Towards inclusive climate-adaptation planning: Integrating perspectives of smallholder farmers can enhance the effectiveness of climate adaptation policies

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Towards inclusive climate-adaptation planning: Integrating perspectives of smallholder farmers can enhance the effectiveness of climate adaptation policies

As climate adaptation goes mainstream, a recent study examines the importance of including local perspectives of smallholder farmers in adaptation planning. 

Singh, R.K., Singh, A., Kumar, S. et al. Perceived Climate Variability and Compounding Stressors: Implications for Risks to Livelihoods of Smallholder Indian Farmers. Environmental Management66, 826–844 (2020).

Climate change is altering rainfall patterns and causing extreme weather events to intensify around the world. The agriculture sector is facing the brunt of these impacts. As scientists predict ever-worsening effects on food and crop production, decision-makers are starting to take notice 


Climate adaptation plans are becoming a common feature of agricultural policies for many governments. Typically, these plans lay out steps to address physical and biological stressors on the agriculture sector predicted by scientific models. Despite their scientific integrity, climate adaptation plans often ignore localized perspectives of smallholder farmers who are already experiencing some of the worst impacts of climate change. A recent study in Environmental Management sought to explore questions related to farmer perceptions and experiences of climate change in the context of a highly climate-sensitive region – Uttar Pradesh, India 


Scientific models are able to predict with relative accuracy the physical dimensions of climate impacts – such as changes in rainfall patterns and occurrence of extreme weather events. However, what these projections can’t illuminate is how farmers on the ground perceive changes in the climate. For instance, farmers’ perceptions of the severity of a drought can be shaped by factors such as such as rising costs of cultivation, access to irrigation, or deficient agriculture extension systems. Failing to understand these dimensions can lead to inadequate or inappropriate adaptation action that falls short of addressing the actual needs of the most impacted communities 


The authors of the recent Environmental Management study unpacked these human dimensions of climate impacts by understanding the perspectives of smallholder farmers in India. To do so, the researchers, led by Dr. Ranjay K. Singh of the ICAR Soil Salinity Research Institute in India, used a combination of interviews and focused group discussions with 84 smallholders in the Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh. The researchers compared farmers’ responses with publicly available meteorological data to analyze where the two aligned and diverged.  


The results of the study revealed that many farmers’ perceptions diverged from those of climate scientists.  For instance, farmers defined normal rainfall based on the presence of evenly distributed rainfall. As a result, some years that were considered “normal” by meteorological standards were actually experienced as drought years by farmers. This is because, for a farmer, even when total rainfall is high, if it is not evenly distributed, crops fail. This example highlights the potential gaps of an adaptation policy that ignores farmers perspectives – such a policy would fail to address droughts and other extreme events as they are experienced by farmers.  


The study also revealed that social and political factors worsened climate impacts on farmers and increased their perceived climate risks. Farmers perceived climate risks differently based on the resources they had. For instance, farmers who lacked access to irrigation perceived drought conditions to be a major risk to their livelihoods versus those with irrigation infrastructure did not. This example illustrates that any adaptation policy that is aiming to address climate impacts must address the ways in which these impacts are related to and worsened by other socio-economic and policy factors. 


The results of this study show the importance of integrating local community perceptions of climate risks into planning to develop locally compatible and relevant adaptation policies. Integrating these perceptions into planning will require policy makers to adopt participatory approaches. This will require a significant shift from the usual top-down approaches that are a common feature of governance and decision-making in India.

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