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SOUTH AFRICA: Climate Change Policy Ignores Women Farmers

Kristin Palitza

CAPE TOWN, Aug 24 2010 (IPS) - When asked if they have already felt the effects of climate change, Mary-Anne Zimri and Katrina Scheepers eagerly nod their heads. The two small-scale farmers say lack of rain this winter has foiled their planting season, ruined their harvest – and drastically slashed their income.

The government's plans for adaptation offer little to smallholder farmers, who are among those most vulnerable to climate change. Credit:  Kristin Palitza/IPS

The government's plans for adaptation offer little to smallholder farmers, who are among those most vulnerable to climate change. Credit: Kristin Palitza/IPS

“We have been hit on all sides,” says Zimri, who together with Scheepers belongs to a farming cooperative in Wuppertal, a small hamlet in South Africa’s Western Cape province. The coop specialises in rooibos tea, but also plants vegetables and keeps livestock.

“We normally start planting rooibos in July, but this year it has been too dry to plant,” says Zimri. For decades, she and her colleagues have relied on the steady rains of the South African winter to irrigate their crops. But now, a change in weather patterns has caused a noticeable reduction in rainfall, she says.

Since the coop does not have access to an irrigation system, Zimri and her fellow farmers have to fetch water from the river and carry it in buckets for several kilometres back to their fields. But what they can carry is not sufficient to generate a good harvest.

Not only the rooibos has been affected. Reduced rainfall also meant that their animal feed did not grow as expected, and the farmers’ vegetable harvest is much smaller than the previous year. “It’s not only us. Most farmers in the area lost their crop because it’s been so dry,” says Scheepers.

To make matters worse, due to unusually low winter temperatures, frost has burnt the coop’s potato harvest. “This has never happened before; not in the last 50 years,” she notes.

The farmers are in a tough situation. Their remote community, 75 kilometres from the nearest grocery shop, has always relied on the vegetables the farmers grow for food security. Adding to the difficulties, the coop now has to buy animal feed at extra cost.

For most members of the coop, who rent land from their local church for a small fee, the drastic shortfall in income means that they have to find seasonal jobs on commercial farms in order to survive. But these jobs are usually badly paid and without job security or benefits.

To learn more about ways for small-scale farmers to adapt to climate change and about related legislation, Zimri and Scheepers attended a roundtable discussion titled “Women and climate change adaptation: a focus on food security”, organised by the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature and held at the University of the Western Cape on Aug. 18.

“The issues of climate change, poverty, environment and gender are tightly interwoven and cannot be separated,” explained WWF South Africa national climate change policy officer Louise Naudé during the meeting.

“Women farmers are particularly affected by climate change, food insecurity and disaster, so we have to drive gender equality and decrease women’s vulnerability in the sector.”

Research has shown that women are more likely to feel the effects of climate change because they have less access to resources. Changing weather patterns increase poor women’s work burden on gathering water and firewood. Girls may be forced to forgo school in order to contribute to the increased household work.

Where traditional land tenure is practiced, women may lose land normally reserved for growing crops for household consumption to give way for commercial crops.

The South African government, through its Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), is in the process of developing a national climate change policy. Consultations with a few environmental experts and civil society organisations took place in May.

The content of the draft document remains confidential, but according to gender experts, who have been provided with a draft of the policy, it does not once mention the words “women” or gender”, despite the fact that most small-scale farmers are women and women are the most vulnerable to climate change and disaster.

“An effective climate change policy must begin and end with people, but this document ignores that,” says Dorah Lebelo, coordinator of advocacy group Gender CC – Women for Climate Justice.

“We need to urge government to build a just and sustainable policy. The DEA should mainstream gender into the document,” she insisted, suggesting that gender organisations throughout the country make submissions to ensure that women’s issues will be included in the climate change policy.

Lebelo is also concerned that the consultation process in May was not inclusive enough. “Only a few stakeholders were consulted, which is in no way a substitute for full consultation with women, those who are affected by climate change the most,” she noted.

She further disapproved of the fact that consultations were requested largely via email. “The DEA works on the assumption that people can read and write and thus excludes 24 percent of South African adults who are profoundly affected by climate change, especially women,” Lebelo further explained.

It also means that small-scale farmers, most of whom are women, who don’t have access to a computer and the Internet, will be largely excluded from the process.

From the confidential draft document, it appears that the South African government mainly plans to promote large-scale, market-based climate change adaptation solutions, such as nuclear power or genetic modification, and not ones that can be accessed by women.

“Priorities seem to be placed on technologies not on lifestyle changes that ordinary people can implement in their daily lives,” explained Lebelo.

“Instead, gender experts should lobby government to encourage the participation of communities and particularly women in decision-making, planning and governance of climate change related matters.

“We need people-centred solutions that are context-specific, participatory and use local knowledge,” she stressed. “Ultimately, we want to create environmental circumstances where women are in control and don’t depend on others.”

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