Bringing the voice of vulnerable smallholder farmers to bear on environmental discourse​

Adult & Community Education - TEN Project at Well - Maynooth University

“We set out to change the nature of the engagement between smallholder farmers in dry, marginal, parts of the developing world and large organisations when it comes to climate change. We were motivated by a sense that these relationships were not working very well. We discovered far more about these relationships than we anticipated, across a range of areas from language to terminology to food customs to the balance of power in global research partnerships.”

So says Professor Anne Ryan, leader of the Transformative Engagement Network (TEN). The TEN project was launched last year to bring the voice of vulnerable small holder farmers to bear on environmental discourse at the highest levels.

The idea is to bring together a range of stakeholders from individual farmers in smallholder communities right up to global policymakers. The engagement, it is hoped, will open new knowledge flows between rural communities, the agencies and organisations that work with each community, and between national and international bodies concerned with agriculture, food security, nutrition and climate change.

An important aspect of the research is the combination of social science and physical science perspectives. Researchers from the departments of Adult and Community Education, Geography and Biology at Maynooth University are working with project partners in the University of Mzuzu in Malawi, together with Mulungushi University and the Zambian Open University in Zambia, to bring local knowledge and experience to the global climate discourse.

“Subsistence farmers do have expertise, they already survive in difficult places,” says Professor Ryan . “Gathering and sharing that expertise is an important part of the TEN programme. The lessons we learn from these communities will be stored in a repository that will make them available to everyone to use in easing the effects of climate change.”

Masters in Transformative Community Development

As part of the project, 36 students are now enrolled in a new Masters programme delivered in Africa by the four partner universities. Students comprise professionals in governmental and non-governmental agencies who work closely with vulnerable communities in Zambia and Malawi and have demonstrated a unique knowledge and understanding of the challenges posed by climate change to these people. Their expertise is critical to the TEN project.

“Each university is connected to a particular community of practice,” Anne Ryan explains. “We have set up a local consultative forum in each area, engaging local leaders to help steer the project. University representatives attend the meetings of these groupings but don’t steer them - we keep focused on the local level and they have impact on us. We want to disseminate information about what we are doing but our primary role is to listen.”

What the researchers have heard so far has opened their eyes to the obstacles that have hampered meaningful engagement with local communities to date, says Professor Ryan.
“We need to reframe the way we think about climate change adaptation. Development aid clearly isn’t working and there is a tension between indigenous and western knowledge. These people know how to survive disasters – there are anecdotal examples of people being re-located from disaster areas and bringing new knowledge and methods with them for the betterment of their new areas. We can learn from them.”

Bridging gaps between the local and the global

Researchers expected language to be a challenge; what they did not envisage were the more profound communication gaps that now need to be bridged.

“We consistently encounter the discord between traditional knowledge and western science. Bringing the local voice to the global level means building trust in communities. This discord is a major challenge - people who are working with the most vulnerable communities are telling us that they distrust western science. It doesn’t always appear to be in their interest."

“There is a keen awareness of the clash between traditional methods and Western scientific dominance. It’s not as simple as to say that more traditional practices are less sustainable, it would be hard to show that to be right. Many Western interventions have created cultures of dependency rather that building on the strengths the communities already possess. This can be socially destructive as well as failing to build agricultural sustainability.” And the smallholder farmers are well aware that what they do know has not been greatly valued, in spite of their demonstrated ability to survive already difficult circumstances.

One of the values that is often overlaid on these communities is the Western emphasis on competition and the supremacy of the individual. Dividing communities along competitive lines can be very unhelpful in the long run, TEN researchers are finding. Parachuting in expertise without considering local knowledge doesn’t help either, says Anne Ryan.

Terminology is another obstacle. The language of climate change that has evolved at global level over the last few decades is not readily translatable into local languages.

“All the discussion that relates to this topic is in English, the terminology used is not available to the people we’re talking about. Yet they are the people who have to survive the worst of what is being forecast! How do we work with these shared concepts – how do these new voices impact in the concepts and introduce their points of view? It’s clear to us that climate change without the context of severe disadvantage, healthcare deficits and poor transport links is meaningless.”

What happens next

A research network and repository about demand-led agricultural production, climate change adaptation and nutritional outcomes will be established to provide widespread global access to research generated by the Masters students and collated by the project in general.

Another aspect of conducting research in the developing world has emerged, in the form of tensions between universities north and south when it comes to publishing data.

“A very interesting and important issue has arisen in the course of our work with the African higher education institutions, and it’s one we hope to return to in future investigations,” says Anne Ryan. “There is a sense that when universities in the developing world partner with Western universities in research, there is often an imbalance of outcomes.

Much as farmers in developing countries often see little profit from their labours, as Western processors add value to what they produce far from the site of production, African universities have seen the benefit of research they conducted fall to Western partners when it comes to publication and citation.

“This is a huge challenge, it’s an issue of power and status. We want to be sure that the TEN project is a true partnership and we are very fortunate that we have a great relationship with the local universities and good levels of trust. But this concern is not just about this project. It is an issue that relates to exploitation and exclusion and therefore it is one we need to raise awareness of in the wider development context.”