Ecosystems, Climate Change, Vulnerability and Economics connect

Submitted by Radha Kunke | published 25th Sep 2012 | last updated 9th Aug 2013

This article is adapted from a posting on "Ecologic" - WOTR, News and Views , May 2012.

Life on earth is made up of a huge diversity of species, relationships and processes. Nature functions through diversity and the problem of Climate Change is not a uniform one. It is characterised by unpredictability, but also a range of effects and manifestations. Can the rationale of the solution come from the problem itself?

WOTR’s approach integrates Biodiversity concerns and Local Livelihoods, brings together Ecosystem and Economics for Adaptation to Climate Change. It aims to incorporate the value of diversity in every sphere to increase and sustain overall resilience.

In WOTR's Watershed Development programmes, afforestation activities are geared towards promoting plant nurseries of locally adapted and hardy species that people can use to meet their local needs. The nursery raising itself becomes a livelihood activity. The watershed treatments themselves are being redesigned to adapt to sudden, high onsets of rainfall minimizing damage.

Agriculture activities in the nurseries promote low external inputs, indigenous seed varieties, diversified cropping that are for sustenance as well as market based for bringing in adequate cash. These are combined with water-efficient techniques that ensure that every drop of water is optimally used.

Livestock activities promote small ruminants and backyard poultry to meet immediate needs and indigenous large ruminants that are locally adapted. Both of these varieties ensure alternative sources of income.

A variety of non-farm activities to cater to local demands and ensure that money rotates within the local economy longer; and to provide opportunities for the educated youth who can apply and engage themselves locally.

Alternate energy for lighting and cooking that meet the energy needs while reducing the carbon footprint as much as possible. The setting up and maintenance activities become new employment opportunities for the interested.

Last but not least, promoting People’s Biodiversity Registers to build awareness of local flora and fauna and to foster a conservation approach in people’s minds.

In short, Diversification and Localization are being developed as an adaptation and mitigation approach.

Biodiversity loss is not solely the loss of species of flora and fauna. Biodiversity loss also distorts the carbon-cycle; and weakens barriers to the impact of natural disasters.Although the impending disappearance of exotic Iberian Bald-headed Eagle or the Bengal Tiger is important, multiple other less glamorous insects, birds, plants are at risk and the impact of their disappearance not yet fully and commonly understood.

The gradual and in some cases surprisingly rapid disappearance of species of animals, birds, trees and plant life, fishes and crops that directly impact everyday human life should be of great concern - those crops, livestock, fruit and fish species that were highly adapted to local conditions that are hardy and able to survive difficult conditions. Cultural practices and local knowledge systems that evolved and were customised to a particular region have also been lost.

Degrading ecosystems - forests, grasslands, freshwater, marine and other natural ecosystems that provide a range of services, vital to human welfare but often not accounted for in national GDPs. They are vital because they regulate water flows, pollination, detoxify and decontaminate and recycle nutrients, sequester carbon, among others. Biodiversity is the mainstay of these ecosystems - its loss directly impacts the health of any ecosystem, which in turn will impact all human and other life.

Finally, biodiversity loss and depleting/degraded ecosystems impact our (human and eco-system) resilience and coping abilities.

Climate change compounds the problem multi-fold. A healthy, biodiverse ecosystem that can recover from climate stresses now are not easily available, and climate change itself will stress biodiversity further. An increasing loss of biodiversity will in turn exacerbate and accelerate the climate change.

This is not anything new, anything we don’t already know. Most people in the communities, too, are well aware of what is sustainable and what is unsustainable. But most often decisions taken are mostly dependent on some other factor which brings us to the question of money.

Economics Connect

How do economies and market forces come into the picture?

Economics is one of the main drivers of decision-making – at individual, community, national and international levels. Growth, currently is largely defined by economic well-being. All human progress is driven by this underlying aspiration towards economic growth. In simple terms, economic well-being is about meeting the basics and going beyond basics; it is about easier and more comfortable life, alternatives and options, security and plenitude. It is about meeting immediate and urgently felt needs and securing a scarcity free future.

The villages of Shiswad in Akole Taluka and Sarole Pathar in Sangamner Taluka, Maharashtra, India (in WOTR’s Climate Change Adaptation project area) exemplify this factor. Shiswad is much closer to and richer in natural resources, being in a high rainfall area and being close to forests. Sarole Pathar lies along the arterial Pune-Nasik Highway, in the rain-shadow, semi-arid regions. Its history of Watershed Development has left it water rich and an economically rich. The people of Akole depend on a much larger variety of local crops and forest produce for meeting their various needs. The people of Sarole Pathar on the other hand extensively grow cash-crops and are externally dependent for meeting their various needs.

Both are vulnerable – one to climate vagaries and the other to market volatility. Both have a high leakage of local resources – 92-95 %. Decisions of people in both the regions, big or small, are determined by external forces. Mirabai Patangare, Sarole Pathar, sums it up when she says “we know that a cash-crop driven, hybrid-seed dependent agriculture may not be the most sustainable. But this is what gives us a higher yield and is demand of the market, and in the end we need to cater to this”. She also goes to say, “...we need money, cash, to educate our children, pay medical bills, and buy things”.

For the small farmers of Akole, on the other hand, the challenge is to meet the growing “growth” needs and aspirations of their families in the face a depleting natural resource base that is unable to sustain them. Pandu, Shiswad poses a different dilemma: “we suffer the impacts of climate variability and migration is no longer an option. Because the farmers in Narayangaon also are suffering the same way… they have no jobs to give us… so we have to return back to our villages…”

Simultaneously we see that non-farm livelihoods have gone a different route. They have resulted in a systematic erosion of local skill-sets, while acquiring new ones that cater very little to local demands and needs, which in turn has meant that these demands and needs are met by external expertise. This has spiralled the local populations further and further away from local self-sufficiency to external dependence that have also resulted in skews in the 5 capitals – natural, financial, social, human, physical – developing some to the detriment of others.

Farmers on the other hand, though under the greatest threat from climate change, can play a major role in addressing it. It is possible for agriculture to actually sequester—or absorb—carbon into the soil rather than emitting it. This can be done without the trade off with productivity and yields. It is possible to have higher yields, more carbon in the soil and greater resilience to droughts and heat. A `triple win’: interventions that would increase yields (poverty reduction and food security), make yields more resilient in the face of extremes (adaptation), and make the farm a solution to the climate change problem rather than part of the problem (mitigation).