Anyone doubting the effect of climate change, and how farmers can adapt continuously to changing weather patterns, should talk to Emily Marigu Ireri.
We met Emily, near Meru, eastern Kenya, where she farms a five acres plot, 1,500 meters high on the steep slopes of Mount Kenya.
She describes how, in recent years, the rains are more erratic. At the beginning of the rainy season, often it would only rain for a few days, and then stop, sometimes for weeks. “Often seeds would start to sprout during those first rains, but then they would dry up”, Emily explains. She takes us to the bottom of the valley just below her fields. “By this time of the year, this small stream would normally be a river, but now, it hardly irrigates the fields around it. A few miles from here, the river is dead, water is just absorbed by the soil.”
“But it is not only the erratic rains that makes the life of farmers difficult“, Emily explains. “Here, so close to Mount Kenya, we also used to get misty drizzle in May and June. From the time of my father’s fathers, we used that moisture for a crop in the middle of the year. Now that drizzle does not come anymore. I don’t know why, but nowadays, we can only get one harvest a year, in the rainy season. Now is the time for the rain to come." Read more »
Climate change adaptation and mitigation in agriculture is more than merely “the need for better seeds”. It needs a way to exchange information so we can re-apply proven solutions rather than re-inventing the wheel every single time….
In a wide, slow gesture, Gurbachan Singh shows me a panorama of lush fields. It is as if he hand touches the abundant, young wheat sprouts from afar. They are bright green, showing a promise for a plentiful harvest. Wide fields are bordered with tall poplar trees whose leafs softly whisper in the light wind, chasing away the early morning mist.
“All of this”, says Gurbachan, “All of this was gone. Flooded. As far as you can see. All of it. People had fled to higher grounds, but the twenty-four hours notice we had before the flood, was not sufficient to evacuate all live stock. Most buffalo and cows drowned. The harvest was lost.”
One or two generations ago, smallholder farmers might have grown food crops mainly to feed their own families. But those days are gone. Farmers are looking more and more for cash income.
Like in Bihar, North-Central India: farmers still value the “yield” of a crop, but the “revenue” becomes increasingly important. It is not just because of the “Modern Times”, where electricity bills and school fees are to be paid, and people want to buy a mobile phone, a television or a tractor.
No, there is more than that: climate change has chased up the expenses: boreholes, mechanical or electric pumps, hybrid seeds… Each of these has a price ticket attached to it. A price ticket, farmers are scrambling to pay, but a necessity for any land to bare any crop.
When discussing climate change, we often discuss about the technical part of “agriculture”: crop varieties, irrigation or farming methods. But climate change also has a profound social impact within the rural communities, which rely mostly on agriculture. Climate change will push many smallholder farmers over “the edge”, back into poverty.
Arti Devi from Rambad in Bihar, India, is one of them.
Arti is married and has three children, two girls and a boy. Up to some years ago, she owned a small plot of land where she cultivated wheat and some vegetables, and had two buffaloes. This was sufficient to provide food and an income to her family.
“As the weather changed, we had less rain in this region. The yearly floods which used to bring in new fertile soil to my fields, just stopped. So my field yielded less and less.”, Arti explains, “As the lands dried up, it also became more difficult to find fodder for the buffaloes”.
“Germplasm collection”, “allele diversity”, “Crop registers”, might sound like mystic academic terms to you. Likewise for me, I could hardly link them into the discussion about climate change and food security…. Until I visited the genebank on the ICRISAT campus near Hyderabad in India.
The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is a non-profit organization conducting agricultural research for development in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. ICRISAT is part of a consortium of similar agricultural research centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
…and they have a bank. Not to store money or gold, but to safeguard something much more precious: the genetic material – or “germplasm”- of 119,000 “accessions” -or varieties- of sorghum, pearl millet and six other types of small millets, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut, collected from 144 countries.
During my past visits to Kenya, Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso, one common streak always came up when talking to farmers about climate adaptation techniques: they were all actively using new seed varieties for their different crops.
