Climate change adaptation and mitigation: What is MCC’s role?

By Amy Martens, research associate in MCC’s Planning, Learning and Disaster Response department. This piece was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Intersections: MCC theory and practice quarterly.

cropped-new-intersections-header (2)Climate change has already wrought significant adverse impacts on people and the environment, including increasing the risk of climate-related disasters. Communities, governments and non-governmental organizations employ adaptation and mitigation strategies to respond to climate change risks, seeking to limit future negative impacts and to enable communities to cope with adverse effects. What is the responsibility of relief, development and peacebuilding agencies like MCC that work in climate change-affected communities to respond to climate change through adaptation and mitigation?

The intersecting concepts of disaster risk, hazards and vulnerability are key in understanding the broader approaches of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Hazards in this case refer to natural adverse events such as droughts, extreme temperatures, landslides or hurricanes. Vulnerability is a term used to describe the characteristics or circumstances of a community that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard, including exposure to the hazard and ability to cope or adapt to its effects. Vulnerability is influenced by a variety of factors, including gender, age, inequalities in the distribution of resources, access to technology and information, employment patterns and governance structures. Disaster risk is based on the occurrence of hazards and vulnerability to those hazards. Not only is climate change increasing the frequency and severity of many natural hazards, but climate change impacts are increasing vulnerability by diminishing the capacity of communities to cope with these adverse events because of greater unpredictability of climatic events, increased displacement, land degradation and other impacts.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation are two complementary strategies to reduce and manage the risk associated with climate change. Mitigation involves reducing human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit future climate change. Mitigation strategies include switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, improving energy and transportation efficiency and increasing carbon “sinks” through reforestation. Adaptation is the process of adjusting to actual or expected climate change and its effects. Within communities, adaptation means avoiding or diminishing harm from climate impacts or exploiting beneficial opportunities associated with climate change. Adaptation includes a variety of activities to reduce vulnerability, including income and livelihood diversification, soil and water conservation, natural resource management and the provision of social safety nets. In addition, disaster risk reduction is a key strategy for reducing risk through efforts to analyze and manage the factors causing disaster situations, including reducing the exposure to hazards, lessening vulnerability of people and property and improving preparedness for disaster events.

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MCC is primarily involved in climate change adaptation activities by supporting communities currently affected by climate change. Adaptation activities aim to reduce disaster risk by addressing different aspects of vulnerability within communities and building resilience to resist, absorb, accommodate and recover from the effects of climate-related hazards. MCC’s adaptation work includes training for farmers in conservation agriculture, construction of shelter resistant to hazards and providing improved access to safe water.

MCC is also involved in mitigation work, including advocating for government policies that address climate change, encouraging supporters to live simply, expanding efforts to implement sustainability initiatives within MCC operations in Canada and the U.S. and partnering with Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College in the founding of the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions to advance thinking and action within faith communities on mitigation. Internationally, some of MCC’s programming includes mitigation efforts such as reforestation and education on climate change and environmental sustainability.

Climate change is undermining the efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the development sector as they work towards poverty reduction, food security, improved access to clean water and other development goals. Development NGOs are recognizing the importance of adaptation strategies in programming as they experience the impact of climate change on vulnerability and disaster risk. While adaptation is key in reducing risk associated with climate change impacts, it does not address the root cause of climate change. Both mitigation and adaptation are essential to a comprehensive climate risk reduction strategy.

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Considering the importance of limiting future climate change impacts to support sustainable development, what role should NGOs play in mitigation efforts? As a ministry of churches in Canada and the United States, MCC represents congregations in countries that contribute significantly to climate change and is itself a contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. To what extent is MCC responsible for mitigation, both with regards to its internal operations and its constituents located in Canada and the U.S.?

