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Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same. The French phrase expressing the static quality of human life, despite evolution, seems apt at this week’s Climate-Smart Agriculture conference, which aimed to make farming more resilient in the face of changing climate. The conference took place in Montpellier, France, on 16-18 March.

A high-level panel of agricultural research leaders and politicians was convened to offer some answers to burning questions, such as how livestock and crops can be protected from extreme weather events. However, none of these high level leaders came from a low-income country, whose economies depend largely on agricultural production — much more than those in the developed world. The panel was a telling symbol of how far ‘inclusive rural development’ has to go to live up to its name.

Overlooking the diversity of farmers causes mistakes and delays in responding to climate change.

Maggie Opondo, University of Nairobi  

One goal of agriculture policy in low-income countries is to help vulnerable smallholders — predominantly women in many countries — adapt to climate change that threatens their livelihoods. But after decades of participatory research aimed at helping people teach themselves to cope with different weather events, it was evident that many policymakers still don’t understand female farmers’ production systems. This becomes a problem when mostly male policymakers rely on mostly male scientists for evidence to support decisions about agricultural policy, the conference heard.

Maggie Opondo, a geographer at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, told conference participants that such evidence often demonstrates a kind of one-size-fits-all view of smallholders in Africa, rather than focusing on farmers as people with a culture of expectations and traditions. For example, she said, in Kenya’s Turkana community, women with no man in the family cannot own cattle — the main source of food and income in the arid region. Policies aimed at increasing local agricultural resilience may therefore fail to assist women whose husbands have died.

Overlooking the diversity of farmers causes mistakes and delays in responding to climate change, Opondo told the conference. She added that the international level at which policy is agreed is often out of reach for subsistence farmers.

The Climate-Smart Agriculture conference is one such international policy space. But there were some moments of hope, for example when Amadou Allahoury, high commissioner for national food security and agriculture strategy in the Niger president’s office, spoke to leaders about bringing evidence to policymakers.  

The high-level politicians who prepared the conference asked him for his views, but he told me later that he had no input into setting the conference agenda. Plus ça change.

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