When global climate change politics meets African agriculture

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by Joanes Atela, Political Ecologies of Carbon in Africa project

As nations debate climate change this week at the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19), addressing the urgent questions linking agriculture and climate change is not only politically, but morally the right thing to do. Agriculture tops the list of climate-affected sectors, with complex implications on food security and the economies of countries that depend on rain-fed agriculture.

The IPCC’s fourth assessment report (pdf) warns that if business in the agricultural sector continues as usual, rain-fed agricultural yields in some African countries could decline by as much as 50% by 2020. Prices of staple foods such as maize, wheat and rice could increase by an average of 53%, further exacerbating hunger and malnutrition in vulnerable nations where over a billion people are already reportedly food insecure. Agriculture is also a contributor to climate change – it emits about 14% of greenhouse gas partly through direct emissions and deforestation, according to the IPCC.

The story of agriculture and climate change is not new. However, prescribing solutions that take into account the interests of multiple actors engaged in the debate remains the biggest dilemma for the international community.

To understand why, we need to look at how the politics of agriculture in climate change plays out at a global level and how this results in pressure being put on national policy – a key question being examined by the STEPS project on political ecologies of carbon in Africa.

Unpacking the politics of climate change and agriculture

Considerable politics revolves around negotiating Parties, organizations’ and sectoral interests as played out in past debates under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and national debates. These debates have, however, yielded mixed and unclear prospects for agriculture.

At a global level, the politics revolves around the debates on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), which appears to have stolen the limelight from agriculture.

At the same time, however, the interest in REDD+ may have provided a window of opportunity for concerned actors to push the agriculture agenda at the UNFCCC. While developing country Parties seem to be keen on engaging with REDD+ and benefiting from a range of relatively well institutionalized multilateral and bilateral funds, observer organizations at the UNFCCC’s COPs have coined a plausible narrative around the ‘unavoidable face of agriculture in REDD+’. The narrative argues that agriculture is the main driver of deforestation – so ‘a successful REDD+’ depends more on agricultural development strategies that retain and sustain forests, than it does on forestry strategies themselves.

Despite the logic behind this forest-agriculture nexus, many developing countries – those principally endowed with forest resources – have remained non-committal to supporting a work programme on agriculture, which appears to have been continually put on the back burner at the UNFCCC. These countries consider agricultural systems to be costly and complex to monitor and a challenge to consolidating REDD+ funds.

Mechanized agriculture

Coupled with a dominant narrative of achieving economic development through agriculture, the interests of developing country Parties lie more in mechanized agriculture as outlined in their national strategies and regional policies such as the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme. Such mechanization policies are often viewed as a quick fix to seasonal hunger problems and economic growth, and are not in line with more climate friendly approaches like conservation agriculture.

The global politics further take this sectoral dimension and plays it out in national and global debates. For instance, concerns have been raised that the Forestry departments of certain countries are interested in controlling the REDD+ funds, and so dominate the REDD+ readiness plans with little input from agricultural departments. At the UNFCCC meetings, similar concerns have been raised:

“We acknowledge that REDD+ success depends on action in agriculture, as also stated by Nicholas Stern in Forest Day. ….And yet, despite the strong recognition of linkages and interdependencies between the land based sectors, I note that the press release reporting on Forest Day 4 does not mention agriculture. Clearly, sector silos are still strong.” (Peter Holmgren; Director, Climate Energy and Tenure at FAO, during a plenary session at Forest Day 4 in Cancun in November, 2010)

A policy vacuum?

Given the low commitment among some developing countries to a work programme on agriculture, a policy vacuum has emerged, giving external actors the opportunity to drive the climate change-agriculture agenda.

While these external actors have considerable de facto powers due to their finances and networks, they have very little de jure powers to domesticate such policies into the national agenda – and therein lies the dilemma.

In recent years, the ‘external actors’ have successfully pursued initiatives such as ‘climate smart agriculture’ and have tested their practicality in various African (and other) settings. The Future Agricultures Consortium has attempted to unpack how these initiatives practically play out.  A number of case studies across Africa, including Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Namibia and Malawi, reveal mixed outcomes. Overall, the studies suggest that the promise of external funding often overrides state policy. These initiatives in most cases directly intersect with messier informal and local institutions, where farmers have little knowledge on the content and aims of these initiatives. The result is contested accountability and power relations in which most farmers lose out.

Such policy mismatches are further spaces for land grabbing and intra-state institutional conflicts over donor funds, as revealed in the Malawi case. The Kenya case further details implicit issues such as gender, land rights, water scarcity and poor capacity as impediments to the adoption of such initiatives.

Some ways forward

These concerns point to the need for negotiators at the 19th COP of the UNFCCC to take agricultural debates as a moral rather than a purely political agenda.

There is a particular need for more work linking global and national policy agendas to create a ‘nested’ policy framework.

Within developing countries themselves, the vital areas for attention include more capacity-building on climate change, consultations with local people in the policy process and  attention to wider development issues such as water access and gender imbalances. These are vital if farmers are to become more empowered to expand their opportunities and wellbeing in the context of climate change.

Joanes Atela is pursuing a PhD in climate change and sustainability and is part of the STEPS Centre’s project on the political ecologies of carbon in Africa. He is also a researcher in the Climate Change theme of Future Agricultures. This article first appeared on the Future Agricultures blog.

Photo: Ethio drought 7 by aheavens on Flickr

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