What do farmers really know about climate change?

A new study from the Philippines shows that the coping strategies of farmers are mostly reactive and many tend to do nothing during climate events like La Niña, El Niño, seasonal variations and typhoons. Scientists need to communicate better their knowledge of adaptation, says Regine Joy P. Evangelista


According to World Agroforestry Centre researcher Marya Laya Espaldon, who conducted a study in the Philippines of smallholders and their attitudes towards trees in helping them adapt to climate change, the most surprising results came when her farmer-respondents were asked to identify the roles of trees and agroforestry that they perceived as most important.

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Not all farmers appreciate the role of trees in helping them adapt to climate change. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

“Despite being given options of biophysical, utilitarian and socio-cultural roles, the majority of the farmers didn’t recognize any of the supplied (and explained) functions of trees and indicated ‘none’ in the section of the household survey that asked them to indicate this”.

Ms Espaldon explained that this could be evidence that farmers really don’t see the benefits of trees in the form of agroforests on their farms. Even though trees are present they don’t fully understand the value they provide economically and environmentally.

However, the research results also confirmed that farmers used trees as an integral part of some climate-change adaptation strategies practised at the community level. Trees were used in reforestation, contour farming, irrigation and dam construction, as part of crop diversification and in ecotourism. Some of the biophysical benefits from trees mentioned by the farmers included shade, watershed protection, reforestation, shelterbelts, fences, stabilising soils, improving soil fertility and preserving soil moisture.

“Seemingly contradictory results such as these should not dampen the eagerness of agroforestry researchers in providing science-based recommendations to farmers”, said Ms Espaldon. “Instead, they should serve as a challenge to getting the message across to the people who need to know. In the case of the Wahig-Inabanga watershed where we conducted the survey, we are not just focussed on research but also on building the capacity of farmers to deal with climate-change impacts and to adapt, and in understanding the benefits of agroforestry”.

Smallholders in the Philippines are often limited in their ability to adapt by a range of factors, including poor knowledge of climate change and its impacts, restrictions imposed by land-use policies, limited choice of species for planting, inadequate understanding of agroforestry, degenerated seeds from indigenous species, shortage of forestland and intrusion of large-scale plantations.

But lack of awareness on the side of the farmers does not mean that the science is wrong. As with many technical interventions aimed at the grassroots, this could be a simple case of the right information not reaching its intended beneficiaries. Miscommunication could also stem from inappropriate packaging of information, thus, it is misunderstood or ignored.

Appropriate communication and extension activities are essential in bridging the gap between research and action; even more so in developing countries where farmers are often among the most marginalized in society.

Agroforestry in the Philippines is considered more advanced than others, having started in the 1970s as a multi-benefit farming practice. Today, the country is the source of high-quality research that is referred to by scientists and practitioners worldwide. But as scientific and practical evidence of the benefits of agroforestry pile up, the challenge still lies in getting the information out and convincing its beneficiaries, the smallholders, to adopt this practice.

Although it may be hard to ascertain the impacts of agroforestry research at a national scale or the attitudes of farmers towards accepting this practice, the surprising results from Ms Espaldon’s study reveal that we still have a long, long way to go.


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This work is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry’s component on climate-change mitigation and adaptation in a project called Documentation of Local Adaptive Strategies in Key Watersheds in Southeast Asia (Philippines and Vietnam). Ms Espaldon’s research study is called Defining the Roles of Trees and Agroforestry among Local Community for Climate-Change Adaptation in Wahig-Inabanga Watershed, Bohol Province, Philippines.

Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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