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COLOMBIA: Climate Science Reaching Out for Traditional Farmers’ Wisdom

SANTIAGO, Dec 2 2010 (IPS) - The wide-ranging knowledge about climate variation possessed by native people and other small farmers, such as the people in one region of Colombia, is almost a perfect match to scientific measurements recorded on high-tech instruments.

So says Andrés González, coordinator of the Joint Programme on Integration of Ecosystems and Adaptation to Climate Change in the Colombian Massif, carried out for the last three years by United Nations agencies.

In the southwestern Colombian department (province) of Valle del Cauca, indigenous people and scientists are working together on ways to adapt to climate change. But this is an exceptional case in Latin America.

This year, a network of seed savers or “guardianes” has been set up to preserve the seeds of tubers, maize, fruit trees, fodder species, quinoa, amaranth and other food crops of high nutritional value, and to promote seed exchanges among the autonomous indigenous reserves of Puracé, Paletará, Coconuco, Quintana and Poblazón.

Plots of land to acclimatise the seeds have also been created, as well as six agricultural schools where scientists and small farmers study and discuss food security, sustainable production, risk management and healthy environments. About 1,000 families from the municipalities of Popayán and Puracé are taking an active part.

The programme’s direct impact area in Valle del Cauca has a population of 11,000, but it is estimated that its wider benefits extend to over 240,000 people. González hopes that funding for the project, which has another six months to run, will be renewed. Historically, land conflicts have been frequent between the indigenous reserves, small farmers and large landowners. However, all sides signed “Pactos de Convivencia” (peaceful coexistence agreements) and worked together to draw up calendars of production activities and lists of species resistant to various climate conditions.

But “much remains to be done. Establishing a dialogue in which we can understand the logic (of peasants and indigenous people) and they can understand ours, is a major challenge,” González told IPS.

The project, sponsored by the Millennium Development Goals Achievement Fund (MDG-F), is headed by a team that includes representatives of native communities, who act as “counterparts to our technicians and experts, and ensure that their concepts and worldview are a fully respected part of the programme,” he said.

The MDGs, adopted by U.N. member states in 2000, include specific targets to curb poverty, hunger, maternal and child mortality, gender inequality, and diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria, as well as to achieve universal primary education, environmental sustainability and a global partnership for development, by 2015.

Indigenous people and small farmers could not have been left out of the leadership of the Colombian climate change adaptation project, because their acute observations and empirical knowledge are so precise, González said.

In Latin America, farming is responsible for about 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. The main contributing factors are changes in land use, fertiliser application and decomposition of livestock manure.

And agriculture is already being affected by climate change, for instance the greater intensity and frequency of extreme weather phenomena — floods, frosts and droughts — the arrival of new pests, changes in water availability as glaciers melt, and geographical displacement of crops.

Added to this, over 50 percent of the rural population of Latin America and the Caribbean are living below the poverty line, and nearly one-third of these are indigent (extremely poor), according to the Santiago-based Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

“Farmers know about climate change because that is what agriculture is: dealing with the climate,” said Laura Meza, coordinator of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Multidisciplinary Team for South America on climate change and the environment.

Encouraging dialogue between academia and small farmers is “a challenge our region still faces,” she told IPS.

“We have discovered that in Australia there is a very strong connection between farmers, scientists and decision-makers. All three groups are working hand in hand,” said the FAO expert.

“Here they are in separate watertight compartments. We need a great deal more communication between them,” Meza stressed.

Adrián Rodríguez, officer in charge of the agricultural development unit within ECLAC’s Division of Production, Productivity and Management, told IPS that communication between countries is also needed, “because we are facing a phenomenon that recognises no borders.”

“It’s high time the ancestral knowledge possessed by small farmers and indigenous people was appreciated at its true value,” Rosa Guamán, a Quechua indigenous woman, told IPS. She belongs to the Jambi Kiwa Association of Medicinal Plant Producers of Chimborazo, Ecuador, a thriving cooperative business run by indigenous women who export herbs to Canada and European countries.

As an indigenous leader, and as a leader of the Association, Guamán had to overcome a great deal of prejudice to get her knowledge recognised and accepted, because she has no formal academic credentials, she said.

“I don’t think there’s any surefire recipe” for effective dialogue, Holm Tiessen, head of the intergovernmental Inter- American Institute for Global Change Research, based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, told IPS.

“What often happens is that science discovers solutions for problems that nobody has. Therefore, at some point during planning and seeking research funding, it is important to talk to people in the field. But there are no established mechanisms for doing this,” he said.

“As a funding body, we have to insist that scientists open their eyes and their minds, and go out and talk, engage in dialogue with producers, in order to improve the efficiency of their research,” said Tiessen. The institute funds collaborative studies involving more than one country.

In Meza’s view, public policies should urgently be directed at increasing knowledge about climate, strengthening meteorological networks, and spreading the information among authorities and farmers.

This would allow farmers to make key decisions, such as “taking out insurance policies, using fast-growing crop varieties that need less water in case of drought, conserving organic material in the soil to preserve humidity, or building sheds for livestock,” among other practical measures, she said.

Brazil, for instance, is a leader in the process of “agro- ecological zoning,” which maps the areas and seasons that are most suitable for particular crops. Other countries are making progress on river basin management, irrigation systems and risk management.

“But there is so much to be done. Climate change is still seen as being a long way off, and that is a real problem, because decision-makers and farmers, as well as society in general, don’t realise the urgency of taking immediate action,” Meza concluded.

*This IPS story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network

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