In a country racked by climate change, farming must change, too

Blue Lake. Nimba County. (© Conservation International/photo by Bailey Evans)

Editor’s note: For many developing countries, nature is life and livelihoods — and climate change threatens them all. Liberia is no exception. The small West African country, emerging from years of civil war and unrest, faces steep obstacles to its development that climate change is only complicating.

In a country where livelihoods are dominated by forests and farms, climate change is affecting different areas in different ways, says Peter Mulbah, deputy country director of Conservation International’s Liberia office and a climate change adviser to the Liberian government. This presents challenges for policymakers and conservationists seeking to build climate resilience in Liberia.

Following the conclusion of the U.N. climate conference in Germany last week, Human Nature sat down with Mulbah to talk about some of the issues his country faces. An edited transcript follows.

On Liberia’s role in global climate frameworks

Mulbah: Liberia is a small country, similar in size to New York but with half the people living here than in the Big Apple. Even though we are small in comparison to the rest of the world, every little piece of work that addresses climate change makes a big difference in the grand scheme of things. We take our role in protecting the planet as seriously as the Germans or the French, and we do so because we feel it so intensely when even one little change comes our way. Heavy rainfall doesn’t just wash down a drain, it washes away our food for the year if our land is not in good condition.

We take these issues seriously because of our economic situation: Liberia is incredibly rich in natural resources, however, 41 percent of the population are chronically malnourished and more than 80 percent live on less than $1.25 per day. In figuring out our future and how to respond as a country to the Paris Agreement, we have looked to nature as part of the solution.

On Liberia’s response to a changing climate

Mulbah: As climate change progresses, it is predicted that Liberia will face sea-level rise and coastal flooding, increased and unpredictable rainfall, and deforestation. Overall, climate change effects are already threatening many aspects of our society, impacting health, food and water security, resource availability, migration, human security and socio-economic development. When developing our response, what seems like a lot of wordy, climate jargon to a layperson is in fact a mass action plan to address these humanitarian and environmental challenges we face daily. Liberia’s initial NDCs [nationally determined contributions to the goals of the Paris Agreement] focused on energy and transport, but after a gap analysis and our experience on the ground, we revised Liberia’s response to include land-use activities as well as energy and transport initiatives.

In many areas of Liberia, small changes in weather really are a matter of life and death, particularly in the forest and on the coast. Because of this, we have made it a priority to work directly with vulnerable communities — to help them change the way they use the resources that they rely on for their livelihoods.

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On how climate is affecting some farmers

Mulbah: In the highlands of Liberia, farmers have traditionally practiced “slash-and-burn” agriculture, cutting and burning forests to create a field for cultivation. Most of this work is done by hand using basic tools. This must be done months before a rainy season. The “slash” is dried and then burned in the following dry season. The resulting ash fertilizes the soil and the burned field is then planted at the beginning of the next rainy season. This is labor-intensive and time-consuming, but it is tradition.

These farmers rely on the success of these crops to feed their families with a little extra to sell at market. In the highlands there are no luxuries, just the bare necessities to get by. It is a dangerously thrifty balancing act that has seen disastrous consequences for many families in recent years: Extreme weather events are sadly becoming the norm, and in the past few years early rains have caught farmers by surprise and upended their entire agriculture system.

In comparison to their neighbors in lowland areas, life is much harder, and farmers can see that their land is not healthy — their yields are low, and they are less well off.  This “new climate” has left communities more food-insecure and poorer than before.

On building resilience to climate impacts

Mulbah: Lowland farmers now have it much easier, because they are using newer and different farming methods than they used to. Many lowland farmers plant swamp rice and take part in vegetable production, a more varied and less labor-intensive way of making money. To help build the resilience of these communities to climate change, Conservation International (CI) engaged with them in participatory planning and a cost-benefit analysis. Farmers in the lowlands now understand the costs associated with swamp rice production versus slash-and-burn agriculture. Many are now putting nutrients back into their soil through mulching, and all the farmers that have passed through this process have done away with slash-and-burn altogether.

While it sounds simple, this change was not quick — it took five years of community engagement and piloting and was not fully accepted until the very skeptical community could see tangible results from all this hard work. As a result, lowland farmers now have more nutritious soil, their yields are greater, they have less input costs and they can harvest three or four times per year in comparison to their highland neighbors, who can harvest only once a year.

On the importance of trees to farmers

Mulbah: During the period of change we soon realized that this “switch” would have an impact on farmers’ pockets. For this reason we helped establish a tree-crop nursery on an abandoned farm. These tree crops play a dual role in the area — they provide additional opportunities to grow and sell food, and they serve as a cover crop to maintain and rejuvenate the soil. At the same time, CI has helped farmers to establish a [pig farm] that provides communities with an alternative protein source to bushmeat [wild game]. This was important to address the killing of [wildlife] in the absence of other sources of protein.

On the future

Mulbah: We hope to expand this effort into the highlands, where we would like to introduce conservation and climate-smart agriculture to slowly phase out the traditional, more land-intense practices of old. In the meantime, farmers who are not yet ready to change now understand that the change in climate requires them to plant their seeds early enough for germination to take place so that the newer, heavier and early rains don’t wash their crops away.

These anecdotes are very important to me — these are the real-life stories I keep in my back pocket during the climate talks.

Tessa Mildenhall is a consultant for CI.

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