‘Farming is an adventure’: a glance at climate variability in Santander, Colombia
By Genowefa Blundo Canto & Lisset Perez.
Increasing climate variability, drought and lack of agroclimatic information at the local level represent a challenge for farmers in Colombia year after year. The AGROCLIMAS* project is carrying out a participatory study on the flow of information and decision-making cycles of maize and bean producers, in order to understand: From whom do farmers receive information (on climate, prices, practices, etc.)?, How ?, and What are the gaps of information related to decision making that need to be filled?
The methodology is based on participatory workshops with farmer groups and key informant interviews in selected communities to map the stakeholders involved in the information flow and decision making related to the two crops of interest for the project. The project is working in the Colombian departments of Santander for bush beans, Tolima and Cordoba for maize. Different areas in each department were chosen to have a comprehensive view of production methods, information networks and problems related to the crops.
The first week of June was dedicated to the department of Santander where communities of San Gil, Barichara, Villanueva and Curití (photo 1) were visited. Most farmers in these areas cultivate tobacco and bush beans for marketing. These are rain-fed systems, strongly dependent on climate, especially precipitation. The official weather information these farmers receive through radio and television is not considered very reliable because it is not local, while differences in soils, solar radiation, temperature and precipitation is significant even between nearby communities.
Sowing date is a critical moment for the development of the crop: farmers traditionally begin sowing around Easter (March/ April) or in September, for the second rainy season. In recent years it has become more difficult to identify the appropriate sowing date: sometimes the first rainfall is not followed by stable rains and the plant suffers from water stress in the first month, critical for good crop development. This is what happened in 2015 in Villanueva, where farmers tend to plant early to take advantage of better prices at the time of harvest, but suffered losses close to 80% because after the first rains twenty days without precipitation followef (photo 2a). On the other hand, in Montecitos (San Gil), about 25 km away form Villanueva, farmers waited for the rains to be stable and the ground wet enough for planting, which secured very good crop development (photo 2b).
Don Heli Mejia, a successful farmer from Montecitos who diversifies his sources of income and consumption between tobacco, beans, coffee, citrus and vegetables, spoke about the climate variability and changes in decision-making that farmers face (video below, in Spanish).
“We always sow a little later, they (in Villanueva) sow earlier (Note: to take advantage of higher selling prices) … but it is a risk because with climate change one does not know what to expect … We always sow a little later because you have to wait for the soil to be wet… sometimes you get twenty days of drought and it is over”.
“(The sowing date) is already something cultural, it’s a habit … but as I said, it’s an adventure, you never know if you make it by sowing earlier or later … it is an adventure, farming is an adventure”.
“About 15 years ago one could still go by customary sowing dates because climate change did not have so much impact as today (…) heat is more terrible, dry seasons longer, sometimes severe storms, wind, dry air and heat itself do not let the clouds come. This is climate change and we have caused it ourselves, between big business, big industry, farmers themselves … and that is killing our ozone layer. Now you go out in the sun, sometimes it is almost unbearable. It affects us greatly but sometimes it is also an opportunity because areas that were cooler are becoming warmer … Then it improves the soil for crops, but heat also affects them”.
“Very few of us know we will receive information but the majority of farmers do not update, some look for updates when there is a course, but mostly it is random (…) one for instance can get updated by attending meetings (…) what happens is that sometimes we do not put into practice the things we learn”.
“The future of agriculture depends on how we manage it, if we see agriculture as a routine, without planning, this agriculture leads us to more poverty every day, but we should look at it as a small business where we produce everything we need to eat, to sell and to sow. If we see it as a family but productive business we can manage it without waiting for the government or someone else to give us something or not”.
* The project Agroclimatic services and food security information for better decision-making – AGROCLIMAS is implemented in Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras by CIAT and Bioversity International with thier partners (CIP, IRI, ILRI) and supported by the CCAFS program.