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Agricultural adaptation through local participation

Workshop in Kombewa, Kenya: Agricultural adaptation through local participation.Photo: A. Wikman (SLU)
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Written by Caitlin Corner-Dolloff, Oxford ECI. This story was originally published on

Farmers, researchers, and government officials alike recognize that adaptation to climate change must take place now. But how can this be done most effectively? It was clear from the ARDD learning event on lessons from the Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA) program, funded by the Canada’s IDRC and UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), that one of the biggest challenges is the need for climate change adaptation solutions to be context specific. A one size fits all approach to policy will not work. This has led many researchers, practitioners and funders to focus on local participatory approaches to adaptation planning and building adaptive capacity.

Why is local participation so important? On a basic level, involving individuals that will be directly affected by adaptation policy is recognized as an ethical obligation. Beyond that, local participation allows for a deep contextualized understanding of local ecological phenomena, of how to create socially acceptable policy, and of the nuanced links between different adaptation actions and outcomes. Local participation and knowledge is the key to making sure adaptation policies are successful on the ground.

Said Hounkponou, Executive Director of the Initiative pour un Développment Intégré et Durable (IDID) [the Initiative for Integrated Development] in Benin, was keenly aware of the diversity of localized adaptation solutions needed in Benin. In a project coordinated with NAPA implementation and the CCAA program, 35 districts were engaged across three agro-ecological zones. The ecology differed drastically, with some areas having one rainy season and others have two. Differences in microclimates meant also that one area can be dry while another is flooded in the same district at the same time. Local, context specific, knowledge is thus key to identifying adaptation needs across the diverse landscape in Benin.

Not only is local ecological knowledge crucial, understanding how to situate adaptation actions in socially appropriate and locally useful ways is needed. Dr. Henry Mahoo, the lead researcher on a CCAA-supported project in Sudan, established processes where farmers and scientists co-designed the Water Harvesting Inter-row Planter (WaHIP) for local conditions. In Benin, Hounkponou created a “response farming” project that informs farmers by SMS about forecasted weather. Local committees not only combine meteorological data and indigenous knowledge, they also send advice in the local language on specific agricultural practices that should be done by farmers. The next challenge is to determine why some farmers are using the technology developed and information and why others are not. This can help identify how to overcome barriers to adaptation.

Given that adaptation requires a bottom-up understanding of challenges, solutions and immediate action, Participatory Action Research (PAR) processes are crucial. PAR is based on the principles of stakeholder participation and ownership of the process and outcomes. It emphasizes valuing the diversity of ideas represented from involved parties. Action is taken to address a specific problem as a means of research. The key question for many in the learning event was: how can this type of participatory processes be scaled up vertically to higher levels of governance and scaled out horizontally throughout communities?

Knowledge sharing and collaborating in all directions was emphasized as a high priority. Farmer field schools, a key aspect of the project in Benin, allowed for lessons to be shared within and between communities. This can increase direct implementation of adaptive actions, one step in building local adaptive capacity. The projects also shared local findings with partners at different levels of governance and across different sectors. The goal being to increase the effectiveness of policy solutions by making them work for local people.

The risk in scaling up local information is that the nuances can be lost at national levels. It can be an easy trap to generalize from local lessons learned and support prescriptions broadly that may not actually be widely applicable, That said, we must also move beyond the limited impacts resulting from purely localized responses. So, how can we incorporate locally derived information into national policies and avoid ultimately creating the top-down prescriptive decision-making these projects have demonstrated we should avoid? One could argue we need policies that focus on scaling up the actual participatory processes instead of scaling up the information.

As one participant passionately pointed out, we need as much research on how to scale up as we do on the generation of knowledge on adaptation in the first place. Testing different processes of scaling up and discussing metrics of successful adaptation, is a ripe area of research needed in the creation of adaptation policies around the world.