Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Farming and the license to dream (notes from the CBA9 conference)

I am in Africa. After listening to stories of my mother catching a colourful fish in the River Kafue and of my grandfather driving from Nairobi to Lusaka in the 70s, it is finally my chance to see this inspiring, beautiful, and complex continent.

I am in Nairobi at the 9th International Conference on Community- Based Adaptation (CBA9) - a mammoth conference on community-based adaptation (CBA). There are close to 400 delegates attending and though it is easy to feel lost, I enjoy meeting old friends and making new ones. As part of the conference, field trips were organised within Kenya to critically analyse and learn from CBA initiatives within the country. I find myself off to Kajiado County with a bunch of wonderful, inspiring group of researchers and practitioners from 16 (!) countries.

CBA participants on a field trip to Kajiado County.
Kajiado is far removed from Nairobi's green landscape. Expanses of scrubland. An occasional dik dik or impala scampering across. Short spreading acacia providing the only shade against the unforgiving sun. Six feet high termite hills break the monotony of the flatland. The flash of colour from a Masai herdman's clothes makes a fleeting appearance.

Among the community initiatives we visited, there is the Emaiawata Horticultural Farm run by a Masai women's group. Through a translator, we learn that the farm was set up a year ago and sources water from a river 70 km away! This water is stored in a man-made pond and than used to irrigate the horticultural farm through drip irrigation. So far, the women have harvested tomatoes and spinach. Interestingly, the women pay men in their community to work on the farm and so, provide employment (and food) for their husbands!
My dream is to see this farm producing vegetables and fodder. We can later expand the pond and put fish in it. ~ Head of Emaiawata Women's Group

As the women narrated difficulties they faced in securing community land to farm on and learning how to use drip irrigation, the story echoed my fieldwork in India. In a similarly semi-arid stretch in Rajasthan, I had spoken to men about their drip irrigation woes (how salts from the brackish water clog the nozzles, how the hot sun makes plastic pipes brittle).

In Kajiado, it was apparent that the horticultural farm was a source of pride for the women. They worked on it, reaped harvest, and earned some money. It gave them some autonomy and a reason to dream. Whether it was a community-based adaptation initiative or not, is questionable. Without an explicit understanding of current climate variability and future changes and their impacts, I was not convinced that this project could not be defined as an adaptative process. However, it potentially begins to challenge current gendered roles, increases livelihood options and thus builds local adaptive capacity. To me, that is a start.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Pushing disciplinary boundaries: No, really.

As nerdy as it may sound, I enjoy learning. I look forward to hearing new ideas and meeting people with varied research interests. This year as a postdoc on the ASSAR consortium, I have found myself flooded with opportunities to just this - attend trainings, go to conferences, meet some really good researchers, and in the process learn along the way.

In March, I attended a week-long training on DSSAT, a model that helps simulate crop yields in different climatic scenarios and under crop management practices. Hosted by ICRISAT, I was one of the few interdisciplinary researchers in a roomful of agronomists. Some reflections:

  • For all the talk on interdisciplinary research, research in Indian agriculture universities is still predominantly confined by discipline. It took a couple of days for the agronomists to appreciate the importance of having non-agronomists on the training. This is disturbing since the value of drawing on the strengths of multiple disciplines is well recognised globally.   
  • Although one training does not make me a crop modeler, it does most certainly equip me with the knowledge and language to have a coherent conversation with crop modelers. Crucially, I understand the assumptions underlying DSSAT outputs and can therefore interpret results in a more robust manner. As someone who researches the interface of climate risks and agricultural livelihoods, I'm glad to have gained this skill. 
  • Trainings are also a great way to learn about an organisation. A week in ICRISAT and interactions with several junior and senior researchers, gave me an 'insiders' perspective' which is always an asset if you plan to work/collaborate with an organisation. 
DSSAT training at ICIRSAT, Hyderabad
To conclude, while carving your niche and specialising within a discipline is crucial, I feel early career researchers should definitely open their minds and schedules to training programmes that may not be directly linked to their research but may have implications on their understanding of others' research. It is only when I talk to those outside my discipline do I learn how to communicate my work to them and develop a language that helps me understand their research (and its strengths and weaknesses) better.

AgMIP training at IIHS, Bangalore
The DSSAT training was followed by one on AgMIP in Bangalore, but that's a whole other story :)

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Interview | CARIAA Young Researchers

Filling up a monitoring form for a medicinal plant nursery in
Keylong, Himachal Pradesh (2008). 
Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) is an IDRC and DFID funded project working on building resilience of vulnerable populations in vulnerability hotspots. As part of their series on young researchers working on climate change issues, I was interviewed by IDRC. The interview, Raising awareness about climate risk, adaptation in South Asia covers my motivations behind doing climate adaptation research and the journey that led me to become part of the ambitious and exciting CARIAA project. Read it here.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Ecological restoration as an adaptation to climate variability: reflections from a visit to Navadarshanam

It's been three months into my new job as a postdoctoral researcher working on a multi-country, multidisciplinary project called Adaptation at Scale in Semi-arid Regions (ASSAR). The journey has been an exciting and challenging experience so far. In a recent blog, I documented my research team's visit to Navadarshanam and discussed how perhaps scaling up niche adaptation interventions may take away from the principles and processes that make them successful in the first place.

Navadarshanam is a peaceful farm on the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Do pay them a visit if you're around!

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Integrated landscape management in Asia: who participates,who doesn't?

