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Stakes are high for agriculture at climate talks

As the COP17 talks continue in Durban, the stakes remain high for agriculture.

Used under creative commons license from adopt a negotiator

 IATP’s Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa.

Climate chaos seems to be increasing all over the world. In my home in Virginia, we experienced a hurricane in August that knocked out power in many communities up the East Coast, and several days of record-breaking temperatures in November. While this kind of weather is mostly an inconvenience or a pleasant surprise for us, erratic weather patterns in other, more fragile environments can be devastating.

I met with farmers from Mozambique, Mali and the Gambia at the C17 Peoples’ Space, parallel to the official climate talks in Durban. They were part of a delegation from La Via Campesina, a global movement of small-scale farmers. One by one, they told us of rains that now come too early, too late or not at all. Corn they plant after early rains gets burned by the scorching sun. Seeds they plant later get washed away in late rainstorms. Rivers have disappeared, lakes have dried up. One young woman has listened to elders in her community talk of regular planting seasons, but she has never seen them in her lifetime.

We discussed proposals to cope with climate change, starting with projects designed to capture carbon in trees or the soil for sale in carbon markets. IATP has worked with allies in Kenya to track a pilot program designed to create a new market for soil carbon. While the project has led to improvements in soil quality, it is premised on sales to a non-existent market for soil carbon. This could distract attention from the need for reliable support for agricultural adaptation, and even divert much needed resources at the national level to setting up these programs. One participant commented that when elephants fight, the grass (in this case, farmers) gets trampled.

Those concerns were nearly invisible at Agriculture and Rural Development Day, a different conference organized by U.N. agencies and donors. In a workshop on the Kenya project, I was surprised to see that even the World Bank admits that compliance markets for carbon (such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme) don’t allow for soil carbon credits, and won’t for the foreseeable future. They argue that the idea is new, and, just as carbon markets for forests took a while to emerge, eventually there will be support for these markets too (despite the real problems involved in measuring soil carbon). I questioned why, in this era of spectacularly failing markets, anyone would assume that there is a linear progression of approval for ever more risky investments.

There was a surprisingly active debate at the session, with some development agencies sharing our concerns about the wisdom of soil carbon markets and the more urgent imperative to bolster public support for agriculture and to rebuild the systems of agricultural extension and other services dismantled under earlier structural adjustment programs. The plenary sessions at Agriculture and Rural Development Day, by contrast, enthusiastically endorsed the idea of what they call “climate smart agriculture” and the adoption of a work program on agriculture that would stress mitigation—and carbon markets—over adaptation.

The right kind of agriculture continues to be a contentious issue in and out of the talks. Along with the African Biodiversity Network and the Gaia Foundation, we’ve been handing out this fact sheet in Durban to explain our concerns with how agriculture is being treated within the talks. We can only hope that real solutions that strengthen peoples’ rights to food, land and livelihoods, won’t get trampled in the dust of carbon markets.