Adapt or die, say small farmers

Adapt or die, say small farmers. Photo: Stevie Mann (ILRI)
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Written by Caitlin Corner-Dolloff, Oxford ECI. This blog post has also been published on the Agricultureday blog.

Adapt or die is a resonating reality that is coming out of Agriculture and Rural Development Day and many of the COP17 side events. Farmers, especially subsistence farmers in Africa, have already started adapting. A coordinated effort on adaptation initiatives is needed. The challenge then is figuring out what information is needed to make adaptation decisions. This inevitably provokes the questions of whose knowledge in included and whose perspectives are predominant.

A number of organizations, including AFPAT, CTA, and IPACC, are voicing the imperative need to combine Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) with atmospheric science, especially in the case of pastoralists facing climate change. Mosses Ndiyaine, a Maasai pastoralist from Tanzania, spoke about how his community utilizes knowledge about their local environment to predict when the rain will come. He pointed out the use of changes in visible star patterns, behavioral cues from goats, and monitoring the flowering patterns of specific local trees as indicators of coming rains. For pastoralists this means when they decided to move.

Ndiyaine noted that many scientists visit the Maasai and study their knowledge systems. Yet pastoralists themselves and their knowledge are not at the center of the debate on climate change and adaptation. There is a greater needed for knowledge to be shared with policy makers and for indigenous people and knowledge systems to be included in the conversation.

There is also a strong need for the scientific community to recognize TKE as scientific itself. Mosses called for researchers to come and study their indicators so that it can be documented. While this is crucial, it runs the risk of only validating aspects of TKE that fit into the current scientific framework. I would challenge the scientific community to accept TKE as valid on its own merits. Cheikh Kane, a technical adviser to ACMAD, noted “African scientists could be prone to schizophrenia” trying to capture TKE from the current scientific perspective.

Hindou Ibrahim, a M’Bororo pastoralist woman from Chad, calls for bridging knowledge systems by engaging in multi-stakeholder dialogue. The limited use of TKE in current dialogues is related challenges with the decision-making systems we have developed and how we accept knowledge as valuable. Many of the current systems in place, especially those created through a history of colonialism, structurally discriminate again marginalized populations. We then need to create equitable participation where all types of knowledge and lifestyles are valued, understood, and incorporated in policy and planning.

What does this mean for COP17 and international agreements? Dr. Nigel Crawhall from IPACC pointed out that traditional knowledge is “not just a knowledge system, it’s a governance system.” Therefore, the platform upon which decisions are made, not just what is incorporated into decisions making, must be adjusted at the national and international levels. Crawhall suggested that treating people in an equitable way is the crucial first step that will open up productive and must needed discussions about how to move forward on urgent adaptation planning.