What is Adaptation and Why is Food Sovereignty Important?

By Chris Bisson

There has been a lot of talk in the lead up to and so far during COP17 here in Durban, South Africa about adaptation. Climate-vulnerable parties spoke in the opening plenary yesterday, repeating the need for climate financing to reflect a balance between mitigation and adaptation. The Development Fund of Norway (DFN) and the Gaia Foundation emphasized this message especially in today’s side event: Agroecology, Climate Resilience and Planning for Adaptation. That these imperatives are now seen as equal in importance indicates precisely the accelerating impacts that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are having on global atmospheric patterns, and in turn our biosphere. All humans depend on the ability of ecosystems to generate enough food for us to live, therefore it is no surprised that one of the greatest conversation happening around adaptation is how communities will feed themselves as we enter a future of climate impacts. DFN and the Gaia Foundation’s side event today on agroecology and adaptation to climate change addressed just such problems, and provided examples of how communities in the Global South are taking action to adapt their food systems to climate change.

Adaptation is composed of three key ideas: hazards, vulnerability, and resilience. A hazard is the potential for natural forces to impact people, produced by social and economic factors. Vulnerability is the general exposure of people to hazards. Resilience is the ability of communities and ecosystems to withstand and maintain its integrity through any shock to its environment. Finally, adaptation is the establishment of resilience in communities and ecosystems throughout the transition to new environmental conditions. Ways of fostering resilience differs by geography, culture and the severity of impacts or shocks. They range from building retrofits to shifting economic practices, and, in most severe cases, migration. It must be stressed that forced change on a community level is always an extremely difficult thing for communities to endure, especially when they threaten livelihoods, cultural practices, attachment to place or alter social dynamics. To have to adapt – especially to human-caused impacts with minimal cause to impacts, through violence, without free, prior and informed consent or under economic or political duress, is socially unjust. It is for this reason that adaptation absolutely has to be genuinely preceded with firm commitments to abate hazards before they impact vulnerable communities. Prevention is always the cheapest, most effective and most desirable medicine.

For climate-vulnerable communities the production of or access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food is one of the greatest hazards that climate change will generate. As with all vulnerabilities, the hazard of limited food access is mostly caused by social and economic factors. In Ethiopia, colonially-driven political violence, capitalist economic exploitation and poor physical and provisional infrastructure was coupled with drought earlier this year, which lead to extensive and devastating food shortages. The presentation today addressed how communities are taking action to adapt local food systems to the effects of human-caused climate change through a variety of case studies.

The cases represented four different regions: Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and Nepal. All cases were profoundly different, however one common stream ran through all of them: the fundamental role of grassroots governance and implementation, and the importance of local ecological knowledge, observation and research. Another important message was the message of local sovereignty over the means of producing food: most notably access to locally appropriate and diverse collections of seed. Access to land is necessary for connectedness to place, access to ecological knowledge as well as the basic need to space to produce food. Pastoralists – in the case of Ethiopia, require greater access to land in order to rotate livestock for grazing, access to local breeds of cattle appropriate to the ecosystem is also necessary. If done correctly, rotational grazing can restore grassland ecosystems, especially for building soils generating greater ecological resilience, which when combined with cultural resilience through equitable distribution of land, grassroots governance and the empowerment of local worldviews produce climate resilience.

The message that needs to be taken away from this conference is that climate resilience can only be fostered through small-scale and locally-driven ecological agricultural practices. Chemical and mechanized agriculture, especially based exclusively of Western science and monocrop export-oriented production will only increase the vulnerabilities of communities worldwide, especially for Indigenous and peasant farming communities. Adaptation needs to be publicly financed by rich countries with consideration for historic responsibility for emissions facilitated directly by the Adaptation Committee constitutive mostly of poor countries and allocated to local and democratically governed community organizations. No loan-based initiatives, CDMs or other market-based initiatives are acceptable in fostering resilience. Most importantly, all adaptation measures must be preceded by immediate and ambitious emissions targets progressive to historical responsibility for climate change.

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