Socio-ecological resilience allows for better response to Covid-19

A story from Guatemala

With its disruption of food supply chains, as well as livelihoods, the Covid-19 crisis is challenging humanity´s very existence.

By reminding us of the intricate links between human and ecological health, the pandemic highlights the urgent need to go beyond immediate mitigation measures to strengthen the overall sustainability and resilience of our socio-economic structures, as well as the natural resource base upon which they depend.

Community in the Guatemalan highlands, San Francisco, Huehuetenango, Guatemala.

Psychologists define resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.” Two rural communities in Guatemala, provide an insightful example of how investing in social, and natural, “capital” can provide a safety net for vulnerable local households, and strengthen their resilience to diverse threats, both now and in the future.

Coping with Covid-19 in Guatemala

Guatemala’s central government introduced the first Covid-19 restrictions on March 5, 2020, in response to the global outbreak of Covid-19. A week later, following the country’s first reported case of the virus, stricter measures were put in place, including transport controls, and a daily curfew.

Albeit necessary, the national response to the Covid-19 crisis has had a severe impact on already precarious livelihoods of low-income households in Guatemala. An estimated seven out of ten workers depend on informal employment. The figure is even higher for rural areas, where only 2–3% of the population is in formal employment. Without universal access to basic social, economic, and health protection, the bulk of the country’s population has therefore been left highly vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19.

The community of San Francisco Las Flores in the northern highlands of Guatemala is a case in point. The restrictions on interregional travel, aimed at containing the spread of Covid-19, have effectively “locked in” local communities from the outside world. One of the immediate consequences is the restriction of farmers’ access to local and regional markets. This has not only affected the acquisition of agricultural inputs by farming households, but also their sales of potato, which is one of the main sources of income in the region. The Pasabién catchment, in the southwest of the country, has experienced similar consequences for the local economy. The drastic reduction in commercial activities has led to the loss of livelihoods for farm laborers and other casual workers, especially in the informal sector.

With reduced purchasing power, households in these isolated communities are experiencing increased food insecurity. To cope with the unprecedented threats, communities are falling back on social support to maintain flows of food to vulnerable families.

Farming communities reap benefits of ecosystem restoration

As one community member from Pasabién explains: “Nine friends and I joined to collect food and distribute it to those most in need.” Similar informal support structures have been set up in San Francisco Las Flores to facilitate the sharing of locally-grown food, such as vegetables.

However, this self-sufficiency did not emerge in a vacuum. For years, farmers within the sub-catchment have implemented good agricultural practices that have been promoted through the “Maize, Potato, Sheep and Forest” (MPOB) cultivation system. This integrated farming approach, which was introduced to strengthen resilience to climate change, is a form of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA). EbA provides us with a toolkit of “nature-based solutions” that can help to simultaneously address the resilience of our human, and ecological, “life support systems.”

At the core of the MPOB approach is the combination of market-oriented farming with community-wide management of land, agricultural inputs, and shared natural resources. At farm level, primary crops such as maize and potatoes are intercropped with diverse food products, including beans and vegetables. By cooperating with other farmers to establish seed banks, individual farmers can vary the genetic diversity of their corn, which in turn strengthens the resilience to increased humidity and other effects of a changing climate. This system also strengthens community collaboration and social resilience.

Multi-coloured corn, San Francisco, Huehuetenango, Guatemala.

Food diversification within MPOB systems is further enhanced through sheep and poultry farming that enables households to add animal protein to their diet. In addition, several communities are involved in the national forest incentive program that generates income for community-led forest conservation activities. It is not surprising that communities involved in MPOB systems have demonstrated a certain resilience to the present crisis, thanks to their stocks of diverse food products, savings from potato sales, and independent income from forest conservation.

Crises such as Covid-19 underline the importance of regenerating ecosystems. By promoting multi-layer agriculture, and other sustainable land management practices, the MPOB system can be viewed as a nature-based solution that provides long-term ecological and socio-economic benefits for rural communities. It not only enhances food security and livelihoods, but reduces farmers’ dependence on purchased seeds and other external inputs, as well as their vulnerability to climate change. The application of EbA approaches, such as MPOB, can therefore be viewed as an important element in increasing the resilience of communities in times of crisis.

These stories reflecting on experiences in sustainable land management at the sub-catchment level in India and Guatemala are part of a series of in-depth studies on EbA conducted by the Climate-SDG Integration Project. The objective is to analyse some of the positive impacts on people, the economy, and the environment, to build the case for scaling up nature-based solutions for climate change. The study findings will be communicated to the relevant communities, local authorities, and national decision-makers, to spur action at the appropriate levels.

Disclaimer: The “Climate-SDG Integration Project — Supporting the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda through Ecosystem-based Adaptation” is part of the International Climate Initiative. It is financed by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).

Written by Marai El Fassi, Sarah Zitterbarth (TMG Research),
Mónica Paiz Oliveros, Karla Alonzo Barrientos, Amelia Coj, and Rita de León (Asociación de Desarrollo Integral Mitij Ixoq’ — ADIMI)

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