While MCC’s responsibility for climate change adaptation is inherent within its priorities of disaster relief and sustainable community development, MCC continues to explore its role in mitigation and opportunities for greater engagement on climate change matters. Even as MCC undertakes a number of initiatives to green its operations, MCC must discern how to balance an emphasis on internal mitigation efforts with a desire to implement program effectively and allocate resources efficiently. MCC asks itself how it can best partner with other like-minded organizations to engage and mobilize congregations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. As recent conversations convened by the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions suggest, MCC has the opportunity to join other organizations to advocate on policies that address climate change, to mobilize its supporters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to use its international adaptation work as a platform to propel climate action by connecting North American supporters with climate change-affected communities.

MCC’s work is increasingly connected to the impact of climate change on hazards and vulnerability within communities around the world. To be faithful in its mission of relief, development and peacebuilding in the name of Christ, MCC must carefully consider how best to respond to climate change risks, while also assessing its role in adaptation and mitigation efforts.

World Food Day, climate change and supporting small-holder farmers

This week’s writer is Stefan Epp-Koop, chair of the board of MCC Manitoba. He participated in the Canadian Foodgrains Bank Good Soil learning tour to Kenya in July 2016.

When Hiram Thuo’s crops failed in 2009 due to irregular rainfall, he had little choice but to seek food aid. He did so reluctantly, sad that he was no longer able to feed his family. So Hiram, who farms near Naivasha, Kenya, began attending trainings on vegetable production, irrigation, and drought resistant crops.

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Hiram Thuo, posing with his wife (name unavailable), was excited to share about the changes he has made on his farm. Photo courtesy Andrew Richardson.

Hiram’s farm has been transformed over the past seven years. He now plants crops like watermelon, kale, spinach, capsicum, and passion fruit. These crops are highly sought after by local merchants. As a result he is now able to feed his family and sell the extra to traders in the local market, earning approximately $70 per month – money that is used to pay school fees and make further improvements on the farm.

This summer I had the opportunity to visit many farmers like Hiram during a Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) learning tour to Kenya. The trip was part of the Good Soil campaign, a CFGB initiative to engage the Canadian government to increase support for agriculture as part of our international development assistance.

Like Hiram, many Kenyan farmers we visited talked about the impact of a changing climate – in particular increasingly unpredictable rainfall.  And, like Hiram, many farmers have experienced remarkable transformations, thanks to support for training and scale-appropriate technology.

October 16 is World Food Day, which this year is focusing on the impact of a changing climate on food insecurity.  Small-holder farmers, who make up the majority of the world’s farmers and the vast majority of people experiencing hunger in the world, are very vulnerable to changes in climate such as rapidly changing rainfall or temperature patterns.

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The Good Soil learning tour participants posing with a plaque honoring Canadian contributions at ILRI. CFGB photo/Emily Cain.

Yet, while the Canadian government has shown renewed interest in addressing climate change and mitigating its impacts, its funding for agriculture through international development assistance has dropped by 30% in the past three years. Agriculture, however, can play a critical role in enabling people in developing countries to respond to changing realities: people like Hiram and many of the other farmers  we met in Kenya.

Re-investing in agriculture would allow vital research to take place like the work we visited at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi. ILRI does research focused on the needs of small-scale farmers with livestock. We heard of research ranging from innovative insurance systems for livestock to protect farmers from droughts to identifying more reliable livestock feed for farmers with limited grazing land.

When we visited ILRI, much of the equipment proudly displayed a Canadian logo – a sign of a history of Canadian funding. But while there were a lot of old stickers and plaques, Canadian support has declined.  A reinvestment by Canada in agricultural research for small-scale farmers could make a powerful impact by developing scale-appropriate solutions.

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Lucas Makau with tomatoes ready for market. CFGB photo/Emily Caine.

Or it could mean enabling young entrepreneurs like Lucas Makau to start farming in new ways.  Lucas practices conservation agriculture on approximately three quarters of an acre.  This involves minimal tillage, using mulches or cover crops, and crop rotation.  Lucas has applied this to growing tomatoes, which he then sells in Nairobi – an entrepreneurial approach to farming that has generated income for his family.  A key benefit of conservation agriculture is that much more water is retained in the soil, making crops less susceptible to changing weather patterns.  This increases yields and reduces vulnerability.

