Agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change and, thus, an appropriate target for mitigation efforts. Agricultural adaptation is also critical as climate change is likely to make current food systems less productive or obsolete. But, gender and other social structures add layers of complexity to this work, whether it’s done in research labs in wealthy countries, or in farmers’ fields in poorer ones. In this context, climate change response efforts need the social sciences, to understand men’s and women’s different experience of the problem and, especially, to benefit from the best possible solutions.
Woman with lentils, Jamnapur village, Bihar, India.
(Credit: P. Casier (CGIAR) via Flickr / CGIAR Climate)
The subject of climate change frequently resembles a massive storm of scientific analyses and political rhetoric. But there is an area of research that has been largely overlooked and whose input could bring real benefits to mitigation and adaptation efforts: gender.
Recognition of the importance of gender research has become increasingly common in development circles and has started making its way into climate change. Agriculture contributes between 10 and 12% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and in poor farming populations, gender norms and values can be deeply entrenched. These create stumbling blocks to the implementation of climate-friendlier methods, but are also a rich source of potential solutions. At the beginning of April, CGIAR, a global network of organizations involved in research for food security published a working paper on the topic. “A Gender Strategy for Pro-Poor Climate Change Mitigation” suggests research that needs to be done to identify where gender plays a role and how to benefit from this approach to climate change.
Social sciences provide vital information
David Edmunds, a visiting scholar in Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of three authors of the paper, explains that part of the problem is in the nature of the narrative that developed around climate change. “The Crisis! narrative leads to the reaction that we must apply all our scientific knowledge immediately, which marginalizes the social sciences. Now, they have to catch up,” he says. One example is that many low emission and adaptive technologies, like agroforestry and organic soil improvements, do exist, but frequently are not taken up at the local level. Sometimes this is because the technical information doesn’t reach farmers, but often it’s because the information is not well-suited to local social, cultural or political contexts. Social sciences could certainly intervene here.
Worse than non-adoption of useful technology, though, is when well-intentioned climate change mitigation efforts prove harmful to disfavored groups, like the poorest rural women. For instance, a community may be asked to plant trees as part of such a project. Plantations like this often require land tenure rights, though—rights that women in parts of Africa, Southern Asia and many other places do not have. So women may not benefit. In fact, such projects may even lead to a loss of access to resources. “A lot of spaces where women manage trees are informal gathering places, so formal projects could endanger these,” David Edmunds explains.
Women’s unique contribution
More significant than simply seeking equity here is the idea that, since gender plays a fundamental role in the division of labor, resource use, cultural connections, etc., men and women can have a very different experience of and reaction to climate change. Making sure to include women’s approaches and expertise can provide new and useful tools. David Edmunds gives an example from Bangladesh. A women’s collective there managed to obtain land from wealthier people that had been lying fallow. On these plots, very poor women were able to grow climate-mitigating and adaptive crops, such as sunflowers, in places where they wouldn’t have been before.
Pushing for changes in gender relations, across very different cultures, could be a delicate affair. Edmunds feels the climate change field should take a lesson from other areas of development. In Honduras, for example, a ten-year project experimented with new varieties of crops. At first, men controlled the choices. Later, as women made their preferences known, they participated more in the field, while men got more involved at home. “I don’t want to exaggerate it,” he says, “but there was this organic change. This says to me: slow, locally driven change in gender relations is what’s needed.”
Training women farmers on climate smart innovations in Nyando, Kenya
(Photo: V. Atakos (CCAFS) via Flickr/CGIAR Climate)
Can we wait for change?
If there’s one thing, though, that the response to climate change does not seem to have, it would be time. How would David Edmunds respond to the claim that we can’t wait for the slow change he advocates? “Scientists have been trying mitigation work for some ten years and more, and what’s to show for it? That’s why CGIAR is asking why low emission technologies are not widely implemented. If you try to force them down people’s throats, you get resistance, because the tech may not fit the local environment. Even if the science is good, we need the social sciences to integrate other sources of knowledge that will make the science relevant and workable for people actually engaged in agriculture.”
“I don’t want to appear anti-science,” he adds. “The idea is to enrich it and look in other places for useful knowledge. We’re just getting started, but the hope is that if we create spaces for women farmers, we’ll have different perspectives and different answers to climate problems, ones that contribute to science, just as science can enrich the local technical and social knowledge of women and men.”