Female farmers face climate change risks

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

fs-blogBy Stephanie McDonald and Dana Stefov

Trenia Arana had been farming seven acres of land in central Nicaragua. But after years of severe drought, crop failures and growing debt, she finally decided to take up a job as a housekeeper last year.

With her husband working in neighbouring Costa Rica, Trenia’s 11-year-old son must now tend to the family gardens before he goes to school each day.

“Working on the land is struggling for life,” Trenia says.

Climate change is forcing Trenia and millions of other women farmers around the world to give up farming for opportunities elsewhere. And with this tough choice comes the loss of valuable knowledge these farmers have built up, such as how to conserve the soil, produce organic fertilizer, and keep crops growing in an increasingly hostile environment.

The Government of Canada will release its revamped vision for international assistance this fall.

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has said that a feminist approach will now guide all of Canada’s international development and humanitarian aid. That’s welcome news, and it will help position Canada as a frontrunner in a global community that invests less than 2% of all aid dollars in projects that specifically aim to advance gender equality.

Canada’s new climate change plan will also be released this fall. With both of these plans, Canada has an opportunity to be ambitious and coherent, bringing together its leadership on women’s rights with a strong commitment to climate action and the right to food.

One person in nine around the world doesn’t get enough to eat each day, and over 70 percent of those who are hungry are farmers. Women play a critical role in the food system as farmers, fishers and herders. They are guardians of diversity, keepers of traditional knowledge and practices, innovators, and seed savers.

Climate change jeopardizes the ability of the world’s small-scale farmers to feed themselves and their families. While women produce more than half of the world’s food, they have unequal access to land, resources, and credit. Changes in rainfall patterns and rising temperatures not only affect crops, they drive flows of migration that disrupt communities and put increased stress on women who must go to ever greater lengths to put food on the table.

The story is much the same in Cuba as it is in Nicaragua. In 2015 the country experienced its most severe drought in over a century. The grass stopped growing, rivers dried up, and new pastures had to be found in the mountains for livestock.

This is the situation facing Oneida Pérez, a farmer in the province of Guantánamo. She has no choice but to adapt to climate change. Oneida, who has lived in the community of El Oasis for 46 years, says that “this land used to provide everything. But seven or eight years ago it started raining less and less. Most people who lived around here had to go to the city, especially the men, leaving the women behind with the children and elderly, to do what we can to survive.”

Women farmers make extraordinary contributions to agricultural biodiversity, resilience, and food production the world over, but are now increasingly – and disproportionately – affected by climate change. Their voices must be heard if we are to find lasting solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our time.

The governments of Nicaragua and Cuba, and women farmers like Trenia and Oneida, cannot battle climate change alone. Other countries must live up to their international commitments. For Canada, this means keeping the promises it made at the Paris climate conference last year, with deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and new funds to help the least developed countries adapt to climate change.

It also means putting resources behind the commitment to instate a feminist international assistance policy, ensuring strong support and funding for women’s organizations and the priorities they have identified.

In the whirlwind of commitment making, it’s important that Canada make good on its promise to address the catastrophic effects of climate change by supporting women to adapt to a changing world.

Stephanie McDonald is a Senior Policy Advisor with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Dana Stefov is Women’s Rights Policy and Advocacy Specialist at Oxfam Canada.