Saturday, September 1, 2012

Climate Change, Power, and the Marginalization of Indigenous Adaptability Strategies: A Case Study From Ghana

In November 2009, a subsistence farmer named Emilia Darko was using her cutlass to pick at an area of chalky, light-brown soil around the stalk of an unhealthy maize plant. Slowly shaking her head, she lifted her gaze to the two-acre plot of maize she had planted in June, the typical time for planting maize in the forested areas of the central Volta Region of Ghana. The rains had come late, and now they were ending early. The three or four months of rain needed to sustain a decent maize yield had failed her, and now she was left with a field of stunted, rapidly-withering crops. “It just doesn’t make sense anymore,” she told me. “We used to plant cocoa and plantains on this very plot, and now it can’t even sustain maize.” Indeed, this part of the Volta Region used to be one of the highest-yielding areas for cocoa production in Ghana. However, the combined forces of crop diseases, deforestation, forest fires, and climate change have forced most farmers here to turn to subsistence farming. No longer able to produce high-value yields, farmers here now rely on the bare minimum to nourish their households and either store surpluses or send them to markets.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group composed of scientists and political figures, has correctly identified such communities as “highly vulnerable” to the uncertainties of climate change. In conferences and reports, they have consistently argued that communities in places such as the Volta Region of Ghana will not be able to adapt to such perturbations without the help of the international community and investments in infrastructure. What they have ignored, however, are the adaptations that such communities are already making to environmental changes.

In 2009 and 2010, I carried out anthropological research as a graduate student in Guaman, a small community in the Volta Region of Ghana that sits along the border with Togo. I had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the community from 2005 to 2007 as an environment and agroforestry volunteer, and knew first-hand the travails that these farmers were facing. One thing I had also noticed, however, was that farmers were tapping into the vast stores of knowledge – local, imported, or otherwise – that they had accumulated over the years to adapt to such fundamental changes in their environment. The research I undertook not only confirmed that farmers were becoming increasingly worried about changes in the weather, forest fires, and the disappearance of natural resources, but also that they were experimenting with innovative ways to adapt to such changes.

In an interview I conducted with Kofi Baffour, the president of a local agroforestry farmer-based organization in the area, he complained about the lack of effort on behalf of the international community to combat climate change or to help farmers who were being impacted by it. Flipping through the IPCC’s 2007 report on Africa, he became frustrated at the complicated models and proposed scenarios to help vulnerable people adapt to climate change. “Where is our voice in this document?” he asked, pushing it across the table. “I have read through that entire report and only read one snippet about how some farmers in Nigeria have indigenous agricultural methods that may be able to be used as a part of an intervention. But those suggestions are buried beneath scores of proposals for multi-million dollar reservoirs and large-scale mono-cropping initiatives. What about the adaptations we are already making? Why don’t they let us propose for ourselves, the people who live here, what we can do to adapt to climate change?” Even though the area has seen decreasing rainfall and rampant forest fires over the past ten years, Kofi couldn’t recall one instance where an international organization had come and investigated the situation or asked for anyone’s opinion from the area.

However, farmers here have mostly prevailed against such adverse circumstances. Emilia Darko, the same farmer who presided over her failed two-acre plot of maize, also has other “fall back” plots where she plants manioc (also known as cassava)and plantains and low-land areas where she plants rice. Rather than waiting for the weather to return to its previous patterns or for an international organization to initiate a large-scale project, she is consulting with other members of the community and experimenting with new ways to cultivate her land. “The maize I planted herewas a gamble to begin with. Some years the rain is good, but most years it is bad. So instead of relying on this maize I am now mostly planting cassava, rice, plantains, and experimenting with irrigated vegetable farming.”

About ten miles away, another farmer named Mohammed Antwi who is more well-to-do is taking this approach to whole new heights. His father and grandfather both planted extensive plots of cocoa, plantains, and bananas in the area. The land he inherited, however, is no longer conducive to such crops. Instead, he has used his agricultural experience working as a farmer in the northern Sahel to introduce different methods. “There is a lot we can learn from farmers in northern Ghana and Burkina Faso,” he explained to me on one hot afternoon. “Whether we like it or not, the forests are giving way to savannas and we are going to have to begin growing crops that are suitable for such environments.” On this large expanse of land that used to contain thick rainforest and cocoa plantations, he now plants yams and cow peas – crops that are mostly grown in northern Ghana. And other members of the community are beginning to take notice. “At least once a week someone asks if they can come and see what I am doing on my farm. They ask me about the different tools that they will need and how to prepare the soil for such crops.”

If the international community is going to continue to churn out carbon emissions at alarming rates while trying to scramble to set up programs to help the most vulnerable, perhaps they should reevaluate their approach to climate change and climate change adaptation. Rather than going to the “experts” to figure out what will protect the world’s most vulnerable populations from the threats of climate change, they should see what those communities are already doing and find ways to strengthen local initiatives and innovations. The programs that would emerge from such collaborations would not only be more effective, but they would also be more affordable and more empowering to the local communities’ knowledge that such programs are based on. Unfortunately, what seems to be standing in the way is the assumption that “experts” from developed countries know what works best and that local agricultural subsistence practices are irrelevant to designing and implementing more effective adaptation strategies.

Kofi Baffour, the leader of the farmer-based organization mentioned above, has accumulated knowledge about environmental changes in Guaman. The farmer-based organization that he formed, including members such as Emilia Darko and Mohammed Antwi, has pooled its experiences together as part of a locally-based adaptation strategy. That such strategies have been devised and implemented – with much success, according to respondents – should be seen as a point of departure for broader attempts at adaptations to climate change. Such perspectives and strategies should be given considerable weight in the substantially influential literature produced by organizations such as the IPCC. A successful local adaptability practice in a small village in rural Ghana holds as much promise – if not more – than a large-scale infrastructural project based on complex climate models from universities in the developed world. Indigenous knowledge about environmental change and adaptability should no longer have a marginalized voice in the global discourse on climate change, vulnerability, and adaptation.

Douglas La Rose


La Rose, Douglas .2011. Buem Crop Choices and Agricultural Strategies as Adaptability Practices: Social Responses to Environmental Change in a Rural Ghanaian Farming Community. Montezuma Publishing, San Diego, CA

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