there. For example, natural and artificial bofedales (wetlands) may simply vanish if small, nearby glaciers disappear. In this context, alpaca herders will need to explore viable responses to this specific impact. As noted in the ELLA documents, there are valuable experiences demonstrating that improving genetics of Andean camelidae offers an option to adaptation. However, it is crucial to ask the question of how to apply this knowledge to the principal climatic stress affecting herders.

In this sense it is worthwhile to call the attention of ELLA readers to the need to review initiatives that are structured as responses to specific climatic impacts in mountains.  ELLA readers can benefit by working on specific cases of climatic stress affecting livelihoods and then assess to what degree the extensive mapping conducted by the ELLA research team is applicable and relevant to the adaptation programmes they are working on. Adding to the initiatives already included in the materials, I would highlight for readers the following important programmes being carried out in Latin America:

  • Adaptation to the Impact of Accelerated Glacier Retreat in the Tropical Andes (Andean Community World Bank – GEF): Implemented in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, this project specifically addresses adaptation to the loss of glaciers and the impacts of this loss on hydrology, agricultural production and energy. The initiative differentiates impacts at local, watershed and national scales.
  • Peaks to Coast (The Mountain Institute – USAID Peru): This initiative specifically addresses rapid glacier loss in Peru’s Cordillera and the reduction in the capacity of glaciers to regulate water in the dry season. It focuses on impacts at the level of puna and páramo ecosystems and in the human communities affected by glacier loss. Following stakeholder vulnerability analysis, actions selected as adaptation actions were mostly related to the design and implementation of institutional and technical alternatives at the level of large grassland landscapes. The initiative works on impacts at local scales (hundreds of km2) and at the scale of larger watersheds (12,000 km2).
  • Strengthening Climate Change Adaptive Capacity of Local Governments and Organisations in Southern Peru (AEDES, USAID Peru): Focused at local, sub-watershed scales, the initiative focuses on capacity building based on application of risk management and adaptive practices with local organisations, municipal governments and Peruvian NGOs.  It builds on the ADAPTS project which was also designed as a response to climate change stress on water supply. The project responded through adaptation actions dealing with information, local technology interventions and policy dialogues.
  • Climate Change Adaptation Programme (Ministry of Environment of Peru, SDC): Located in Cusco and other parts of southern Peru, it focuses on impacts of climate variability and future scenarios at the scale of sub-watersheds (a few hundred km2) and at the regional level (Cusco).  The project integrates local with regional and national scales. At the local level, it develops research on impacts of current and future climate stress on rural livelihoods and implements applied participatory research on technologies that respond to these climatic tensions.  Regional level work focuses on policy development, such as the Regional Climate Change Strategy and development of glacier monitoring capacities.
  • Implementing Adaptation Actions in the Santa, Mayo, Piura and Mantaro Basins (MINAM/IDB):The project intervenes in watersheds located in mountain settings, working on several integrated levels to identify vulnerabilities in each watershed and establish local adaptation plans and technical support to design public investment interventions that address vulnerabilities. The Santa basin site is implemented with a focus on reduction of risks of glacial lake outbursts (GLOF).


Finally, below I review each of the four Briefs produced as part of the package of ELLA materials.  The following points may also help readers of the ELLA documents apply the materials to more specific climatic impacts and use these examples to explore how these Latin American best practices can actually be applied to field conditions in other regions.

Brief: Key Advances in Water Management and Climate Change Adaptation in Latin America’s Mountains

As noted in the Guide, efforts to study climate change impacts on water have been scaled-up precisely because of the visibility of climate change impacts on glaciers and the consequences for water regulation in countries like Peru that is home to over 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers. However, it is necessary to be even more specific in order to interpret what may be useful adaptation practices. For instance, glacier recession has different impacts at different scales of basins, and these impacts take place with different timings along the watershed. Thus, partial glacier recession may dry a local bofedal dramatically, affecting the herders’ livelihoods, while at the same time it increases access to water in lower sections of the watershed for a short while until the water in the ‘bank’ is emptied.  Do we have examples of adaptation in Latin America that show cooperation between watershed users at local and larger scales, between rural and urban centres, or between smallholder farmers and industrial farms in the same watershed?  This is perhaps one of the most significant adaptation actions required.  Some of the examples discussed above, such as the ‘Peaks to Coast’ or  ‘Adaptation to the Impact of Accelerated Glacier Retreat in the Tropical Andes’ initiatives, illustrate this approach to adaptation.

