For Whom the Bell Tolls
February 14, 2020
Santos stands pensively in a steep, vibrant field of sorghum in Guaymango, in jeans, a t-shirt, and a brown pair of sneakers. This is 2019, a Thursday in November. The stalks tower above him, but they do not move much in the humid morning. In the distance are hilly patches of tropical dry forest, sugar cane plantations, maize, fog, smog, and a high blue crust scraping the horizon—El Salvador’s noble, ancient volcanoes.
The handsome, soft-spoken farmer looks at a clutch of grass he is holding in his hand, leaning against his back leg. Neil, our videographer, is up the hill a few feet away, squatting.
It’s not that I wanted to leave, Santos explains. This is my family’s land.
But the yields from my farm got lower and lower as the soil deteriorated.
The increased intensity of rain over shorter periods made things even worse.
There was erosion. There was not enough food to provide for my wife and children.
We were going to have to leave.
November 2019 was a horrible month for humankind. The Trump administration served formal notice of its intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, citing the unfair economic burdens the 2016 landmark pact placed on U.S. workers, businesses, and taxpayers. The news, which came as no surprise, was the cherry on the cake for a year when the scientific and activist alarm bell concerning climate change rang louder and clearer than ever before.
For whom, exactly, does that bell toll? The question is as pertinent to us as it was to John Donne, the sixteenth-century poet from whom Ernest Hemingway got the phrase:
Donne’s observation was prophetic: our political, social, and environmental fates are shared. Consider, for example, the World Bank’s projection that, by 2050, something like two million people are likely to be displaced from Mexico and Central America alone due to factors related to climate change. Many such “climate refugees” are—involuntarily—already heading north to the United States in search of a more stable life, igniting profound moral disagreements about how a country made up of immigrants is to receive immigrants. The bell is tolling for them. It is tolling for all of us.
That is the background premise of (re)GENERATION, a mini documentary series the Global Food Security Project is launching over the next two months. The series highlights several short, incredible stories about how farmers around the world are working with nature to achieve cost-effective adaptations to climate change. And these stories give color and sound to three basic points.
The destabilizing effects of climate change are mounting.Picture a giant round red balloon with a diameter of 9 meters—the length of a London bus. If it were filled with carbon, it would weigh about a ton. Now picture 16 of those balloons bobbing together on a field. That is about the annual amount of emissions per capita in the United States—an absurd amount when compared to the per capita emissions of places like El Salvador (one balloon), Nepal (one-third of a balloon), and Kenya (also a third). Those countries likewise produce a very negligible share of total global carbon emissions. Yet it is precisely in places like these that the costs of climate change are accruing most rapidly.
It is a cruel irony that those among the least responsible are among the most vulnerable. But here the science is clear. In El Salvador, rainfall patterns are becoming shorter and more intense, exacerbating erosion and throwing rainfed cropping systems into disarray. In Kenya, droughts are growing more severe, depleting soil health and devastating agricultural yields. In the Himalayas, warmer temperatures are melting snowpack, filling glacial lakes to the brim. When they burst, the floodwaters spill onto low-lying farmlands, claiming lives, homes, and harvests.
But are we not somewhat numb to the video clips of swollen rivers and wilting crops dispensed by the 24-hour news cycle? They come across our screens relentlessly, ad exhaustum, making it difficult to appreciate what they mean in the aggregate: we are alive at a time when the human race faces challenges of “epochal proportions,” as Pope Francis put it in 2018. That warning, to be clear, was literal, not poetic. The dangers we stand to face under climate change in the next few decades are very, very, very, very, very, very clear.
By 2050, something like two million people are likely to be displaced from Mexico and Central America alone due to factors related to climate change.
Nature-based approaches to climate change adaptation are often cheap, durable, and scalable.There are two parallel objectives for climate change: stop it (mitigation) and help people adjust to it (adaptation). (re)GENERATION focuses principally on the latter. We believe adaptation solutions that protect, harness, sustain, and enrich the natural world—so-called nature-based solutions—are the future of successful adjustments to climate change, especially for the planet’s half-billion smallholder farmers. (In terms of mitigation, nature-based solutions likewise have incredible promise. The UN suggests they could account for a third of all mitigation needed between now and 2030. Forthcoming research by the Global Food Security Project will examine the role of agricultural nature-based solutions in climate change mitigation.)
The stories featured in (re)GENERATION vividly illustrate the principles of nature-based solutions. In El Salvador, farmers are integrating trees and simple water conservation and soil fertility measures into their fields. Restored biodiversity is the result, which builds soil health and raises yields. In Kenya, farmers are building walled structures across dry riverbeds that, over time, dam huge amounts of sand. The sandy beds act as giant sponges, storing and filtering water. Recharged aquifers are the result, which dramatically expand economic opportunities stemming from irrigated agriculture. In Nepal, farmers are erecting fences and walls in rivers, which slow and redirect the flow of floodwaters, causing an accretion of silt and sand. The result, reversed erosion, provides both a buffer against future floods and the space for expanded crop production.
The destructive forces of climate change are expansive, wicked, and diffuse. By contrast, these solutions are relatively small and simple, not shiny, unsexy. Yet searching around for silver bullets is a naïve technocratic preoccupation. Far greater hope lies in such small solutions, especially when they are bundled together, as a recent study from UC Davis demonstrates. The promise of small solutions is largely defined by those who can help farmers take them to scale—in our case, organizations like Mercy Corps, Excellent Development, the African Sand Dam Foundation, and Catholic Relief Services. They are the brokers of adaptation.
It is a cruel irony that those among the least responsible are among the most vulnerable.
Climate change adaptation is a rock-solid investment, but it remains woefully underfunded.Santos never left his farm. He did not have to. Working with Catholic Relief Services and its local partner, Caritas, he started rotating a variety of crops through his fields, abandoning monocultural maize production in favor of a diversified selection of grains and legumes. After harvest, he left some dead plants on the ground to help retain soil moisture and increase organic matter. He added compost made from a local plant to raise the levels of phosphorus, an essential soil macro-nutrient. After one season, his yields increased by 10 percent. The second season: 15. The third: 20. The satisfaction on Santos’ face was evident when he sat for an on-camera interview later that November morning. “There is no need to emigrate to another place because I am making enough to live with,” he said.
There is nothing to romanticize about near-subsistence farming. It is an exceedingly difficult life. And there is nothing wrong with a family who decides to call it quits and search for a better life. But, to put it in Amartya Sen’s terms, the freedom to choose whether to leave or stay is a dignified capability, which therefore must remain at the center of climate change adaptation.
With enough support, Catholic Relief Services can identify progressive farmers like Santos in every district of El Salvador to act as models of adaptation, spreading techniques of sustainable agriculture widely throughout their social networks. But funding for climate change adaptation programs remains woefully inadequate. (re)GENERATION makes the case that greater adaptation investments can yield hard-to-beat returns on the kind of livelihood resilience and environmental health associated with political stability. In an increasingly fragile world, it is harder to find a timelier value proposition.
Christian Man is an adjunct fellow with the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Carolyn Hirshon is a former intern with the CSIS Global Food Security Program.
The (re)GENERATION docuseries is produced in partnership with the iDeas Lab.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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