Whether supporting grassroots initiatives or the structures and research that support them, Canada can make a big impact by supporting more agricultural initiatives through our international development assistance.  We can reduce global hunger and enable small-scale farmers to be more resilient to the effects of climate change – while also benefiting local economies, empowering women, and improving nutrition.

Please take action to encourage the Canadian government to increase aid for agriculture. Learn more about the Good Soil campaign; then order, sign and send Good Soil postcards to the Prime Minister.  In addition, visit http://aid4ag.ca/, which outlines ten priorities for investing in agriculture – priorities that have been supported by over 30 organizations across Canada.

“If we don’t have hope, there will be none.”

This week’s guest writer is Dan Wiens, Food Security and Livelihoods Coordinator for MCC. He is also a farmer.  

This week I am traveling to Southern Africa to visit farmers who have been impacted by two successive years of drought.

Despite the very dry weather, the farmers I will visit have harvested some food, even as many of their neighbors have harvested nothing. This is at least partially because they covered their soil with mulch to conserve moisture and protect the soil from the harsh sun. Mulching is just one of several adaptations to climate change that MCC’s local partners in the region are encouraging farmers to try.

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Stezen Mudenda of Kulima Mbobumi Training Center in Zimbabwe, uses mulch to conserve moisture in the soil. (MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky)

Next week (February 7-13) is International Development week. So, along with thinking about those mulching farmers, I’m also thinking about the big picture of international development. What difference is the work being done in the name of international development really making in the daily lives of people?

I admit this kind of taking stock sometimes leads me into dark places.

It’s true that the farmers I will visit have figured out how to grow food even during a drought year. But they are still just barely feeding their families with the limited resources they have. Questions about whether it makes sense to encourage farmers to adapt to a drying, marginal climate should not be ignored. Is our intervention just delaying the inevitable? Is it just a matter of time before these farmers will have to abandon their farms as the desert encroaches?

I ask similar questions about farmers MCC works with in the Ganges Delta of Bangladesh. With rising sea levels, these farms are at risk of losing their soil to excess salt from sea water.

The forces that mitigate against the success of our international development efforts are huge, diverse and unpredictable. Climate change and rising sea levels are just  two of many factors.  Others include: political instability, conflict, inadequate market structures, and the list goes on.

So where do I find hope in the work I do with farmers?

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Essambié Kanko (R), Jacqueline Kando (C), and Sabine Badiel (L), farmers in Didyr, Burkina Faso, participate in a program to help women farmers adapt to climate change through conservation agriculture practices. (MCC Photo/James Souder)

Friends of mine from the Global South have said to me, “Hopelessness is a luxury only the rich can afford.”  They go on to say things like, “In this place we have to have hope, because if we didn’t there would be none.”

In light of these truths, while I’m still compelled to ask the hard questions, I’m also compelled to see actions like mulching as symbols of hope, rather than acts of desperation.

Of course there is no such thing as a panacea in this business. Mulching and other such adaptations to climate change have their limitations and challenges. What’s more, the true locus of hope is not really with things like mulch.  It’s with people.

When I finally visit farms in Southern Africa later this week, I’ll be looking for hope not so much in mulch, but in the words — and especially the eyes — of the farmers. This is not because of some romantic notion of the noble farmer sticking with her farm until the bitter end. Indeed, some of the farmers may someday decide to abandon their farms to look for other opportunities. Whether they  stay with their farms or not is not the metric by which we should be measuring success.  The metric should be their own sense of hope. The farmers have to find reasons to maintain hope for a better future for their families.

For if they don’t have hope, there will be none.

The Paris agreement. And now what?

This week’s guest writer is Stephanie McDonald, senior policy advisor for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.  

As I entered the site of the Paris Climate Conference, known as COP21, late last November, I was surrounded by representatives of 196 nations, including negotiators, civil society leaders, people of faith, business executives, politicians and Indigenous people.

They had all gathered in the French capital for the talks. Some were there as official country delegates, others to show, en masse, their support for a deal that would slow global warming and ensure all on the planet had a chance to survive and thrive.