Brief: Strengthening Agrobiodiversity: A Key Adaptation Strategy for Latin America’s Mountain Ecosystems

Since crops are highly exposed and sensitive to climate impacts, mountain people’s livelihoods are therefore quite vulnerable to both variability and changes in climate.  Andean farming systems have evolved over millennia to adapt to mountain micro-climates that are highly unpredictable, and to expected inter-annual variability and even decadal fluctuations. Historically, Andean farmers had their own ‘food insurance’ mechanisms to guard against climate related variations in crop output.  For example, alpaca products were traded for crops through inter-valley exchange systems that are known to be related to adaptation to extreme decadal climate events.  Farm and off-farm markets have, to a large extent, replaced these mechanisms over the last 50 to 70 years.

Though I agree that traditional crop systems and agrobiodiversity are essential to climate adaptation, we also need to assume that it is possible that the entire production system may become out of step with known extremes of climate variability or more dramatic changes. For example, ifbofedales dry out in the Andes’ glacial valleys, then improving productivity of alpaca herds is not in itself an adaptation response.  Instead, adaptation must take place at the level of the entire system. This is a challenge that to my knowledge is not being addressed in Latin America.

Brief: How Traditional Knowledge and Technologies are Contributing to Climate Change Adaptation in Latin America’s Mountains

Again I would argue that the technologies mapped in the paper tell us little about their significance for adaptation by themselves. For example, waru waru – raised fields along Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and Peru – evolved as strategies to adapt to decadal fluctuations in the level of lake shores associated with ENSO cycles.  Therefore, to describe this technology as having potential to become an adaptation to climate change action requires the technology to be assessed against future climate scenarios. If the lake lowers a few meters over the following decades, then the technology may become irrelevant. It all depends on the nature of the climate stress affecting farming along the shores of the lake.

The information presented by the reviewers demonstrates the value of local knowledge for adaptation. A potential application of local knowledge is to map detailed perceptions of impacts associated with climate at local scales. Considering the uncertainties and the cost of climate down-scaling to sub-national geographic areas, local knowledge acquires exceptional importance as a means for detecting what climatic stress affects people in each location. Mapping local responses from the knowledge perspective of land users may provide powerful tips for effective adaptation strategies and for selecting promising indigenous technologies. Local knowledge, as it has been pointed out by ELLA researchers, can be a most powerful tool in response to the need to design adaptation initiatives that respond to local climate stress. The Brief does point to some anthropological studies of climate in the Andes, such as from J. Earls[iv] and others, that could be further explored in this direction.

Brief: Innovative Mountain Adaptation: A Case Study in Agroforestry’s Economic, Environmental and Social Benefits

This Brief provides a good example of the importance of making the linkage to climate explicit within adaptation actions. All over the world, smallholder production is facing serious challenges such as soil erosion, declining productivity and migration, among others.  Climate change and increased variability is accentuating this negative trend.  Agroforestry programmes are a good example of so-called ‘no-regret’ adaptation actions, because restoring landscapes is essential to improving natural and social resilience to climate change impacts. Therefore, identifying incentives that can effectively move smallholders to invest labour and resources in landscape restoration, such as the example presented in the case study of coffee and cacao production through a landscape approach, is a no-regret strategy. This is an excellent example of linking climate stress to building the resilience of mountain farming systems and landscapes.

Overall, climate change adaptation in the context of smallholder production systems is fundamentally a knowledge-based process.  Therefore in this sense, the Guide and Briefs capture a wide range of Latin American experience that could be mobilised for adaptation.  I do agree with the purpose of the documents: to capture the ‘significant experience’ that Latin American countries have to offer.  However, to achieve this purpose requires us to pose the question of what we mean by an adaptation project as a framework in order to interpret the value of the Latin American experience.

[i] These and other research issues on mountain climates can be explored at http://mri.scnatweb.ch/. Additional research in Spanish focused on the Andean region can be found at http://www.cambioclimatico-bolivia.org/index-cc.php.

[iii] Baraer, M. et al. 2012. Glacier Recession and Water Resources in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Journal of Glaciology 58(207) 134-150.

[iv] Earls, J. 2006. The Andes and the Evolution of Coordinated Environmental Control.  Internet-Zeitschroft fur Kulturwissenschaften, Das Open Source Dorf – The Open Source Village, No. 16, Vienna. 

Jorge Recharte (Ph.D, Anthropology, Cornell University, 1989) has been the Director of the Andean Programme of the Mountain Institute (TMI) since 1997, based in Peru. The initiative develops ecosystem conservation and cultural affirmation programmes, including in the páramo ecosystem that extends through Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, and cultural landscape conservation projects associated with the ancestral Inca road system. He worked in Ecuador between 1994 and 1996 for the Latin American Social Science Faculty (FLACSO), designing and managing a graduate education and research programme dedicated to mountain ecosystems and societies. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of The Common Good Institute (IBC) and the Institute for the Promotion of Water Management (IPROGA).


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