The valuable lessons I learned from farmers

Albeiro and his sister Ana, in the climate-smart village of Cauca, Colombia.

Whenever there’s a chance, I tell the story behind the bag of organic coffee that sits on my shelf. It came from an area here in Colombia where, simply put, farmers become scientists and scientists become students of farmers.

I’m talking about the climate-smart village in the Cauca Department. It’s one of several around the globe that the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security has established over the years to promote the use of climate-smart agriculture.

Coined by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, climate-smart agriculture refers to practices that enable farmers to boost their production and at the same time become resilient to the changing climate and possibly contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In climate-smart villages, we don’t recommend practices or technologies that farmers then implement. We know doing so won’t get to the goals we want to achieve.

History is replete with examples of technologies that worked perfectly in laboratories and field trials. But then when deployed into the real world, nobody adopted them. Ergo, they were a total failure.

They failed because those laboratories and field trials only took into account assumed scenarios and did not consider many complicated realities. These would include cultural, political and social conditions that could affect adoption of technologies.

As such, our protocol has always been to collaborate with farmers to develop and test climate-smart agricultural practices based on their specific needs and conditions.

So what’s the result? To answer that, let me tell you a story.

When we established the climate-smart village in Cauca four years ago, the first thing we did was to ask members of the community about their vision for themselves and the village.

We also explained the idea of uncertainty, which is inherent in forecasting the climate. But we did it in a manner that we hoped will eventually make them fully grasp the concept and manage their expectations about the predictability power of our forecasts.

So rather than tell them at the outset about the percentage of rain come next planting season, we conducted games. In one instance, we asked them to dip their hands into a bag filled with balls of different colors and get some of those balls out. Some would have three red balls and a blue ball or vice versa. It was only after that when we started talking about probabilities and how they relate to weather events, and then how certain farming practices contribute to the increasingly erratic climate.

During our initial gathering with the community, a farmer named Albeiro said he wanted to become the most successful bean producer. It was interesting because he didn’t know much about growing beans as he wasn’t a bean producer at that time.

Over the years, I have seen Albeiro persevere to get to this dream. He’s been working with us to test new bean varieties, the ones fortified by iron and more resistant to water scarcity, based on the suggestions we’ve provided to him.

He has also set up a weather station, and his family would go on regular trips with him without our prompting to check the temperature and precipitation and write down the numbers on their notebooks.

Today, Albeiro grows beans and grows them without using pesticides. Likewise, there’s no waste from his farm because he converts any scrap into something useful, say as compost.

When I speak with Albeiro nowadays, I sense pride in his voice. He would tell me how satisfied he feels knowing that how he does farming doesn’t contribute to climate change.

The people who gifted me with the bag of organic coffee tell me the same thing. That coffee is not yet available anywhere, but the producers are contemplating to bring it to the market.

The story of Albeiro and other farmers in the climate-smart village in Cauca is inspiring. It gives me pride that the approach we’ve used there has now spread beyond the borders of Colombia.

We are now working with governments in Central America and the Dominican Republic to also implement climate-smart agriculture within their territories. These governments committed to take up the approach as part of their pledges to the Paris Agreement.

My experience working with the climate-smart village in Cauca has taught me that there’s so much that we, as scientists, can learn from farmers.

I have learned, for one thing, that fully understanding the context is the way to go if we want to get the results we want, and in our case, to motivate farmers to adopt practices that hopefully can make a difference in their lives.

I have likewise learned that scientists need to get away from “science speak” and more into “public speak” if we want to change minds not only of farmers but also decision-makers who hold the key to scale up innovative solutions such as climate-smart agriculture.