International Climate Agreements are Failing Smallholder Farmers

20 May 2016   |   Victor Biwot, Manager of Sireet Tea Outgrowers in Kenya, a Fairtrade certified organization

A report published this week by Oxfam has criticized the Paris climate talks for having ‘failed’ poorer countries adapting to global warming. Entitled “Unfinished Business”, it points out the financial support pledged to tackle climate change falls well short of what is needed, which means those most vulnerable to its impact – small-scale farmers – are being ‘left on their own’. Victor Biwot, a tea farmer from Kenya, agrees the West needs to be more realistic.

Smallholder farmers understand best the land and the weather cycles. Their relationship with nature is unique. And they are the people who know best the realities they face – the effects of climate change and the need to adapt to survive.

As climate change is already severely impacting communities worldwide, including Fairtrade tea growers in Kenya, I felt honored to be part of the Fairtrade delegation at the Paris climate talks last year. While there, I tried to take every opportunity to illustrate the effects of changing weather on tea farming.

I did a short video interview, gave talks and attended a number of events. I spoke at Climate Change studio and at the Farmers’ Day event that was focused on the role of partnerships in improving agricultural resilience and productivity. I also attended the official launch of the Fairtrade Climate Standard, very welcomed by tea farmers, as it encourages sustainable farming practices.

When looking back, being part of the global dialogue about climate change – heralded as one of the most critical issues of our times – felt inspiring, and empowering. The kind of mindset that is good to adopt when your livelihood is under pressure from erratic weather.

Weather Chaos

Rising temperatures, unpredictable rains and heavy frost are ending the predictability that we tea farmers could rely on in the past. This all adds a new layer of risk to our lives, on top of all the other things an average farmer has to worry about.

As the symptoms of changing weather patterns vary, so do their effects.

Prolonged drought which dries the tea and other crops results in farmers losing income and food. Frequent frosts, which has the same effect as drought, means insufficient crop yield. Heavy and prolonged rains destroy food crops, which is even more damaging at harvest times.

In the past, hail would occur in July and August only, but nowadays it can hail up to six times a year.  This, combined with unpredictable rains, delays the onset of planting season and distorts agricultural cycles.

The political agenda through the commitments made in Paris (known as COP21) seeks to address these challenges in the long term, but we farmers need more than commitments – we need viable funding.

Let’s be Realistic

Kenya is set to receive $1 million from the $100 billion pledged by developed countries. This amount is too small to address the damage the climate change has already done, and the adaptation work that needs to happen in years to come.

The support we farmers need should include new technologies to enable us to produce food even when there is no rain and post-harvest handling procedures. We should be able to maximize production in rainy seasons, and store the food to use during a dry spell. Farmers also require support in order to implement mitigation measures, such as tree planting and use of energy efficient systems for lighting and cooking.

The cost of addressing climate change is high, but we can’t afford to ignore it. Climate change is already threatening food security. Maize farmers, whose crops were affected in previous years, have begun to reduce the area to grow the food by 50 percent. But we need to produce more food not less, in order to feed the growing population.

As farming is getting more challenging, it is losing its appeal. Where I come from, it is the responsibility of the farmer to do all the work on the farm and bear every loss that comes.

Frequent crop failures mean farmers can’t rely on growing food and are too often pushed to a desperate position. Farming is becoming a risky venture, discouraging younger generations from choosing it as a career. This feeling of frustration portends a disaster to agriculture and to food security.

Farming and climate change are deeply interrelated. Farming relies on climatic conditions, but it can also be part of the solution to climate change, with the right knowledge and techniques. World leaders need to recognize this quickly and move from making pledges to delivering concrete action.

Fairtrade International has developed the Fairtrade Climate Standard, as a way for smallholders and rural communities to gain access to the carbon market while also improving their capability to face climate change. To read more about it, and a number of Fairtrade-led climate adaptation projects, click here.

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