Farmers need support to diversify in fight against climate change

Farmers in the Kapingazi basin of Eastern Kenya are diversifying to cope with increasingly severe droughts brought about by climate change. Photo: Alba Saray Perez Teran

Farmers in Eastern Kenya are diversifying to cope with increasingly severe droughts. Photo: Alba Saray Perez Teran

In the face of climate change, farmers across the globe will increasingly need to diversify their production, such as through planting a range of crops, raising livestock and engaging in agroforestry. How can governments support this diversification?

A recent study published in the scientific journal Climate and Development investigates measures farmers in Kenya and Vietnam are already taking to cope with climate variability. It discusses policies and incentives that could support diversification for climate change adaptation and ensuring food security.

“Countries are going to need policies that support effective local adaptation, but first we need to understand the local context and how households respond to climate change,” outlines Minh Ha Hoang, Fellow with the World Agroforestry Centre, and lead author of the study.

“There’s no use introducing initiatives such as tree planting unless these match local ambitions and preferences.”

Greater variability in climate is predicted for both East Africa and Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, this is expected to bring more frequent and more severe droughts and floods; conditions already being experienced in many parts of the country. In Kenya, an increase in temperature over the last 40 years, together with irregular and unpredictable rainfall, has increased water scarcity and contributed to the degradation of catchment areas and lakes.

The study investigated farmers’ responses to changing climate conditions in Cam Xuyen district, Ha Tinh province, Central Vietnam and in the Kapingazi river watershed, Embu district in the Eastern province of Kenya.

In Vietnam, farmers tended to discuss how they had coped in years of extreme weather events. For example, in 2008 a prolonged winter and 2 flood events killed around 70 per cent of rice seedlings, forcing famers to plant short duration and lower yielding rice varieties.

As a safety net for when crops fail, Vietnamese farmers make use of home gardens with trees (tea, acacia, eucalyptus, jackfruit and rattan) and livestock. In one of the villages studied, these home gardens are being planted illegally on State-owned forest land, as when flooding occurs these upland areas are the only places available for farming.

In dealing with unpredictable weather, many farmers in Vietnam have resorted to adjusting the seasonal calendar, building irrigation systems and digging pump wells. Diversification through growing crops such as banana, cassava and sweet potato help to supplement family food and provide animal fodder. Other farmers have turned to trading in commodities or moved away from the farm to find work.

In Kenya, only half of the farmers surveyed were actively changing their practices in response to changes in climate. Most of these reported how they were coping with drought conditions. Their adaptation strategies include diversifying regular tea and coffee farming to grow banana, cassava and beans, and raising cattle.

Many of the Kenyan farmers were using drought-resistant or early maturing crop varieties, practicing mixed cropping and planting trees (mostly exotic species) to provide for fodder and shade/shelter for their crops. Some had installed water tanks and drip-irrigation systems and others resorted to selling cattle or tree products, using their savings or engaging in off-farm employment.

Despite the differing impacts of climate change on Vietnam and Kenya, the study found numerous similarities in the patterns farmers were using to adapt, in particular strategies for diversification.

Hoang points out that diversification is nothing new in farming. “For thousands of years, farmers have had to minimize risk and ensure at least some productivity in favorable years,” she explains.

“The difference now is that changes in weather patterns due to climate change are not temporary; diversification will have to be for the long-term.”

The main impediments to diversification were found to be access to forest land in Vietnam and access to water in Kenya. Hoang believes policy interventions could help to overcome both.

“In Vietnam, legalizing the establishment of agroforestry in forest gardens would ensure poor farmers have access to the land they need to sustain their livelihood in the event of crop failure.”

In the Kapingazi basin, water scarcity is closely linked to increased extraction from the river by a growing population as well as to lower rainfall. “A combination of regulations and incentive-based approaches such as payments for ecosystem services could go a long way towards addressing this situation.”

“As indigenous tree species ‘drink’ less water compared to exotics, appropriate incentive schemes could also have a role in encouraging Kenyan farmers to opt for indigenous tree species over exotics but these would need to be backed-up by access to quality planting material and markets for indigenous tree products.”

The authors say the range of approaches taken by farmers in Vietnam and Kenya to cope with changing weather patterns supports a landscape approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation which can have many benefits to local communities.

“Introducing agroforestry across the landscape could help to increase carbon storage and enhance ecosystems, protect food production, buffer farmers against the impacts of climate change and provide a diversity of products and services that improve farmers’ livelihoods,” says Hoang.

But past experience has shown that introducing diversification in agriculture and landscapes requires coordination across different administrative bodies combined with substantial funding, both of which call for supportive policies.

Download the article:

Hoang, M H, Namirembe S, van Noordwijk M, Catacutan D, Öborn I, Perez-Teran A S, Nguyen H Q and Dumas-Johansen M K (2014). Farmer portfolios, strategic diversity management and climate-change adaptation – implications for policy in Vietnam and Kenya. Climate and Development.'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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