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José Miranda. Photo/Stephanie McDonald

But it was the people who weren’t in attendance who were on my mind the most.

The noticeable voice missing in Paris was that of small-scale farmers from the developing world — people who are on the front lines of changing weather patterns, and whose lives are being disrupted the most by climate change.

Two months earlier, in September, I had traveled to Nicaragua to meet farmers and learn how they were being impacted by our changing climate. The country was well into the second year of a drought and farmers spoke of at least a decade of unpredictable rainfall and growing seasons.

I met José Miranda, a father of three, in northern Nicaragua. His family has never had excess harvest to sell on the market, but until five years ago they at least produced enough for their household consumption. Since that time, they’ve had to purchase more of their food, and cut out items that are too pricey.

José told me something chilling that I wish all of the negotiators in Paris could have heard: “Until 2007 we had pigs. We had grain before to feed them and now we don’t. My uncle used to have cattle and then the water source dried up. The only thing left is for the people to disappear as well.”

Guillarmina Castro with soil from her CA plot

Guillarmina Castro with soil from her CA plot. Photo/Stephanie McDonald

In the community of Pavón, 150km to the southwest of José, I met Guillarmina Castro.

She too wasn’t in Paris to tell how she lives close to a river that used to flood with the heavy rains, sometimes cutting off Pavón for up to two weeks at a time. The last time the river was high was with Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Now the river is dry.

Guillarmina is working with a project funded by Mennonite Central Committee Canada, through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, that is teaching conservation agriculture (CA). Its three main practices – soil cover, crop rotation and minimal disturbance of the soil – have had success in increasingly arid regions. Guillarmina is having to adapt to what appears to be the new normal in her area.

Thankfully, she has reason to be hopeful. “We get better yields and can produce with less rain,” she said.

Now what?

On December 12, delegates to COP21 reached an agreement and the climate talks concluded. It was the words of one man in the gathered faith community in Paris that helped me put in perspective the question of “now what?”

In 2013, Yeb Saño was a negotiator for the Philippines at the annual climate conference, that year held in Warsaw, Poland. As the talks were underway, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, killing over 6,000 people.

In his  address to fellow diplomats in 2013, Yeb wept as he spoke of the devastation at home. He said he would fast until the conference ended or until concrete commitments for action on climate change were made. Yeb inspired the global movement Fast for the Climate.

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Yeb Saño and Fast for the Climate, Paris. Photo/Stephanie McDonald

At an event in Paris in 2015, Yeb said, “We need to stop believing a single conference will define our collective future. It is through every act of caring and love that we build a future free of climate change.”

It was a powerful reminder that each of us has agency, countless times every day, to show love and caring for our neighbour. We can be conscious of our purchases, what we consume and how we get around.

We can also applaud our government when they get it right, such as providing financial support to those most affected by climate change, as the Canadian government did in late November.

And we can tell our representatives that we care about the issue of climate change and what it means for farmers like José and Guillarmina who are dealing with the impacts right now.

Hope, conservation agriculture, and World Food Day

This week’s guest blogger is Dan Wiens, coordinator of Food Security and Livelihoods for Mennonite Central Committee.  Dan is himself a farmer.

I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa early this morning–October 16, World Food Day–to begin a three-week agricultural tour of southern Africa. The air this morning is crisp and the sky a brilliant blue. I left autumn weather in Canada and arrived here in the southern hemisphere to the freshness of spring.

CA 3The purpose of the tour is to visit farmers, researchers, and others involved with conservation agriculture (CA). Conservation agriculture is a farming model that protects and builds soil health using the three principles of minimum soil tillage, maintaining ground cover (mulch), and using crop rotations to build soil fertility. The information I’m gathering here in Africa will help MCC, in collaboration with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, design a pan-African conservation agriculture program.

African farmers are in trouble. Soil health has been on the decline for decades and productivity is steadily going down. This situation contributes to keeping over 239 million Africans chronically hungry. Finding a low input and sustainable agricultural solution is critical. CA is a proven farming model, especially in the semi-arid regions that characterize much of Africa. Farmers practicing CA have seen as much as three-fold increases in crop yields in just a few years. This has lifted many farmers and their families out of poverty and hunger.

