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Climate change: building smallholder resilience


Climate changeSmallholder farmers are the backbone of the rural economy – but they are bearing the brunt of climate change. Worldwide, there are 500 million smallholder farms supporting some 2 billion people.

These farmers inhabit some of the most at-risk landscapes, including hillsides, deserts and floodplains. Climate change multiplies the threats facing smallholders, endangering the natural assets they depend on and accelerating environmental degradation.

Over the centuries, smallholders have learned to adjust to environmental change and climate variability. But the current speed and intensity of climate change are outpacing their capacity to adapt. Crop failures and livestock deaths are causing economic losses, raising food prices and undermining food security with ever-greater frequency, especially in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, demand for food is increasing as populations grow and dietary habits change.

Agriculture, along with forestry, can play a key role in tackling climate change. Improving land management and farming practices and planting forests can help lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Poor farmers are custodians of natural resources, often managing vast areas of land and forest. Targeted assistance can enhance this crucial role. IFAD is committed to scaling up investments in sustainable agricultural intensification, focusing on risk and resilience, promoting value chains that drive ‘green growth’, supporting better governance and policies on natural assets, and promoting knowledge-intensive and community-led responses.

A crucial feature of IFAD’s approach to building poor rural people’s resilience to climate change is soliciting their views during the planning process. With their participation, climate change risks can be reduced and progress towards a world without poverty can be accelerated.

IFAD’s climate change strategy

Environmental threats such as climate change are inseparable from IFAD’s mission to enable poor rural people to overcome poverty. Climate change is multiplying their existing risks and creating new ones – while possibly opening up some new opportunities. In 2010, IFAD’s Executive Board approved a climate change strategy to ensure a systematic focus on the implications of climate change for our activities at the country level. The strategy aims to maximize IFAD’s impact on rural poverty in a changing climate. It has three purposes:

  • To support innovative approaches to helping smallholder producers build their resilience to climate change
  • To enable smallholder farmers to take advantage of available mitigation incentives and funding
  • To inform a more cogent dialogue on climate change, rural development, agriculture and food security


  • In rural areas of developing countries, nearly 2 billion people live on less than US$2 a day.
  • Around 1 billion people go hungry every day.
  • By 2050 food production needs to increase by 70 per cent, but the total arable area in developing countries may increase by no more than 12 per cent, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
  • In Africa alone, climate change will expose 75 million to 250 million more people to increased water stress by 2020.
  • Agriculture accounts for 14 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and forestry for 18 per cent.
  • There are around 500 million smallholder farms in the world. Smallholders provide up to 80 per cent of food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

What climate change means for rural development

Climate change has five key implications for rural development programmes:

The risks created by climate change require urgent attention.
Investing now in adaptation and mitigation measures will be far less costly than in the future.

Climate change magnifies traditional risks. Farmers can no longer rely on historical averages of factors such as rainfall and temperature, because climate change is increasing climate variability, the range of extremes and the scale of volatility.

Beyond traditional risks, smallholders will face new threats, such as sea-level rise and the impact of melting glaciers on water supply. Mechanisms for emission rewards and carbon-financing schemes are complex, and efforts will be needed to ensure that poor people are not shut out of such benefits through social exclusion or limitations on land-use rights.

Uncertainty over climate impacts is no reason for inaction.

New models can help reduce uncertainty in local assessments of vulnerability to climate change. To deal with residual uncertainties, it is important to take actions that offer significant development benefits under a range of climate scenarios – also called ‘no-regret’ options.  These measures aid communities both in building resilience to a range of potential shocks and in adjusting to longer-term climatic trends where these are clear. Approaches that help maintain agricultural production with or without climate change have obvious benefits. These include promoting crop diversity and biodiversity, using integrated farming and agroforestry systems, and improving post-harvest management.

There is an enormous opportunity – and need – to scale up ‘multiple benefit’ approaches to intensifying agriculture.

