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FEATURE: Caribbean communities are finding practical climate change solutions

By Celeste Chariandy, Senior Technical Officer, Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI)

The impacts of climate change are measurable and present. But how ‘real’ is climate change to daily life in the Caribbean? Several governments have already developed their National Climate Change Policy and Adaption Plan documents, but how do local communities view these policies?

The need for personal action

Some individuals are taking active steps to reduce their carbon footprint by switching to renewable energy sources, and others are modifying their homes to adapt to climate change impacts. But so many others remain oblivious to the dangers of climate change, as seen in the overuse of cars, persistent conversion of hillside forests to cropland, and housing construction along riverbanks and coasts. Communication about climate change needs to move out of government boardrooms and into local communities.

Climate change impacts on human settlements, health and livelihoods are significant and pronounced. Local populations are feeling the effects of heavier rainfall and flooding, prolonged drought, lowered food availability and quality, and higher rates of diseases such as dengue and cholera. But few communities understand the link between these impacts and climate change.

More importantly, the role of the individual in addressing climate change is not being promoted.  Instead, there is an expectation that the government will solve the problem. But these top-down ‘solutions’ are often short-term responses, such as reinforcement of infrastructure. What is needed are long-term adaptation strategies that encourage local community efforts tied into natural resource management (NRM).

Communities can learn to adapt to climate change

Over the past 10 years, the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI) has applied its experience in working with communities in NRM and sustainable livelihoods to inform climate change adaptation in real and practical ways. They have explained the complex issues of climate change, helped individuals identify key areas of vulnerability within their own communities, and guided their development of concrete adaptation plans. Communities have learned how to share information and skills to create a collective effort at reducing vulnerability.

CANARI has researched the impacts of climate change on community livelihoods based on the use of natural resources such as forests or fisheries. People have identified at-risk livelihoods and brainstormed on ways to ‘climate-proof’ them, or to apply the same skills to less climate-vulnerable livelihoods (e.g. Fernandes Rural Livelihoods Project, 2011).[1]

Working with communities has produced another useful outcome: drawing out local knowledge on ‘what works’. Innovative adaption strategies often get the limelight, to the detriment of potentially less expensive and more appropriate existing practical solutions. Sharing local and traditional knowledge can catalyse adaptation development and build resilience in the islands.  Much more research is needed in this area.

A study in the agricultural community of Surama, Guyana, identified adaptation strategies developed by indigenous women, including diversification of food crops and the adoption of new livelihood activities that are harmonious with local ecosystems.[2] These strategies could be adopted by subsistence farmers and local families to increase food security and provide added income to help cope with climate-induced natural disasters.

Effective communication is key

Climate change remains a complex, poorly understood problem. We need to find creative ways to explain the issues to communities and the general public. A 2007 CANARI-facilitated regional workshop yielded ideas for novel communication tools on climate change; these in turn resulted in the 2009 ’Voices for Change’ national public education project in Jamaica, in which popular Jamaican musicians and artists promote climate change awareness, with much success. The leader of one community group in Jamaica commented on music’s ability to create a lasting impact: “People tend to remember the catchy words from music rather than what is said in workshops or community meetings.”[3] Tapping into what works best in each country can better stimulate awareness and action.

Moving forward: Climate change agendas by and for the people

As climate change policy is developed by national governments and fiercely negotiated in international meetings, local communities are left to find solutions on the ground. In November 2011, civil society groups in Saint Lucia got together in a CANARI-led workshop[4]to examine the National Climate Change Policy and Adaptation Plan, which is currently under government review. The groups hammered out their own ‘civil society agenda for climate change’, which outlined current and future actions by their groups in projects, collaboration and advocacy. Their discussions led to a commitment to establish a Civil Society Coalition for Action on Climate Change to move these plans forward.

Perhaps this is a key strategy for action: civil society leading others by example.






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