Heifer Webinar Highlights Lessons from Latin America on Engaging Smallholders in Climate Resilience

By Heifer International

May 31, 2024

A canopy of green leaves above a farm.
A canopy of trees provides shade on a family spice farm, demonstrating agroforestry practices taught by Heifer Guatemla’s Green Business Belt program. Photo by Phillip Davis/Heifer International.

Smallholder farmers are on the front lines of the escalating climate crisis, battling severe weather events, soil degradation and water scarcity. These farmers, who number approximately 500 million globally, provide food for roughly half the people in their regions. However, they are highly vulnerable to climate change due to inadequate infrastructure, a lack of technical and financial assistance, and other challenges.

Ahead of the Bonn Climate Change Conference, hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change June 3 through June 13, Heifer International hosted a roundtable discussion on how smallholder-led initiatives can address vulnerabilities and build climate resilience in Latin America. The webinar gathered experts to explore case studies and learnings from their own research, successes and challenges.

Lessons from Latin America

Participatory Research

Ernesto Méndez, professor of agroecology and environmental studies at the University of Vermont, opened the session by introducing his work with the Institute for Agroecology, which aims to transform food systems to be ecologically sound and socially just through a “transformative agroecology” approach.

 This approach, he said, works to build resilient farming systems that solve environmental, economic and social problems through understanding the many complex interactions in food systems and integrating social and natural sciences with Indigenous knowledge.

A man inspects a plant in a green setting.
Rudy Sagastume examines coffee plants on his family’s farm in Guatemala, where his agroforestry practices include growing a variety of crops such as cardamom, cinnamon, beans and bananas. Photo by Phillip Davis/Heifer International.

Méndez highlighted an important component of this work, “transdisciplinarity,” which “is the respect, the valuing of diverse knowledge systems,” he said. “Really looking closely at what are the different types of knowledge and evidence that we need to use in order to shift our food systems to ones that are more sustainable, paying a lot of attention to the knowledge that farmers already have.”

As part of this, Méndez emphasized the significance of participatory action research (PAR), in which researchers collaborate with communities to co-create research on local challenges, establishing a foundation to develop responses that have integrated smallholder farmers from the beginning.

Citing a research project from Mexico on whether crop diversification would benefit smallholder coffee farmers and agroecology principles, Méndez highlighted that PAR and knowledge sharing were integral in developing viable solutions, including a farmer-led agriculture calendar that enabled households to cross-check diversification options with available resources throughout the year.

Climate Adaptation Tools

A woman holds a cacao pod under a tree.
Marta Debo, an ADIRA association member, holds a cocoa pod under a cocoa tree at the processing and collection center in Guatemala. Photo by Pooi Yin Chong/Heifer International.

Luisa Tabin, Building Climate Resilience project manager for Heifer Guatemala, went on to introduce Heifer International’s Adaptation Equivalency Index (AEI), a tool designed to assess climate change vulnerability and adaptation capacities throughout select value chains in Guatemala and Honduras.

Developing the tool began with a study across 48 communities, collecting baseline data from multiple actors to establish insights on socioeconomic, environmental, climate change and value chain conditions.

“[This tool] captures different information from farmers, experts, the private sector, the public sector and from the academy,” Tabin said, making it a comprehensive tool for evaluating climate resilience and adaptation.

Key findings from the AEI revealed significant challenges, such as drought and the need for increased diversification, gender participation, and financial access, with the index specifically identifying water management as a vital area that needs attention in cocoa and cardamom cultivation.

Tabin emphasized that the goal is for these results to serve as a starting point and a method to continuously assess needs and enhance resilience-building efforts. “Adaptation is not a steady point,” she argued. “Adaptation is a dynamic process, so the adaptation that we’re seeing today is not the adaptation that the communities may need tomorrow.”

Real-World Application

In closing, the speakers shared learnings from their on-the-ground experience implementing these initiatives, including:

Two technicians examine plants in dense vegetation.
Arnoldo Teyul, right, a participant in Heifer Guatemala’s Green Business Belt program, receives tips on cardamom agroforestry systems from Heifer Technician Osmin Teni, left. Photo by Heifer International.
  • Considering logistical, language and connectivity limitations in rural communities and the need to maintain flexibility to secure full participation.
  • Collaborating with existing organizations and being transparent about project benefits and expectations can help develop trust in communities that may have past negative experiences.
  • Scaling solutions requires embracing projects’ full complexity and involving many stakeholders, including partners and funders, to align efforts and resources.

The path to smallholder climate resilience is neither simple nor straightforward. Implementing resilience-building solutions requires a steadfast commitment to listening to and co-creating with the very communities they aim to serve. Watch the full webinar to discover the entire range of insights.