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OPINION: Island farmers need resilience for all seasons

by Oluyede Ajayi | Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation
Friday, 30 August 2019 07:34 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As climate change brings hurricanes and other pressures, Caribbean farmers need to find ways to adapt

Oluyede Ajayi is a senior programme coordinator at the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA)

When Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept through the Caribbean two years ago, they didn’t just take down infrastructure like power networks, water supplies and homes. They also decimated farms and plantations.

For small islands like Antigua, Barbuda and Dominica and their rural communities, this was a double blow, hitting both their plates and their pockets.

The trail of destruction, through a 250-acre coconut plantation and dozens of fruit and vegetable farms, destroyed both local food supplies at a time when families were cut off, as well as key export crops needed to support the islands’ economies.

These combined circumstances show why small island nations, and their smallholder farmers, are uniquely vulnerable to extreme weather events such as Hurricane Dorian resulting from the global climate emergency.

Building resilience among smallholders to climate change is not only crucial to minimise the impact of hurricanes, storms and floods, but it must also be a long-term, all-weather priority.

Achieving this is a challenge because it requires coordinated efforts on two fronts, with governments and policymakers, and with the smallholder farmers themselves.

But by working with both groups at the same time, equipping each with more and better information and digital tools, we can embed resilience within the vital agricultural sector.

As part of CTA’s work across the Caribbean, for example, we are collaborating with government partners to train farmers in techniques and practices that are “climate-smart” and responsive to new or extreme conditions.

In Jamaica alone, through the “Accelerating the Uptake of Climate-Smart Agriculture ” project, we aim to reach 5,000 farmers with initiatives such as field schools and new, digital weather advisory services available via simple, accessible platforms such as SMS.

By helping farmers to better understand environmental threats and impacts, such as the impact of “slash and burn” field clearances on soil fertility, we can help them to maximise their farms’ potential year-round.

We are also working to improve farmers’ access to varieties of crops that can tolerate higher temperatures or excessive rainfall.

Through promoting the importance of quality seeds as we have done in Guyana, and organising seed fairs, where farmers can buy improved and stress-tolerant seeds, we are helping to improve the diversity and resilience of their farms.

Finally, we are also working with government agencies responsible for climate change, to help align climate-smart agriculture projects with national climate change targets to help unlock public sector investment.

By demonstrating that such practices can contribute to a country’s official targets for climate adaptation submitted under the Paris Agreement, we can strengthen the case for investment in resilience-building initiatives.

Such funding is vital to ensure that training and extension services that support farmers on the ground can continue to take place.

The impact of climate change in the Caribbean may feel seasonal but the fall-out is long-lasting and can cause devastating losses to lives as well as livelihoods.

And while it may be impossible for smallholders to fully defend themselves against the might of a hurricane or a cyclone, we can help them to improve productivity in the meantime and to recover faster in the wake of a disaster.

Put simply, the more we can do to bolster smallholder farmers, the better their chances of weathering the storm.