Impact story Farmers in South America’s Guyana have been battling climate change for years

A new collaboration between the Alliance and Guyanese partners provides guidance for climate-smart agricultural investment

Vegetable farmer Deodath Seodat has not been able to plan his crop planting season to coincide with increasingly unpredictable flood-provoking rainfall for almost two decades. The situation will not improve and there are few easy alternatives. Moving to a different terrain would likely increase his crops’ exposure to Guyana’s other weather extreme: drought.

“Farming is my livelihood,” said Seodat, who works in Guyana’s Region 3, which is characterized by low-lying rice, vegetable and livestock farms, mostly operated by smallholders. “From 2005 and until now, we can’t predict this weather. We cannot plant really safely.”

The small South American country has a multiethnic population of about 750,000 that depends largely on agriculture. Its struggles are a warning for other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The weather swings from flood to drought, on a wicked pendulum likely moving quicker as the global climate crisis ramps up.

It doesn’t matter what you farm. Any product from rice for export to smallholder livestock is negatively impacted by the weather. “Yes, there were problems in the past,” said Desiree Neblett, a long-time farming extension worker, with NAREI, Guyana’s official agricultural and extension unit. “But not like this one … this is the worst time ever that I have seen.”

In some years, weather-related damage in agriculture, forestry and fishing, which account for 20% of the economy, can decimate production.

Smart investment in quick, widespread action to mitigate risks from climate change, and implement food and nutritional security measures has huge potential to turn things around for farmers – especially since the violent vagaries of Guyana’s weather threatening production almost every single year. 

For example, the use of climate-resilient pineapple varieties in Region 3 could lead to increased farm income with a payback period of 2.6 years for farmers. Crop rotation with red beans for peanuts in Region 9 could lead to a cost-benefit ratio of about 3 with a payback period of 1.2 years, according to new research by the Alliance and Guyanese partners.

The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, in collaboration with NAREI and the University of Guyana, published this July Climate-Smart Investment Portfolios and related research for the country. They recommend a series of best-bet climate-smart agricultural investments, with central themes being improved water management and better preparation for extreme weather mitigation. 

The Caribbean Development Bank was the primary funder of this research. 

The CSAIPs were prepared by a multidisciplinary team of weather experts, economists, agricultural scientists and gender researchers, and led by the Climate Action research area of the Alliance. 

Crucially, the work takes a farmers-first approach to understanding problems and identifies potential solutions based on landscape and weather extremes, current farming practices, current farming practices, and the willingness of farmers and policymakers to allocate resources to implement the necessary changes.

Dr. Elroy Charles, of the University of Guyana, says farmers are already mitigating – pumping water out of flooded fields, building raised livestock dens to save them from flooding, and irrigating drought-prone areas. But much more needs to be done, including the pursuit of long-term policy support for change. 

The work with the Alliance and partners seeks to collect more data and raise more funding “so that research work can be done to find better alternatives to assist farmers to improve their agricultural production,” Charles said.

This blog is the first of a two-part series that will summarize the CSAIPs research findings. In this one, we will feature several Alliance researchers who participated in the work. Part 2 will include more producers from Guyana’s Region 3 and feature videos from project collaborators in Guyana.

These videos will also be featured in an upcoming webinar with project stakeholders.

A multi-party project for success

Alliance Managing Director for the Americas, Jesús Quintana, said that collaboration across stakeholders – from funders and scientists to farmers – was key in making this project a success.

“We couldn't have done it without the commitment of national agricultural experts who participated in workshops and focal groups, and we received great support from and collaboration with researchers and students from the University of Guyana,” Quintana said. “Perhaps most importantly, the smallholder farmers and producers of Guyana, including women and youth, were also key to making this project a reality.”

