Training helps Haitian farmers adapt to increasingly variable weather and climate conditions
Travel to Haiti’s countryside and you’ll inevitably hear farmers express worry about the changing climate and increasingly variable weather conditions.
They say that their very livelihoods are threatened as the warming planet provides more fuel for extreme weather – provoking increasingly powerful storms, scorching droughts and more unpredictable rainy seasons.
While farmers may be powerless over the increasingly erratic behavior of mother nature, a new program supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is bringing them together to use research-based methods and tools to adapt their practices in an era of increased climate-related risks.
The approach — called Participatory Integrated Climate Services for Agriculture (PICSA) — is simple enough: By introducing farmers to critical information and decision-making tools in a timely fashion they can make more informed decisions and, importantly, increase their resilience and incomes in the face of more variable weather and seasonal climate conditions.
“The program starts with the understanding that Haitian farmers are best placed to identify their own needs and priorities,” said Caroline Staub, Ph.D., the Climate Smart Solutions leader of the USAID-funded Feed the Future Haiti Appui à la Recherche et au Développement Agricole (AREA). “With the right tools and knowledge, they can come up with the practical solutions that will work for their households in the long run.”
The majority of Haitian farmers rely exclusively on rain for irrigation and yet receive little climate information and guidance to adapt to more variable rainy seasons, dry spells and temperatures. Farmers surveyed by AREA researchers often blame erratic weather and climate conditions for a decline in crop and livestock yields they’ve experienced in recent years.
“We need to know when there will be rain or when there will be no rain,” a farmer in the rural community of Goyavier said recently. “If we know that such a period will have droughts, we will sow less, and we will know what to plant because there are crops that are less resistant and others that are more resistant.”
A new approach
The approach was developed by researchers at the University of Reading in England to train smallholder farmers in developing countries worldwide to adapt to changing weather conditions.
Recognizing the program needs local leaders to ensure its sustainability, AREA partnered with 15 farmer organizations, Haiti’s Meteorological and Hydrological Service (UHM) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) — as part of a “train-the-trainers” approach. Team members from AREA and the University of Reading rolled out the PICSA approach by training dozens of experts from these organizations and these organizations have in turn trained scores of farmers.
At the multi-day workshop events, farmers gather in groups to review location-specific weather and climate information — the likes of which most of them have never received before. They calculate the probabilities for the start and length of the agricultural season and the likely amount of rainfall based on historical information, interpret seasonal climate and weekly weather forecasts, and develop matrices and budgets of money-making opportunities that work for them — including changes in their crop, livestock and other livelihood enterprises.
By yearend 2020, as many 2,600 farmers across Haiti will receive the training, according to representatives with UHM and CRS, which provides support services to farmers in rural areas.
Waldo Colas, a forecaster and a leader of the PICSA rollout for UHM, said the program marks the first time the government’s meteorological service has reached out directly to farmers in such an organized way. The training has proven valuable not only to farmers but to UHM, which has gained insights to better understand the needs of farmers and to tailor weather and historical climate information to better help them. As a result of increased demand for weather information, some participants now discuss weather reports and forecasts via group messages on WhatsApp, which supplements the UHM’s traditional weather radio reports.
“It makes us happy to know that our work is used by farmers, and it motivates us because we know that more farmers are receiving the weather information and they know how to use it,” Colas said.
From coffee to cacao
This month, CRS plans to finish training the last group of 60 extension agents and these farm advisers are expected to have trained 2,000 farmers in two Haitian departments – South and Grand’Anse – by the end of October, said Ricardo Jeanniton, manager of the agricultural program for CRS. Next year, CRS hopes to reach 1,000 to 1,500 more farmers, he said.
Participating farmers are already putting into practice things they learned, Jeanniton said. For example, some coffee farmers have determined they stand to be more productive if they plant cacao beans during an upcoming dry period. That’s because cacao beans are commanding higher prices of late and they require less water than coffee beans.
“Now because of the situation, cacao is better adapted in some areas than coffee,” he said.
Staub said one challenge in the years ahead is attracting outside funding to increase the reach of PICSA. “Investments are needed build the capacity of key institutions such as UHM and agricultural extension providers so that they can build and reflect on their new knowledge and skills,” she said.
Learn more: Evaluating Farmers’ Experiences
- Ahead of the 2019 growing season, AREA surveyed more than 100 PICSA-trained farmers who live in mountainous areas outside of Port-au-Prince.
- Using a variety of instruments, AREA found that 70% of the respondents reported the training led them to make positive changes in their farming and livelihood activities.
- Farmers not only made changes in the scale and methods they used to manage their existing farming activities, but some farmers also started new enterprises.
Read the AREA journal article: Coping with climatic shocks: local perspectives from Haiti’s rural mountain regions