Risks, rights, knowledge and empowerment: Connecting the dots

Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)

What happens when some of the world's thought leaders in hunger, nutrition and climate justice meet with innovators working at the frontlines of climate change in developing countries? At the Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice conference in Dublin yesterday, these pairings helped bring lofty theories down to earth, infusing discussions on rights, risk, knowledge and empowerment with touching and inspiring examples from around the world. 

Here are some of the highlights:

On Risk

In a changing climate, civil society and states need to become more prepared for the risks ahead, said Erik Solheim, Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee. But the risks brought on by droughts, floods and more frequent weather events are not only physical ones that disrupt livelihoods - they can also threaten a community's very identity. William Ole Seki Laitayock, a pastoralist from the Ngorongoro area of Tanzania, explained that the Maasai culture, which revolves around cattle, is under threat due to competing commercial interests (mining, agriculture, tourism) that drive them off land or prevent them from moving freely. Climate change only aggravates this. Laitayock explained that policies and interests that constrain the mobility and movement of pastoralists undermine their main tactic for staying resilient.

Many countries are a long way from looking at their economic development strategies through the lens of climate change vulnerability - but this is what is needed.

On Rights and Empowerment

The development community needs to shift its approach from one that is based on charity, to one that is based on rights, said Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

"Protection for rights … can inform responses to climate change and help root them in equality and justice," he explains in the paper he co-authored for the conference.

Take the right to food. Climate change undermines the right to food by causing crop failures. Recognising that food is a right, and recognising that it is often the most vulnerable whose rights are affected by climate change, can feed into empowering policies that help change the situation. Many farmers struggle when crops fail, which undermines their right to food. Often those affected by hunger and malnutrition lack opportunities to take action. But in many cases, those who are impacted can be empowered to change the situation.

For example, in the Pacific island of Vanuatu, Dolsie Lorna Kalmatak is finding that simple tools make a world of difference in ensuring that mothers and children can eat during lean times. Dolise runs the Solar Dryer project, which allows farmers, mainly women, to preserve their produce at a low cost, thanks to a solar-powered food dehydrator. This simple tool allows farmers, to preserve their produce at a low cost. They can they sell it, and more crucially, feed their children when food is scarce

The project empowers women with new opportunities to earn income and feed their families - but action is still needed at higher levels to ensure that all peoples' rights are respected. Conference participants agreed that one of the best ways to advance rights-based approaches is to empower people to hold their governments to account, and one of the best ways to empower people in a community is to create decision making processes that connect local voices to national processes.

On Knowledge

To plan for the future, we need to pay attention to the past. Ireland's journey from starvation in the 1850s to a booming agricultural sector is one example. Simon Coveney T.D., Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, recounted this journey, and the mistakes and lessons learned from this tragic period of Irish history.

"The most compelling reason for policy change is to actually copy what has been done and what has worked," he told the audience. "We must learn from the mistakes of countries like Ireland, but also the successes" and adapt those lessons to the appropriate context. 

In some cases, communities are turning to traditional knowledge that has been lost over generations. In Cameroon, where climate change threatens more unpredictable rainy seasons, farmers are looking for crops that might survive under stress. But most of this knowledge rests with an older generation, said Augustine Njamshi. He described how his grandmother used wild vegetable crops that were resilient to a range of conditions, but that this knowledge is now almost lost.

One of the factors holding back learning from the past is the availability and accessibility of knowledge: many conference participants stated that scientific knowledge needs to be made freely available. But the main issue was the need to connect scientific knowledge to local research, an issue outlined persuasively in a conference background paper authored by a group of CCAFS scientists.

The dialogue continues

The conference continues today, continuing its innovative format of bringing together the likes of Al Gore and Mary Robinson with more than 100 farmers, practitioners and policy makers . By facilitating the exchange of knowledge, experiences, fears and hopes, the intention is to ensure that previously unheard voices influence international development strategies, while also generating new ideas and commitments for practical action. 

Vanessa Meadu is Communications and Knowledge Manager with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). The CCAFS team is reporting live from the Hunger, Nutrition, Climate Justice conference in Dublin from 15-16 April 2013. Watch live webcasts and follow updates on the CCAFS blog. Engage with us on twitter @cgiarclimate using #HNCJ.