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Looking at the social and cultural limits to adaptation

3 August 2010

Long-established customs, traditional beliefs and behaviour dictated by gender, ethnicity, caste and age - all these can stop people getting to grips with the challenges of climate change. But this has yet to be well recognised or investigated, says a paper released this month by the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

The most commonly discussed “barriers” to coping with weather disasters and longer-term climate shifts tend to be gaps in technology (for example, lack of accurate climate modeling), low awareness among policy makers, or shortfalls in funding. There are also the natural limitations on ecosystems, such as when a region becomes simply too dry to grow crops and graze cattle any longer.

What tends to be ignored are the social and cultural rules that limit peoples’ ability to protect themselves from weather and climate hazards, and to exploit opportunities that may arise as temperatures, sea levels and rainfall patterns change, says Lindsey Jones, the author of the ODI briefing “Overcoming barriers to social adaptation”

“There has been a focus on the technological, economic and natural barriers to climate change adaptation. Overcoming these has been seen as the solution because they are fairly easy to identify and quantify,” the think-tank researcher told AlertNet. “Social barriers are very hard to identify, and incredibly hard to quantify ... they are very context-specific.”

To help understand the problem, Jones collaborated on a 12-week project looking at how caste and gender shape the way rural communities in western Nepal are dealing with a shifting climate, which is expected to have negative impacts in the impoverished, mountainous country where many depend on rain-fed farming.


The study throws up some interesting findings. It shows that, even though the country’s caste system was formally outlawed in the 1960s, it still dominates social behaviour and influences the way people respond to hazards like floods.

For example, in one flood-prone area, members of lower castes said they were frequently excluded from using “safe spots” identified by their communities, and ordered to find shelter in more vulnerable places. They were told to move or “you will make this place dirty”.

How lower-caste Hindu women react to climate stresses is further restricted by the burden of their household duties, their lower level of education than men, their exclusion from village meetings and politics, and their duty to abide by their religious belief system.

But the researchers discovered it’s not just lower castes whose behaviour is constrained in times of need. Members of the upper caste, for instance, were not permitted to beg for food or money - a common way of getting by for lower castes, particularly during droughts.

One approach to dealing with climate change favoured by aid agencies is to help people find additional means of earning a living, beyond basic occupations like farming. But in Nepal, that might not be possible because your inherited caste determines what jobs you can do, and therefore what skills you learn.

And many households’ traditional way of coping with droughts in mid-western Nepal - sending their young men to look for work elsewhere for two or three months in the lowland plains or India - means those valuable family members have been spending six months or more away from home as dry spells have become longer in recent decades, a problem for families in a variety of ways.

But even though prolonged migration isn’t the best way to cope with worsening drought, most other attempts to introduce more suitable strategies - including a shift to apple farming and using new types of seed - have not succeeded.

“This is the result, largely, of antipathy and a reluctance to change traditional practices,” the paper explains.


But how to change those rules, norms and behaviours that lead to bad outcomes - or ‘maladaptation’ as it’s often referred to in the climate change field?

Jones says that’s fairly tricky. He talks about the need for “informed autonomous adaptation,” which involves building on traditional social structures, as appropriate, and helping people gather information to manage new climate risks that are making their established ways of coping not just invalid but in some cases even harmful.

Jones believes aid agencies working on climate change should learn from colleagues who have looked at how gender or caste, say, influence livelihood options or the provision of welfare safety nets. And above all, he believes it’s important to educate poor communities, giving them the knowledge they need to decide how best to cope.

“The people I worked with in Nepal wanted to help themselves, and realised that help from the outside won’t last forever,” he says. “As a community, they need to know which actions will be detrimental, and which will improve their resilience.”

One approach that’s being increasingly adopted by NGOs, known as community-based adaptation, takes care to understand local institutions and power structures, as well as a community’s wider needs, before starting programmes to tackle climate change.

Sometimes activities aimed at boosting climate resilience seem to have little to do directly with climate change. For example, one initiative led by CARE in Brazil evolved from a rural development programme begun in 2002 on the south coast of Bahia. Its original aim was to raise the incomes and living standards of Afro-Brazilian agricultural migrants, who settled in the area after land reforms, by boosting organic cocoa production and helping them participate in fair trade schemes.

But, as an April report on the sustainable development scheme notes, it eventually became clear that global warming would harm the ecosystems on which the region’s vulnerable communities depend, increasing the need for them to be able to cope with shocks like sudden price changes or rainfall variation.

“In order to reduce the risks of negative impacts due to climate change, it is vital that these families are guaranteed access to social rights, access to justice, information, financial services and markets,” the report says. “The ability to adapt to social, political and economic changes, as well as climatic changes, depends on the fight on poverty and improvement of human development indicators.”


Besides taking a more holistic approach to adaptation, some experts question the suitability of conventional development models for dealing with climate change.

A project just launched by Catholic development agency CAFOD and University College London in rural Bolivia aims to explore how Western science can complement local knowledge in the pursuit of an indigenous concept of social well-being rooted in food security, solidarity, harmony with nature and equality, rather than growth-driven development.

“The idea is not to simply glorify indigenous knowledge, but to acknowledge it has allowed our partners to adapt to changing environmental conditions for centuries. The problem is Western paradigms may be forcing development that actually undermines traditional coping strategies,” says Mike Edwards, CAFOD’s climate change programme development officer.

The project will look at how Western science and technologies like GIS mapping and satellite data can help ensure local knowledge does not become invalid in the face of new and poorly understood threats like global warming - for example, when farmers are no longer sure of the right time to plant crops.

Most important, however, is to understand that climate change is just one piece in the development jigsaw, says Edwards.

“The social barriers that exist now (to adaptation) could result in part from changes that have occurred because of outside interference,” he argues. “Unless you get the type of development right, you will render people more vulnerable to climate change.”

Written by: Megan Rowling