Sustainable management of land and watersheds, integrated pest management and organic agriculture are among the ‘multiple benefit’ approaches highlighted in IFAD’s  Rural Poverty Report 2011. These approaches increase yields, incomes, food security and climate resilience, and they protect biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, often simultaneously. There is no standard approach – strategies must be adapted to local circumstances. The key is building resilience by maintaining healthy and diverse landscapes, diverse production systems and healthy soil that can retain moisture and nutrients.

Responding to climate change also means renewing efforts to tackle wider development challenges.

Many of the programmes we support are designed to increase smallholders’ resilience to shocks, which are often related to weather. A coherent response to climate change requires continued emphasis on good development practices. This includes involving communities in managing natural resources, helping people acquire secure tenure to land, improving access to credit and markets, and strengthening the quality of governance. Recognizing the relevance of farmers’ traditional and indigenous knowledge is crucial, as is understanding and enabling women’s knowledge and roles in responding to climate change.

Smallholder farmers must benefit more from climate finance.

Estimates of the annual cost of climate change adaptation in developing world agriculture range from US$7 billion to US$12 billion per year. But smallholders face significant risks and barriers that limit their access to climate finance, including their insecure land tenure and the high cost of implementing projects.

Climate change is making smallholder development more expensive. Climate-resilient programmes typically have higher up-front costs, including for infrastructure, skills development for farmers and strengthening of institutions.

International climate finance is often linked to particular global policy goals, such as emissions mitigation, adaptation or efficient energy. In IFAD’s experience these issues converge on the ground, and they must be treated holistically if projects are to succeed.

China biogas project turns waste into energy

Methane, which is released from animal manure, is 22 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide. By turning human and animal waste into a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide that can be used for lighting and cooking, an IFAD-funded project in China’s Guangxi province is helping reduce methane’s serious global warming effects while also reducing poverty.

“We used to cook with wood,” says Liu Chun Xian, a farmer involved in the project. “The smoke made my eyes tear and burn and I always coughed. The children were often sick…. Now that we’re cooking with biogas, things are much better.”

Each household involved in the project built its own plant to channel waste from the domestic toilet and nearby shelters for animals, usually pigs, into a sealed tank. The waste ferments and is naturally converted into gas and compost. The project has improved living conditions and the environment. Forests are protected, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation. Straw, previously burned, also goes into the biogas tanks, further reducing air pollution and at the same time producing high-quality organic fertilizer. Sanitary conditions in homes have improved as well.

With more time to spend improving crops, farmers in Fada, a village in the project area, increased tea production from 400 to 2,500 kilograms per day over a five-year period. Average income in the village has quadrupled to just over a dollar a day – significant in a country where the poverty line is 26 cents per day. And 56,600 tons of firewood can now be saved in the project area every year, equivalent to recovering 7,470 hectares of forest.

RUPES: rewarding poor people for environmental services

Poor rural people are potentially important players in natural resource management and carbon sequestration. An IFAD-supported programme has helped build momentum and public interest in rewards for environmental services. It has also developed ways to reward poor farmers who protect ecosystems in China, Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Nepal, the Philippines and Viet Nam.

Results of the initial Programme for Developing Mechanisms to Reward
Upland Poor of Asia for the Environment Services They Provide (RUPES), which ran from 2002 to 2007, were so encouraging that a second phase began in October 2008. At each of the 6 sites for the first phase, and 12 for the second, local institutions partner with the World Agroforestry Centre to develop reward systems appropriate to the local context.

“Many people living in Asia’s upland communities manage landscapes that
provide environmental services to outside beneficiaries,” says Dennis Garrity, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre. “These services include clean and abundant water supplies from watersheds, biodiversity protection and stocks of carbon that alleviate global warming. Rewarding communities for providing these services reduces poverty and provides incentives to manage uplands in ways that enhance the sustainability of the lowlands, compensate for carbon emissions elsewhere and support global biodiversity conservation goals.”

Sometimes the rewards are financial, coming in the form of direct payments, but not always. Providing secure land rights has been the main reward mechanism for watershed protection and carbon sequestration projects in Indonesia. The process of identifying environmental services, valuing them and facilitating the development of local institutions has raised awareness of watershed conservation and better land management in all RUPES sites. A similar programme – Pro-Poor Rewards for Environmental Services in Africa – is being implemented in Guinea, Kenya, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania.

