As planet Earth’s temperature continues to rise, so do the impacts of climate change on all sectors of the global economy. Between more frequent and longer droughts, the rising threat of wildfires, and a steady increase in severe weather incidents, farmers are especially concerned.
Yet even while the agricultural sector and those who depend on it watch these trends with increasing alarm, it’s important to keep in mind the role agriculture itself plays in contributing to global warming and climate change—20% of human-caused global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The agricultural sector, however, is also proving itself to be a place of innovative potential solutions to address farming’s role in climate change. One of the most promising of these are climate-smart villages that have emerged in Colombia and elsewhere.
One example of this innovative approach is the Cauca Climate-Smart Village project in southwestern Colombia. The initiative begins with equipping local small-scale farmers with better weather data regarding temperatures and precipitation to create agro-climatic forecasts that allow the farmers to make better decisions about what varieties to plant and when, the optimal time to fertilize, and so on.
At its core, the innovation is bringing big data to small-scale farming. This allows these otherwise vulnerable farmers to adapt to their local changing climate as they also deploy sustainable methods for growing their crops.
These few simple changes have profound impacts. Farmers who were previously struggling have become self-sufficient. They sell enough produce to earn a living and also utilize a portion of it at home.
Just as important are the potential social impacts, such as showing young people how small-scale farming can lead to a quality life and hopefully stem the outflow of youth to nearby cities where they might become taxi drivers or get other low-paying jobs.
Santa Rita, Honduras
Another Latin American climate-smart village can be found in Santa Rita, Honduras. In the western department of Copán, rural residents are likely to be involved in raising livestock, coffee, and basic grain crops.
Focal points in the sustainable agriculture options for these villages include data for better climate-driven decisions, water management (recharging aquifers, rainwater collection, solar pumps for irrigation, etc.), weather-resistant seeds and plant varieties, and better land use practices (minimum tillage, agroforestry, integrated nutrient and biofuel management), along with marketing and financial planning support.
The Santa Rita CSV has also been studied to get a sense of gender differences in the decision-making around implementation of climate-smart agricultural practices, as well as benefitting from those practices.
Women were found to be less likely to gain an income benefit from adopting sustainable agriculture initiatives, were less likely to be included in a farm’s decision-making process, and were also less likely to have access to financial services such as credit or loans to develop their farms.
These gender differences are unfortunate given that the women were more likely to see the need for climate-smart agricultural practices as well as more willing to invest in making changes in order to implement those practices.
One of the earliest efforts in developing the model of climate-smart villages was established in Nyando, Kenya. Over the course of just a few years, livestock breeding was improved by cross-breeding different types of goats to produce a larger size, and different types of sheep to increase their resistance to heat and parasites.
The improved goats fetched four times their previous price in the marketplace, substantially boosting the income of farmers, while also providing triple the milk to sell and use at home. Rainwater ponds prevent erosion and provide water for irrigation. Agroforestry practices, such as intercropping pawpaw trees and food crops maximizes land use and more than doubles profits.
A lesson learned early on is that it’s not wise to descend from on high and tell people they need to do things differently in order to save the planet from climate change. As far as most of them are concerned, global warming is a problem caused by the developed world, not the rural villages where people are barely eking out a meager existence.
Instead, you work with trusted local partners to demonstrate how small-scale farmers can increase productivity, have higher profit margins, and be less susceptible to droughts and floods. The way they can achieve those benefits just happens to be following the path of sustainable, climate-smart agricultural practices.
It Takes a (Climate-Smart) Village
The organization behind the development of climate-smart villages is the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Funding support has come from a variety of sources, including the European Commission, African Development Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Climate-smart village projects were started as early as 2011 and now number more than thirty in nineteen different countries in regions such as Latin America, East Africa, West Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.
These efforts may not seem like they will make much of a dent in the agricultural sector’s overall contribution of carbon emissions to global warming and climate change. After all, these are small-scale farming operations.
Then again, it must be noted that globally, about half of all food is produced by farms that support a single family, or a small collective of families (see our previous article, Impact Investing in Sustainable Agriculture). In other words, promoting and encouraging the development of more climate-smart villages could have a substantial impact on global greenhouse gas emissions.
What needs to happen now is a scaling up of small-scale farming that is sustainable and climate-smart—not in terms of their size but in terms of the number of them operating around the globe. Investment is the key, and while the dollars put into these projects by charitable organizations, governments, and NGOs have been essential to develop a viable models, what’s needed now are investors who are willing and able to support well-executed, targeted investment strategies that will make a large-scale impact through climate-smart small-scale farming.