Politics of Poverty

What’s the danger in climate-smart agriculture?

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Oxfam is working with rice grower cooperatives in Haiti's Artibonite River valley to help them improve their production and processing, and earn more for their crop. Kenia Lainé, 33, planted a demonstration plot using SRI practices and says a heavy rain in July destroyed other fields of rice but -- her plants were stronger and survived. Photo: Brett Eloff / Oxfam America

There are lots of critics of climate-smart agriculture (CSA), but the danger is not CSA itself but in leaving farmers out of any climate adaptation efforts.

Gina E. Castillo is the Agriculture Program Manager at Oxfam America and is on the steering committee of the African CSA Alliance.

The term “climate smart agriculture” (CSA) has been circulating in the development world for a couple of years, and in the process has gathered many supporters and critics. Just recently in fact, more than 350 civil society organizations called on decision-makers at both the United Nations and country-levels to “reject the dangerous rhetoric of climate smart agriculture.”  But why is CSA dangerous?

First, let’s start with how the concept is defined before we tackle why some believe it is “dangerous.” The U. N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has played a catalytic role in CSA discussions. It defines CSA as an approach to sustainably increase agricultural productivity and incomes, adapt and build resilience to climate change, and reduce and/or remove greenhouse gas emissions, where possible.  Now, new concepts that enter development, tend to sprout new alliances and partnerships, sometimes with laudable aspirations of moving things from theory to practice, sometimes simply as a way of grabbing onto a new concept to further a “business as usual” agenda.

Critics argue that CSA and bodies like the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture (GACSA) do little more than “green wash” the efforts of their largely corporate membership, which contribute greatly to greenhouse emissions, instead of overhauling the global food system. They accuse GACSA of lacking social and environmental safeguards as well as absence of monitoring and accountability mechanisms.  There is also concern that CSA will prioritize mitigation and carbon sequestration in soils over food security and adaptation to climate change. Overall, critics are genuinely concerned that CSA will do very little to address the worries and realities that resource poor farmers face daily.  Oxfam has added its voice to this chorus of GACSA critics.

But if CSA were to tackle the agricultural realities facing countries in an inclusive manner, aligned to political processes and institutions then it could in fact offer tangible benefits to farmers. I hope so and this is why I think, for now, the concept is worth defending.  This is also why, despite its criticism of the more global GACSA, Oxfam joined the African CSA Alliance.  We joined because it intends to partner directly with governments and other stakeholders including small-scale producers themselves in implementation. The Africa CSA Alliance grows out of, and is thus intended to contribute to, the Vision 25×25 commitment of African governments made at the 23rd African Union Summit to have at least 25 million households utilizing CSA practices by 2025.

As an implementation partnership which supports CSA practices at the community level, the Alliance has convened multi-stakeholder meetings in eight countries – Niger, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania – to discuss opportunities for scaling CSA practices. Through this partnership we hope to identify and advance a common vision of CSA that is context appropriate for African small-scale producers.

In this endeavor, we are not alone. A number of countries across Africa are taking steps to make their national agriculture investment plans and strategies “climate smart”. This process is being facilitated at the highest level by New Partnership for Africa’s Development as well as regional economic communities,  the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and the Economic Community of West African States. Political commitment is what is needed to turn concepts into action.

But actual benefits will only come about if there is meaningful farmer engagement in designing CSA country programs. At a side event to the official Sustainable Development Goals meeting in New York on September 22, the African CSA Alliance organized a panel discussion where the president of Pan-African Farmers Organization, Mr. Theo de Jager put it bluntly: “Without farmers, CSA won’t fly!”  If this doesn’t happen then, whether we use a climate-smart agriculture framework or something else, it will all be empty rhetoric. That’s my fear.


EDITORS NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Oxfam.

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