Editor’s note: U.N. climate negotiations continue this week in Marrakech as the world’s nations discuss how they will work together to fight and adapt to climate change impacts already affecting the lives of people around the globe. With livelihoods directly dependent on reliable weather patterns, farmers are among the first and hardest hit; programs like the Rupununi Innovation Fund in southern Guyana, which helps farmers access funding to boost their lands’ productivity, are essential to help them build resilience.
Wapishana-Macushi children at Nappi village in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana. (© Conservation International/photo by Haroldo Castro)
In the foothills of the Kanuku Mountains, where some of the world’s most intact forests and cleanest rivers meet grasslands that are home to jaguars, harpy eagles and giant anteaters, is a 1-hectare (2.5-acre) traditional family farm owned by Muacir and Emaline Baretto. Their 1,500-person indigenous community, St. Ignatius, is located in southern Guyana’s Rupununi region on the border with Brazil. The nearby town is a one-hour flight or a 14-24 hour (depending on the season) drive from Georgetown, the country’s capital — and it couldn’t feel further away.
Members of the Wapishana indigenous group, the Barettos grow food to feed themselves and their extended family. They also sell surplus produce, both fresh (fruits and vegetables) and processed (cassava byproducts such as farine and casareep, and traditional hot pepper powder known as chicitai). In addition, Emaline grows cotton, which she spins to make Wapishana hammocks for sale locally and sometimes overseas.
The Barettos use a combination of traditional and more conventional farming methods. Their farm contains a range of plants and trees, which helps make it very resilient to pests and diseases. But even their best efforts can’t make their farm immune to misfortune.
Emaline (left) and Muacir Baretto (right) with their granddaughter Taiza on their farm in St. Ignatius, Guyana. (© Conservation International/photo by René Edwards)
Recently the Rupununi had a prolonged dry spell, which resulted in the nearby creeks and streams drying up for longer than usual. The drought caused the Barettos to lose crops and jeopardized the livelihood of their family. Climate models produced by Conservation International (CI) show that the region will be getting hotter and drier in the coming years, meaning that these conditions may soon be the norm.
To address the water shortage, the family wanted to build a well to improve their farm’s production and send more produce to market. However, the Barettos lacked the financial resources to make it happen — until they came across a new climate fund made for farmers like them.
From the forest to the market
The Rupununi is an unusual place. Lying at the intersection between the Guiana Shield and Amazon rainforest and fed by tributaries of the Rio Branco in Brazil and the Essequibo in Guyana, it contains perhaps the world’s last remaining intact grassland and supports large areas of forest. The region is home to three indigenous groups — the Macushi, Wapishana and Wai Wai peoples — as well as other ethnicities arriving after Guyana’s colonization. These groups all live together with common ties, hopes and aspirations.
The Rupununi’s forests, savannas and freshwater systems are the most important features of the environment — also known as “natural capital,” — for livelihoods in the region and are the source of wild fruits, nuts, timber for sale and home-building material for nearby communities. The ecosystems of the Rupununi region feature prominently in indigenous culture and folklore and have important aesthetic value for locals, serving as a primary place for hunting, fishing and recreation. The forests are also the primary areas where people farm.
However, things are changing. In recent decades, local livelihoods have been shifting from traditional subsistence to a more market-based economy. Money has been replacing barter as the primary means of exchange, and a growing number of individuals are providing for their families by selling products at market or earning wages. While this transition has led to benefits such as access to information and better health care, there are also many challenges and risks, such as: loss of community control over development decisions; habitat and ecosystem destruction; disappearance of cultural knowledge and traditions; and climate change.
This economic shift also has implications for how well families adapt to climate change. For example, if farmers become too dependent on selling any one crop at market, not only are they subject to price fluctuations, but climate change impacts like droughts or floods could easily destroy their harvest and leave them with nothing. Therefore, having a diversity of crops on both traditional subsistence farms and farms that produce for the market is a good strategy to ensure long-term soil fertility, healthy ecosystems and secure livelihoods.
Building resilience for the changes to come
In 2014, CI Guyana collaborated with the Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry to develop the Rupununi Innovation Fund (RIF). Geared toward smallholder farmers, the US$ 300,000 revolving fund finances community-based enterprises that promote low-carbon development, maintenance of ecosystems and good business practices. The Baretto family farm meets these goals as the farm is a diverse agro-ecological system which has been shown to support biodiversity, keep carbon in the ground, rebuild soil fertility and sustain yields over time — all of which combine to provide a basis for secure farm livelihoods.
To qualify for a loan, applicants must develop a business plan that demonstrates how the project will be financially, environmentally and socially viable. The bank and the project team help the community members prepare all of the necessary documents for submission.
With a grant from the RIF, the Baretto family dug a shallow well that allows them to access an extensive underground reservoir. They also installed overhead water storage tanks and an irrigation system on their property, which allow for better water conservation and management on the farm. Thanks to the reliable water supply provided by the new system, the family was able to endure the recent dry season while improving the farm’s productivity, growing a wider range of food crops for their own consumption and selling more to local markets. With the loan, the Barettos also expanded their cotton crop, which Emaline uses to weave more hammocks. These intricate, work-intensive handicrafts are something of a dying tradition, but one that Emaline is determined to keep alive.
Emaline Baretto weaves a traditional Wapishana hammock. (© Conservation International/photo by René Edwards)
As a result of these successes, the Barettos have been encouraging their neighbors to set up water storage and irrigation units to combat the dry weather — and to use the RIF to finance their projects if needed. Their endorsement sends a powerful message; people tend to be more receptive to change if they see the lives of their friends and neighbors who have already taken action improving. In addition, by sharing their experiences with the RIF with other farmers, the Barettos are helping them understand the process better and be better prepared. And to increase participation of women and youth in the fund, the bank is currently increasing outreach activities to communities.
The RIF is successful because it helps indigenous communities develop low-carbon community based enterprises that are compatible with their traditional way of life. The technical support provided by the RIF builds on traditional knowledge that has been passed down for centuries, equipping communities with the strongest tools available to continue and adapt their traditional livelihoods in the face of one of the biggest global challenges of our time. For farmers like the Barettos, building resilience is the most powerful way they can take action.
René Edwards is the technical coordinator for CI Guyana’s “Leveraging Natural Capital” project in the Rupununi, which is funded by the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund.
Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.