I had not really questioned where those seed varieties came from. I saw them in the shops of commercial seed traders, so I asked no more. A bit like a child does not ask where Santa comes from. A long and complex process of seed selection and breeding remained hidden for me.
A visit to ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics near Hyderabad in India, changed all of that. I discovered the world’s headquarter for the agriculture research on five crops: sorghum, pearl millet, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut. And I discovered the link between chickpeas, chickpea heroes and the war against hunger.
His name is written “Naakpi” and pronounced “Naakwi”, that we understood fast. But it took us much longer to comprehend why Naakpi looked so tired, and walked around with a back bent as if he had a burden too heavy for one man to carry.
We understood even less as we walked through an opening in the earth wall surrounding his farm and stepped onto his vegetable field: This one hectare plot was the largest, greenest and best maintained vegetable field we had seen so far. The cabbage, beans, tomato, peppers all stood in straight lines. A perfectly geometric maze of five inch wide irrigation canals divided the field into small sub-plots devour of any weeds.
All of us stood in awe. The sight of green that lush came as a surprise. So far, during our West-Africa trip, we had been interviewing farmers harvesting at this time, one to two months into the dry season. Here, in Lawra – Northeast Ghana, it had been no different. But Naakpi still had a green plot. Why then did it not make him a happy man?
“This is by far the nicest plot I have seen so far, Naakpi”, I said, and congratulated him. He looked at me with sad eyes and shrugged: “Give it one more month, and I will lose it all”, he said. He told us the story.
After his first two sentences, I knew Joel Yiri from Jirapa was the man I was looking for. I had asked Peter Kuupenne, an extension officer from Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture, to meet “a creative farmer”. And that is what I found: Joel was a man with a vision.
As we shook hands, and sat down in front of Joel’s house, he introduced himself in perfect English. I asked him how come, and if maybe he had been a teacher. But he shook his head: “You know, over here, you are born as a farmer’s son, so that’s what you do for your life: you farm. Just as your father and your father’s father. But that also includes the core challenge: with the current climate change, we can’t farm anymore like they did. We need to adapt our methods. Our fathers had fertile grounds. The rains were plentiful, and for generations they used the same tools, the same seeds and the same technologies. Our generation needs to change.”
From that moment on, I just knew it was going to be an interesting testimonial as part of the series we were recording for the CCAFS program.
“Twenty years ago, famine reigned our area”, says Helene. “The men went off to Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Togo and all countries around us. They farmed other people’s lands. But we, the women, we could not move. We had to raise the children. And it was hard.”
“You know, for a farmer, the crop is everything. As the weather changed, as the erosion took our soil away, we were left with infertile land. Whatever small crops we could still harvest, was not enough for our kids. They got sick, many died. Those were very hard times.”
Adama, the chairman from the farmers’ union, had told us how the village succeeded in constructing a dam. “That was good as a drinking hole for the cattle”, Helene explains, “but I realized we could do more with it, and thought about growing vegetables during the dry season. We never did that, I had no experience, but I wanted to give it a try. If you don’t try, you won’t learn, in my opinion.”
“You have no idea”, says Ganame Ousseni, a cattle farmer in Ninigui in the North of Burkina Faso, “You can not imagine. When I was a small boy, the grass was this high”, and he holds his arm above his head. “We used to hunt wild animals here. We had loads of cattle too.”
But now it is gone. The forest and the grazing grounds. The whole area is barren with a compacted crust as top soil. “What were we to do?”, Ousseni shakes his head, “We had to stay here to mind the crops, so we gave our cattle to nomads passing through. They herded them for us, taking the cows to the grazing grounds hundreds of miles away, all the way up to Mali. At the end of the dry season, when the cattle came back from the migration, we saw we lost more cattle each year. Some were stolen along the way, or were eaten by wild animals. Our herd disseminated. ”
CCAFS Coordinating Unit - University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Science, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, Rolighedsvej 21, DK-1958 Frederiksberg C, Denmark, phone +45 35331046; Email ccafs [at] cgiar [dot] org, EAN 5790000279012
Lead Center - International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)