IFAD’s experience in the field

The decision to create IFAD was made in 1974 in the wake of the massive droughts and famines that struck Africa and Asia in the preceding years. We work mainly in marginal, rainfed areas that are at risk from water shortages, land degradation and desertification. This is why adaptation to climate variability and strengthening resilience to environmental stress have always been part of our work. The following are just a few examples of how IFAD addresses climate change.

In Sri Lanka, IFAD and the GEF are supporting a programme to rehabilitate three key coastal ecosystems along the tsunami-devastated east coast.

In China, we are supporting a weather-based index insurance project to help poor farmers. Jointly funded by private and public entities, weather-based index insurance links payouts to objective, measurable indicators such as rainfall or temperature. As a result, farmers are better able to manage risk and may be more comfortable investing in agricultural activities that require greater initial investment.

In Burkina Faso, the IFAD-supported Sustainable Rural Development Programme is adopting more environmentally friendly technologies such as soil and water conservation techniques and agroforestry.

In Senegal, responding to increasing desertification, IFAD has supported drip irrigation.

On the islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues, an IFAD-funded programme is helping participants diversify their activities into agriculture and microenterprises so their livelihoods are not solely dependent on fishing.

In eastern Morocco, where drought and overgrazing had degraded vast areas of rangelands, we are sponsoring a rehabilitation programme that has improved rangeland productivity and soil cover, regenerated medicinal and aromatic plants, and improved soil water infiltration. A GEF component of the programme supported a study that has provided information on climate change adaptation.

Adaptation in Peru

The native people of the high Andean plateau (altiplano) have always had to contend with an inhospitable environment. High winds, sparse ground cover, frozen water and extreme temperature variations are the norm. Climate change has made these temperature variations even more pronounced and worsened water shortages. The IFAD-supported Market Strengthening and Livelihood Diversification in the Southern Highlands project is helping more than 21,000 families over a wide area become more resilient to climate change impacts and improve their management of natural resources.

Water from rain and melting ice is being trapped in pits for use in irrigation.

Participants are diversifying their crops, cultivating maize, beans, cereals, potatoes and oregano in terraces, separated by stone walls, on the mountain slopes. The stone walls break the wind and trap soil and water to prevent run-off. They also act as heat reservoirs, soaking up warmth from the sun during the day and releasing it slowly at night, which helps reduce freezing.

Project participants are also planting trees to restore the area’s green cover.

The trees serve as wind breaks, help regulate temperature and provide fuelwood, while their roots stabilize the soil on the slopes. The project has improved the diet of the local population, and livestock is thriving.

Building alliances

Climate change is a global environmental challenge. Helping poor rural people adapt to its impacts and enabling them to contribute to mitigation requires cooperation and a coordinated approach by the international community.

Partnerships help IFAD learn more about climate change, share our knowledge, strengthen the operations we support, leverage additional funding and influence the global policy agenda.

IFAD works with developing country governments, poor rural peoples’ organizations, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to design innovative programmes and projects that fit within national priorities for agriculture and rural development. We also work closely with other United Nations agencies and multilateral financial institutions. IFAD supports efforts to strengthen the impact of the work of the United Nations system, and we participate in pilot initiatives to better coordinate the efforts of United Nations agencies at the country level to ‘deliver as one’. IFAD works especially closely with the other Rome-based agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Food Programme.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF), as one of the main financial mechanisms of the response to climate change, is a key partner, and IFAD is a GEF executing agency. IFAD/GEF cooperation currently focuses on nurturing the links among poverty reduction, sustainable land management and climate change issues. IFAD also help countries access funding by the GEF climate change programme. This includes the GEF Trust Fund, GEF-managed resources under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the Least Developed Country Fund and the Special Climate Change Fund) and the GEF-managed Adaptation Fund. Other important partners include the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the Global Donor Platform for Rural Development, and subregional partnerships, such as TerrAfrica.

Source: IFAD


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