African family farmers creatively seek to adapt to climate change

Many researchers agree that the effects of climate change induced weather patterns are bad for food security. For example, droughts and lower than average rain patterns can lessen expected harvest yields, and so reduce the income of family farmers significantly. However, a study conducted in the framework of the CGIAR[1] Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security highlights the creativity and the innovative capacity of African farmers to adapt to climate change while improving their harvest.[2]


These remarkable adaptation strategies are inspired by farmers’ knowledge of traditional modes of production and in-depth knowledge of the environment. The study, focused on 700 households from four African countries (Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania), mentioned several ways in which farmers coped, with the challenges of soil erosion and droughts, among others. To cope with droughts and varying rainfall patterns family farmers started cultivating either faster growing or more drought resistant crops, primarily maize. African family farmers also address soil erosion by planting trees which helps to improve the water and soil quality. This technique, known as agroforestry was adopted by half of the surveyed family farmers. A famous example of this technique is the traditional use of the Acacia tree which covers the soil with its leaves at the beginning of the rainy season, increasing soil fertility and harvest yields. This technique and other traditional farming techniques, which allow farmers to adapt to climate change, are shared by ABC Burkina.[3]


Furthermore farmers started applying techniques such as intercropping; using different crops in the same field and then switching their location in the next growing season. The idea is to put crops with complementary/compatible characteristics in alternate rows in a field in order to improve biodiversity as well as the soil quality of a given tract of land. For example, intercropping maize and beans improved improve soil quality in such a way that farmers did not require fertilizer. This allows farmers to increase their yields while keeping their soils healthy and at the same time adapting to climate change.


Equally encouraging is the fact that farming communities actively share these new techniques and knowledge. More than half of the surveyed households were implementing adaptation strategies in order to deal with changing weather patterns. However, improvements are still to be made in both the use of manure and/or compost and water and soil management.


In this respect a vital role can be played by African farming organisations as they strive to realise the common objectives of the farming community, to deliver services to farming communities and to extend climate change adaptation techniques to remote farming communities. They can also be instrumental in providing ecosystem services for the society at large, such as water quality conservation techniques and water storage as mentioned by Morrison Rwakakamba[4]. He also correctly mentions that policy-makers worldwide should re-engage with African family farmers in their policy making so that policies can be informed by the indigenous creative and innovative capacity of African farmers. This would also imply policy changes to allow family farmers in Africa to freely exchange their seeds. Local farmers produce local varieties of seeds for both the wet and dry season which are able to adapt to climate change. These seeds are the result of local, innovative family farming and traditionally these seeds are exchanged through informal networks. However, large multinational seed corporation have pushed policy makers to establish intellectual property rights for their seeds, which often only work well with the help of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Thus, ensuring free access of family farmers to seeds is vital for food sovereignty and adaptation to climate change and it is clear that national or (at EU level) international trade laws impeding such access should be abolished.


However, the recent Climate Change debate in Doha did not put agriculture and its relation to climate change and food security firmly on the agenda. Instead, policy-makers focused on the continuance of the existing system which centres on reducing emissions and on neoliberal emission trading systems which allow polluters to buy polluting rights. In the EU (and also in the USA) such a framework has inspired Biofuels policies which are encouraging large-scale land grabs in Africa that use valuable community land and water resources. Moreover, foreign large-scale plantations often use fertilizers and other chemical products which pollute the local ecosystem and pose a health risk for the African population. Therefore, the creative adaptation capacity and indigenous knowledge of African farmers should take centre stage in rural development policies and climate change debates.


Gino Brunswijck


AEFJN Policy Officer


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