By Megan Rowling
LONDON (AlertNet) - In northern Kenya's impoverished and drought-prone Turkana region, a group called Kenya Climate Justice Women Champions is encouraging local women to grow hardy, nutritious crops like amaranth, sorghum and cassava, to improve their own health and that of their children. The vitamins and minerals from these foods means mothers are less likely to die in childbirth and can better breastfeed their babies. The micronutrients help kids avoid growing up stunted and give them the energy to attend school.
The nationwide network decided to act after seeing too many women without the strength to give birth, too many infants undernourished because they didn't get enough milk and too few children in school because they were hungry. Coordinator Cecilia Kibe can’t forget one baby who carried on suckling at her dead mother's breast. "It is as pathetic as that," she told a major conference on hunger, nutrition and climate justice in Dublin this week.
Her group promotes local women who are actively tackling these issues in their communities as "champions" at county level and beyond, so they can influence responses to climate change. "When a woman suggests something, it should be taken up, because (she) would like to see that child she carried grow to be where she is and even beyond," said Kibe.
Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme, said empowerment has no value as an abstract concept in global conversations. It must be driven down to national and then local level, and backed up by laws, "so that at the centre is (a) woman who...is ultimately empowered to make a difference in her own life".
A series of electronic votes during the two-day conference flagged up the importance of using local knowledge in finding solutions to climate-linked food insecurity, as well connecting local voices to decision making processes and enabling local people to hold governments to account.
With some 350 participants from around 60 countries, the main aim of the gathering - co-hosted by the Irish government - was to get representatives of small farmers, fisherfolk and herders together with the heads of international agencies, government officials and other top-level policy makers to share experiences and ideas on tackling hunger, nutrition and climate problems.
Former Irish President Mary Robinson, whose foundation jointly organised the event, insisted that the people grappling with hunger and climate change on the ground must be brought to the negotiating table to hammer out a new development agenda to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015. "They are articulate, and convincing, and experts. They know the problems and they know the solutions," she told the closing session of the conference.
There was undoubtedly a much higher representation of food producers from developing countries than is usually the case at such meetings, especially from East and Southern Africa and small island states. And they were frequently given the stage, alongside representatives of the United Nations and northern governments.
COMBINING SCIENCE, LOCAL KNOWLEDGE
Dolsie Lorna Kalmatak spoke about how women in Vanuatu are using solar dryers to preserve fruit and nuts so they can be stored and sold when market prices are higher.
William Ole Seki Laitayock, coordinator of the Ngorongoro Pastoralist Development Organisation in Tanzania, appealed for international help in protecting herders' right to graze their animals on land that's being increasingly leased for tourism or fenced off for conservation. Some pastoralists have already started growing crops or sending family members to towns to find work, in order to survive the water and fodder shortages that are decimating their livelihoods, he said.
In Malawi, farmers are diversifying away from tobacco and maize, planting legumes to improve soil fertility and trying out no-till agriculture, said Dyborn Chibonga, CEO of the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association (NASFAM).
And Augustine Njamnshi, head of Cameroon's Bioresources, Development and Conservation Programme, described how people in his country - including his own mother - are going back to cultivating indigenous vegetables and plants from the forest because they are much more resistant to extreme weather than newer varieties.
Frank Rijsberman, chief executive of the CGIAR, a partnership of 15 international agricultural research centres, told AlertNet from Dublin that attitudes among scientists have shifted to recognise that local knowledge and concerns must play a part in helping farmers adapt to climate change. It is no longer a question of researchers delivering new plant varieties and growing techniques in a one-way process.
"Farmers do have important knowledge that needs to be combined with modern science," he said. But Rijsberman noted that 60 percent of people at the conference had voted 'no' to a question on whether there is enough local knowledge to tackle hunger and climate change, adding that there is still a need for innovation.
In many dry areas, farming systems are already quite resilient, with traditional varieties adapted to drought. The problem is they produce low yields, while new varieties capable of bigger harvests can be more vulnerable to climate extremes, Rijsberman noted.
"The challenge is to try and combine that understanding of traditional, local knowledge (and) the diversity of robust systems with the higher productivity that we clearly also need," he said.
More work should also be done on how agriculture can improve nutrition, such as the breeding of orange sweet potato varieties that are high in vitamin A, he added. At the same time, he noted a rapid increase in willingness among farmers to deal with climate change as a pressing concern.
"It will be impossible to have a food-secure world if we don't deal with climate change at the same time (as other issues)," he said.
GORE URGES ACTION
In a speech to the conference, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said changes in rainfall, due to climate change, are "colliding" with knowledge passed down to subsistence farmers through generations, making it harder for them to predict the best times to plant and harvest crops.
But he argued there is no excuse for inaction in the face of climate shifts that are causing yields to fall, food prices to rise and more poor people to go without enough to eat, because solutions are available. "We know how to prevent more damage being done, and we know how to assist those who need more assistance in adapting to the deterioration in agricultural conditions that has already taken place," he said.
Effective methods - many of them presented by small farmers at the conference - include crop rotation and diversification, agroforestry and underground irrigation, he added.
Irish government ministers promised delegates that their views would be injected into international policy processes, such as the G8 summit in June and the U.N.-led consultations on the post-2015 development goals.
But it was clear there is a long way to go before the small farmers who are struggling with climate impacts on a daily basis get their fair share of seats at the global decision making table, despite the opportunity to be heard at the Dublin conference.
"It is all too rare in this world for those who are representing the communities most vulnerable to climate change…to have the ear of policy makers and to serve as true experts,” Gore said. Gatherings of this kind “should be done more often”, he urged.