Climate change and food security in Latin America and the Caribbean

[Individual articles from the Summer 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

MCC partners and their communities in Latin America and the Caribbean increasingly feel the effects of climate change on food security. In February 2017, MCC hosted partner representatives from eleven countries across Latin America and the Caribbean for an encounter to share experiences and knowledge around the themes of climate change and food security and to learn how MCC can best support them in climate change adaptation. While the challenges they face are many, MCC partners and their communities are responding by strengthening collective efforts for disaster mitigation and increased food security, including employing innovative agriculture and natural resource management practices and advocating to influence policies that affect their natural resources.

Although participants in this consultation represented organizations from a variety of contexts, common themes emerged in their conversations related to climate change and its effect on food security in their communities. Climate change impacts observed by partners included drought conditions, unpredictable rainfall patterns and elevated temperatures. Dates when rains have typically arrived, signaling the start of planting time, have become unreliable, while rains later in the season have become sporadic. Scientific research confirms the anecdotal evidence presented by these organizations that climate change is occurring. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports temperature increases in Central and South America, as well as decreased rainfall in Central America. Already vulnerable regions are expected to see continued changes in water availability due to decreased rainfall overall. In addition, unusual extreme weather events have severely affected the Latin America region, increasing the vulnerability of communities to disaster. While studies suggest that, thanks to climate change, it may in the future be possible to grow maize, cassava, rice and sorghum in areas where such cultivation is not currently possible, almost half of municipalities will lose some climatic suitability to sustain current crops, especially coffee, beans and plantains. Climate change has had a significant negative impact on food security in the region due to droughts, unpredictable seasonal patterns and new insect infestations affecting agricultural production. Increasing numbers of people, especially youth, are migrating to cities or other countries because they no longer view rural livelihoods as viable options.

Second, MCC’s partners and their communities struggle to know how to balance immediate hunger needs arising from crop losses with the implementation of strategies for long-term development and care for the environment. A number of organizations have provided short-term food assistance to help their communities bridge the gap in food needs during periods of hunger. This strategy, however, raises questions about long-term vision, with partners asking how long food assistance can or should be carried out and how seasonal food assistance might be better integrated into long-term food security efforts.

In response to these challenges, MCC’s partners deploy common strategies to protect and strengthen food security in the face of climate change. These organizations emphasize the importance of developing structures that link small-scale farmers and their communities with one another. By working together in an organized fashion, farmers can be more effective in adapting to climate change and improving food security by increasing small-scale farmer marketing opportunities as well as through collective efforts to seek support from local and national government. Partners also highlight agro-forestry as a strategy that, through the planting of fruit trees, provides food and income, while also mitigating the risk of landslides by reforesting degraded and landslide-prone areas. MCC partners seek increased training on crop diversification and improved agricultural techniques, the use of drought-resistant crops or seed varieties, improving value chains through the processing or transformation of agriculture products and strategies for water and soil conservation. Improved training and learning will allow farmers to strengthen their potential for food production and adapt to climate change impacts. Finally, these partners recognize the importance of advocating to different levels of government to influence policies and practices that will be key to the protection of local water and soil resources and thus to climate change adaptation.

One of MCC’s partners in Bolivia, OBADES (Baptist Organization of Social Development), is using some of these strategies to improve agriculture production in the highland region of Cocapata in order to increase income and food security for families impacted by drought. OBADES supports communities in constructing water infiltration ditches in order to collect water runoff from steep slopes. This water is in turn used to irrigate potato and other vegetable crops, as well as to feed aquifers in lower-lying areas. Staff provide trainings to farmers on organic crop production, natural resource management, soil conservation and the efficient use of water runoff. The project also promotes the production of maca (a root high in nutritional value) as a cash crop and strengthens community-producer associations to provide increased opportunities to process and sell maca products. These strategies provide additional income for farming families and help them cope with drought, thus reducing poverty, decreasing migration rates and improving food security in the community.

In Haiti, agro-forestry efforts have helped mitigate disaster. MCC currently works with 22 vulnerable communities in the Artibonite Valley to improve food security by working with local small-holder farmers and tree nursery committees to grow and distribute fruit and non-fruit tree seedlings, establish family agro-forestry gardens and reforest degraded mountainous areas. As part of its agro-forestry program, MCC has established kids’ clubs to provide experimental, hands-on gardens to get children involved in learning about food security, nutrition and environmental protection. Children in turn influence their parents, who make household choices around food. In addition, farmers improve their farmland by using intercropping methods and planting a diversity of crops to increase and diversify production. Agricultural production is supported through grain banks that enable farmers to store seeds for the upcoming season and that can serve as food storage in case of future droughts. The long-term reforestation work MCC has supported over the last 30 years in Haiti likely mitigated impacts of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Post-hurricane, MCC staff noted that communities with significant reforestation work had fewer destroyed gardens and houses, along with fewer landslides. The additional tree cover from reforestation efforts likely slowed down winds at ground level and secured the soil to prevent landslides. Lower-lying areas that had reforested land above them also experienced less flooding, likely resulting from the additional trees upslope helping water absorb into the ground more quickly, leading to less runoff rushing down to lower areas.

Partners call on MCC to come alongside them as they develop strategies to respond to climate change and support food security in their communities. During the Haiti encounter this past winter, partners emphasized the need for MCC to support collaboration and strengthen alliances, networks and connections among local partners, communities and countries to help encourage people in their work and promote sharing of knowledge. Partners asked MCC to focus more on disaster prevention and mitigation work and to produce educational materials related to the causes of climate change and key strategies for food security. They encouraged MCC to use its position as an international organization to support local, regional, national and international advocacy efforts with and on behalf of its partners. While climate change and its impact on food security present a myriad of challenges for partners in Latin America and the Caribbean, their daily efforts in climate-affected communities encourage and challenge MCC to support partners as they carry out this work.

Darrin Yoder is regional disaster coordinator for Central America and Haiti with MCC. He lives in Managua, Nicaragua.

Learn more

Carballo Escobar, C., Montiel Fernandez, W., and Ponce Lanza, R. Impactos y Alternativas de los Granos Básicos en Nicaragua ante el Cambio Climático. 2014. Available at http://www.humboldt.org.ni/node/1681.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2014. Available at http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/.

Schmidt A., Eitzinger, A., Sonder, K., and Sain, G. Tortillas on the Roaster (ToR) Central American MaizeBean Systems and the Changing Climate: Full Technical Report. 2012. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276099395_Tortillas_on_the_roaster_ToR_Central_American_maize-bean_systems_and_the_changing_climate_full_technical_report.

World Bank; CIAT. Climate-Smart Agriculture in Nicaragua. CSA Country Profiles for Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean Series. Washington D.C.: The World Bank Group, 2015. Available at https://ccafs.cgiar.org/publications/climate-smart-agriculture-nicaragua#.WRMKKGnyuUk.

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