Situating climate change at the local level

Contributor: Dan Taylor

Farmers throughout the world are acutely aware of changes in the weather of late, but there is considerable uncertainty whether this is indeed the result of climate change. While the evidence for climate change itself is incontrovertible [i], the current discourse of climate change has ramifications, beyond its environmental impacts, on the lives and livelihoods of the poor [ii].

Attempts to raise awareness among communities is important, but the link between climate change and deforestation in a country such as Malawi, where Find Your Feet works, leads somewhat inevitably to the conclusion that farmers who cut down trees are to blame for it. Despite the need for greater conservation efforts – mitigation efforts require some behavioural changes from all of us – it is fair to say that their contribution to the onset of climate change is, in the scale of things, insignificant.

On the contrary, the overconsumption by people in the developed world is the main culprit [iii], followed by the rapidly expanding middle classes of the developing BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries and elsewhere with their transnational class allegiances.  Hence not only is this issue a question of science but of ethics as well: the right of the poor to engage in deliberations about our and their respective futures. While nothing more should be required to justify this point, it is worth reflecting – as an aside – on the mess national and international elites have made of things. So, rather than apportioning blame with rural communities in mind, positive recognition is needed for their environmental management role that links the conservation of agricultural and biological diversity to the direct actions of rural communities acting as custodians of the land and its resources.

This does not necessarily address their susceptibility to weather perturbations or longer-term climate change – sometimes population and other pressures are simply too great as in the case of traditional fisherfolk in Vietnam [iv] – of a potentially unprecedented nature, but it does acknowledge the role they can play in contributing to the solution [v]. However, the way the entire issue is conceptualised is critical as Aid is redirected to climate change under the assumption that climate change priorities converge with development priorities, although this is not supported by evidence [vi].

That climate change poses a threat to rural communities – and not least to the rest of us – should by now be self-evident, but this vulnerability can be balanced, and potentially mitigated, by broader and more inclusive processes of deliberative action. This can be done by providing the space for a rural voice to be heard [vii]. Given the marginality of the rural poor, the need for their participation is dismissed as unnecessary or not a priority, due to the high costs of getting remote, marginalised people to articulate their developmental aspirations and thereby be part of the process of democratic decision making.

This can be rebuffed in three ways: the first, already alluded to, is the importance of their environmental activities in conserving agricultural and biological diversity; the second is the intrinsic value of cultural diversity as a challenge to the prevailing, singular approach to the commodification of life in all its forms; and the third the right of all to engage as global citizens in the pursuit of social justice. The interwoven challenges of political representation, economic stability and environmental sustainability attain some form of denouement in the combination of the cultural and instrumental: that in recognising poor people’s right to participation we gain from their knowledge and practice.

I do not wish to fall into the trap of creating a dichotomy between tradition and modernity but must draw some distinction between the low input, sustainable farming systems of resource-poor farmers which have little impact on the environment and trap soil carbon and the high input systems that expend fossil fuels. The counter-argument that only big farms can feed the world is negated by research which demonstrates the efficiencies of the small family farm in all its manifestations and that ‘…peasants make up almost half the world’s peoples and they grow at least 70% of the world’s food’ [viii].

This point needs to be emphasised in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies so that local solutions build on what people know about their immediate environment,  through generations of observation and iterative learning, and move beyond the oversimplification inherent in ‘crisis narratives’ [ix].   Farmers may, depending on their perceptions of (seasonal) rainfall, vary their choice of crops or varieties, prepare a bigger or smaller area for planting, adjust planting dates, vary weeding patterns or extend the harvest season by increased use of wetlands or irrigation. They, or a family member, may indeed seek off-farm employment under certain circumstances, where this is a possibility. The opportunism inherent in such strategies is critical in understanding the lived experience of the rural poor.

It is in the light of this that we should applaud the manner in which new technologies are developed, adopted, adapted and appropriated by farmers to fit with their changing circumstances. The example of fertiliser ‘pellets’ in Malawi is instructive. Fertiliser pellets are one Malawian farmer’s adaption of compost manure-making and signify the organic intensification of a maize farming system incorporating higher plant population densities, strategic placement of plant nutrients and better soil moisture management [x]. Not only is the technology interesting as an example of farmer innovation more generally, but its method of diffusion was largely through Malawi radio. In this sense, traditional agriculture is decidedly modern.

A changing repertoire of practices is informed by a recalibrated calculus of risk as farmers cautiously seek new possibilities, grasp new opportunities and adapt to new challenges in their physical and economic environment. Climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies are a challenge too great to go it alone. As well as environmental choices, climate change will involve social, economic and political decisions that will sometimes have conflicting goals. But, irrespectively, solutions guided by principles of social justice will need to recognise the complex livelihood approaches of resource-poor farmers and afford them a say in decision making that affects them: including the right to say ‘No!’

Dan Taylor has been the Director of Find Your Feet, an international UK NGO, for the past 17 years. Previously he was the Director of the Centre for Low Input Agricultural Research and Development in South Africa. He has a PhD in Anthropology and is a Tutor in International Development at the Open University


[i] Gleick, P., Adams, R., Amasino, R., et al. 2010.  ‘Climate change and the integrity of science’. Science 328: 689–90.

[ii] Castro, A.P., Taylor, D. and  Brokensha, D.W. (eds.) 2012. Climate change and threatened communities: vulnerability, capacity and action. Rugby: Practical Action Publishing.

[iii] Castro, A.P., Taylor, D. and  Brokensha, D.W. (eds.) 2012. ibid.

[iv] Vo, T. and Manno, J. 2012. ‘Local knowledge and technology innovation in a changing world: traditional fishing communities in Tam Giang Cau Hai lagoon, Vietnam’. In Castro, A.P., Taylor, D. and Brokensha, D.W. (eds.) op cit.

[v] Find Your Feet. 2012. Recognising the unrecognised: farmer innovation in Malawi. Report by Find Your Feet, London. (Accessed 17 August 2012).

[vi] Michaelowa, A. and K. Michaelowa, K. 2007. ‘Climate or development: is ODA diverted from its real purpose?’ Climate Change. 84: 5–21.

[vii] Msukwa, C. and Taylor, D. 2011. ‘Why can’t development be managed more like a funeral? challenging participatory practices.’ Development and Change 21: 55–67.

[viii] ETC Group (2009) ‘Who will feed us? questions for the food and climate crisis’. Communiqué Issue 102 10 August 2012).

[ix] Lewis, D. 2012. ‘Can we learn from the past? policy history and climate change.’ In Castro, A.P., Taylor, D. and Brokensha, D.W. (eds.) op sit.

[x]  Find Your Feet. 2012. op cit.

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