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Monica Kutingala, a conservation agriculture farmer with husband Simon Kutingala, waters the sweet yams with rainwater collected in their new water storage trench called a hafir. This new source of water made it possible for the family to plant their first garden on their farm in Ekenywa village, Arusha district, Tanzania. The couple switched from traditional agriculture in 2006 and have seen many benefits, including increased crop yields.

Another exciting part of this story is that CA requires only inputs that are readily found in the farming communities. Organic ground cover or mulch (often grass) is one example.  There is no need for expensive outside inputs such as chemical fertilizers. The only significant outside input that is required is knowledge.

The general idea we have for the upcoming CA program is to vastly increase the number of African farmers practicing CA. Promotion of CA will be done by the many African community-based organizations that have strong relationships with farming communities. These organizations are in partnership with MCC and other CFGB member agencies and they are uniquely positioned to promote CA.

On this beautiful World Food Day morning, my hope is that over the next three weeks I will find the information required to develop an effective CA program. On this World Food Day, I can’t think of a more appropriate or exciting task for an MCC agriculture worker.

Connected despite our differences

This week’s guest writers are students at the University of Winnipeg.

by Rebekah Grism and Serena Smith

We recently had the opportunity to go on a young adult food study tour with Canadian Foodgrains Bank, along with six other participants. The Canadian Foodgrains Bank is a partnership of 15 churches and church based agencies, including Mennonite Central Committee.  The churches work collaboratively as a Christian response to hunger, by obeying God’s command to act with compassion and justice towards people who are hungry (Micah 6:8). This is applied by improving food security, improving nutrition, and providing food assistance when needed.

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Rebekah (left) and Serena (right) joined six other Canadian young adults on the CFGB tour.

We are both students at the University of Winnipeg and we are interested in social justice and international development.  We are both strongly connected to the Mennonite church and are very thankful for having been given this opportunity by Mennonite Central Committee.

During the study tour, we travelled to Nicaragua with the objective to nurture a sense of community and people connections that Canadian Foodgrains Bank believes to be at the very heart of a Christian response to hunger.  We achieved this by learning about a number of projects being implemented in rural Nicaragua, through conversation with project participants, and experiencing how they live on a daily basis.  We were able to live with the families participating in projects that focused on improving food security in order to fully understand their daily struggles and how they have been affected by the projects they are involved with.

We had the privilege of staying with a family involved in an MCC project which focused on learning and experimenting with conservation agriculture techniques in order to increase food production with little environmental impact.  We resided with a couple, Luis and Melba, and their two young boys, Luis Jr and Angel.  Luis and Melba were able to double their food production using the conservation techniques they learned from MCC.  They were thankful for the lower cost of inputs involved in conservation agriculture which meant the money they saved on buying chemical pesticides, could go to purchasing other necessities for their family.

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Luis

Luis and Melba and their family have very few possessions; however, the experience that we  gained from living with them is something we will take away and remember for a very long time.  Although we had awkward moments due to the language barrier, they were so gracious and welcoming to us.  Something that was very meaningful to us was how, despite our many differences from Luis and his family, we were connected by our Christian faith.  Our favourite memory was reading our Bibles with them by flashlight, as they had no electricity in their home. We were able to read the same passage, each in our own language, and feel connected as a family in Christ.  Melba’s favourite verse is, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).  This was a reminder to us that no matter what type of circumstances we find ourselves in, God will never abandon us but will remind us of the truth of his unconditional love.

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Luis Jr (left) and Angel

As we said our goodbyes to Luis and his family we felt as though they had given us so much and we were left wondering what we could do in return.  We asked them what type of message they would like us to bring home to Canada about their family.  They wanted us to share their gratitude to MCC and Canadian Foodgrains Bank for improving their food production.  They also expressed their strong belief in prayer and asked that we pray for their family as they raise their two young boys.

There is great power in prayer, therefore do not forget to pray for those in our world experiencing hunger, as we are all connected as one family under our God.