Till recently, I was working on a Global Review of Integrated Landscape Initiatives with Bioversity International and the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative. As part of the Asia review, we surveyed 166 landscape initiatives in South and Southeast Asia to get a better idea of what works in integrated landscape management and what doesn't. From the Bioversity website:
Integrated landscape management is increasingly gaining attention as a way to understand and address the complex and interconnected goals of agricultural production, ecological conservation, and livelihood improvement. Working at the landscape level means engaging with different actors at different levels, often with competing motivations. Bringing multiple actors together to initiate dialogue, facilitate participatory decision-making, and enable conflict resolution can be extremely rewarding, but is also challenging and time and resource intensive.
Building upon these findings, I wrote a post on the WLE Agriculture & Ecosystems Blog on how private sector stakeholders are still missing from multiple stakehoder processes in integrated landscape projects in Asia. The full blog post - The Private Sector: The least involved in landscape initiatives is here

A high altitude mountain landscape in Lahual, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Chandni Singh

Thursday, 13 November 2014

ASSAR Annual Meeting: Notes on collaborative, interdisciplinary research

On my first day as a postdoctoral researcher on the ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-arid Regions) project, I was hurled into a week-long ASSAR Annual Meeting held at IIHS, Bangalore. A wonderful mix between workshop, project meeting, networking event and academic brainstorming session, the week was the best possible induction I could get into the goings on of ASSAR. It also helped me understand how large collaborative projects spanning several continents work and how do highly motivated and skilled researchers work together to explore big questions of development in the context of climate change.

Oscars or Emmys? Round tables always work well
One of the days of the annual meeting was a national stakeholder consultation which attracted academicians, civil society actors and policymakers to a common platform. This day-long event was designed to facilitate multiple stakeholders to deliberate on the challenges and opportunities of adaptation at scale in India and Africa. I wrote a blog on it here.

The key things that stood out for me from the ASSAR annual meeting were:
  • Collaborative research, especially spanning several disciplines is tough. However, it is important to get people talking to each other so that we slowly understand the strengths and weaknesses of our disciplinary boundaries (theoretically and methodologically).
  • Academicians are also people and though our research speaks, in the end, we connect as humans to one another. My most interesting conversations happened in the innovative breakout sessions ('What are your expectations of ASSAR in 2018? How would you explain what ASSAR is trying to do to a 10 year old?') where I got to talk to people about how they felt, what they thought about the research project. 
  • A project as large as this requires frequent face-to-face events such as this one to build networks and establish linkages that can then be continued through online discussions.
  • Finally, having dedicated, skilled project managers is of utmost importance. You can have the smartest people in the room but without someone to steer it and glue it together, we are just the sum of its parts. 

Looking forward to the next annual meeting!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Book Review | Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World

I just finished reading Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World by Helena Norberg-Hodge. It is strange that it is only now that I finally read this masterpiece; six years since I first went to Ladakh and began my journey of academic inquiry and personal growth. Ladakh was the place I discovered my love for ethnographic study and found the inspiration to undertake a PhD. Ladakh was the place I stood up to a corrupt Goba (village head) to support a women's Self Help Group I had closely worked with. Ladakh was the place I began understanding that the journey is the destination. But even if Ladakh was not such an integral part of my growth, I would still have been very sorry to miss Ancient Futures.

Drawing on decades of ethnographic work starting in the 1970s, when Ladakh was first 'opened' to tourists, Norberg-Hodge starts by painting an evocative picture of the social contentment and ecological harmony in traditional Ladakhi communities. It is so palpable that at first, she suspected that the smiling faces and cheerful communal work was a well-orchestrated lie. Acutely conscious of her perceptions coloured by a mechanistic worldview, Norberg-Hodge takes time to immerses herself in the Ladakhi life and as a result, skilfully discusses how religion, social norms, communal bonds, and environmental dependence made Ladakhis a content and sustainable community.

In the second half of the book, she turns witness to the recent inroads 'development' has made in Ladakh - from stories of shrinking families and severed social ties to shifts towards commercial (and unsustainable) agriculture; from incidences of previously unheard diseases like depression and obesity to increasing communal conflict in this largely peaceful land. Most importantly, she captures something I have witnessed across rural India - the alarming crisis around erosion of identity and shame over one's traditions as inferior when compared to the West. She holds that 'modernisation' (as defined and perpetuated by movies, advertisements and media) is often coveted without a clear understanding of the side-effects such a developmental model has spawned in the West.

Reeling from this dismal picture, the third section of the book offers a ray of hope. Here, Norberg-Hodge talks about various initiatives in Ladakh that are providing alternatives to the current top-down, infrastructure-heavy modes of progress. She elaborates on 'counter-development' a paradigm through which she envisions informing communities about the implications of the Western development model and working towards ecologically-sound, culturally attuned and autonomous development.

Religious sanction, communal norms, and ancient traditions collude to make life in Ladakh's resource constrained land inherently sustainable.
Long before 'bottom-up development' and 'climate-smart agriculture' became a fad, Ladakh's rural communities were practicing ecologically
sustainable agriculture and locally governed and managed their lives.     
Whether or not you know (or want to know) Ladakh, Ancient Futures is a book to read. Whether or not you are studying development and its discourses, Ancient Futures is an incredible read. If you have ever questioned the ease with which the allure of the West subsumes your own culture and identity, wondered about ecological sustainability and whether is is even possible in this day and age, toyed with metaphysical issues around contentment and happiness, Ancient Futures is a stimulating read.

For those interested, you can watch a documentary based on the book here and a TEDx talk by Helena Norberg-Hodge here
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