Quintana notes some of the research’s main underlying realities: that Guyana has faced drought or flood in 12 of the previous 15 years, and is sometimes hit by these in the same year. This has led to estimated losses of USD 450 million.
A suite of investments, including better water management, infrastructure and value chain improvement, could greatly increase food security, sustainability and wellbeing, Quintana said. But this is not just about spending money on the right technology. 
“An essential part of the climate-smart investment portfolios is investing in human capital – the women, men and youth of Guyana who make the agriculture a huge part of the country’s economy,” Quintana said. “With the right action taken soon, I am confident that Guyana will become a model for other Caribbean countries facing their own climate challenges.”
 

A first for women farmers

Anton Eitzinger, postdoctoral scientist in the Climate-Resilient Food Systems research group at the Alliance’s Climate Action research area, coordinated the project. Built on ten years of improving practices by CCAFS (the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security) the CSAIPs were built using “Evidence-Based, Gender Equitable Framework for Prioritizing Climate-Smart Agriculture Interventions.”

These started with on-the-ground interviews and workshops with farmers, including a special focus on women to assure that data collected was equitable. The second step entailed working on solutions tailored to their findings – detailed in the CSAIPs – and finally, an analysis of barriers to adoption such as economic access, cultural preferences or the ability to invest more time into production.

“This resulted in best-bet Climate-Smart Agriculture Investment Portfolios for the two essential agricultural regions in Guyana: the coastal lowlands and the hinterland Savannah,” Eitzinger said. “All three framework components involve a robust participatory process based on national stakeholder engagement and local communities. Because implementation is something that will need to be carried out over several years, capacity building is a core component of the framework.”
 

Painting an accurate picture quickly

Understanding climate impact on farmers and production is a critical starting point to build robust CSAIPs. 

Led by Caroline Mwongera, a climate action and policy scientist at the Alliance based in Kenya, the assessments are called Climate-Smart Agriculture Rapid Appraisals, or CSA-RAs, which were done in collaboration with the University of Guyana in 2019. 

The CSA-RAs took a bottom-up, farmers-first approach to build a strong foundation for the CSAIPs. Almost half of the participants were women – who are often left out of smallholder surveys, leading to inaccurate pictures of the on-the-ground reality.

Researchers documented variability in climate and topography, land agro-ecologies, cultural and socioeconomic status within the regions. Despite growing adoption, the use of climate-smart agriculture technologies remains low. In her video, Mwongera enumerated multiple additional findings and outlined potential solutions – including greater market access, increased extension services, better availability of improved crops and weather information, and the need for improved infrastructure.
“Addressing these constraints will provide an opportunity [to improve] to Guyana’s climate resilience, Mwongera said.
“We also found that youth and women engagement in agriculture was low. This is mainly because of the undeveloped potential along the entire value chain,” Mwongera said. “Among the women, time and labor are key factors for deciding how they engage in agriculture. Women tend to choose horticulture due to ease of management, which allows them to also manage household chores.”
 

Partnerships are key to success

How do we find the best climate-smart recommendations for farmers in Guyana? The first step is asking them what they are already doing and what their needs and wants are to make their systems more resilient and productive. Top-down, prescriptive “solutions” generally will not work; interventions aligned with local cultural, political, environmental and social realities are far more likely to succeed.

Miguel Lizarazo, a researcher in the Climate Action team of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, said the process of co-designing relied upon the participation of the “different actors in the agricultural sector who know the most appropriate practices to address food security problems and strengthen the adaptation and mitigation capacity of agriculture in Guyana.”

While many efforts are already ongoing in the country, “these actions require a holistic understanding – from multiple perspectives – of the heterogeneity and diversity of production systems. This increases the complexity of planning and making decisions,” Lizarazo said.
“Helping strengthen farmers’ capacities and know-how to make climate-smart choices is crucial and requires in-depth understanding of the local socio-economic contexts and the suitability of priority practices in an agro-ecological farming system.”

In his video, Lizarazo explains the processes and strategies used to build the CSAIPs and lists five key findings from the research, which will help guide all actors in the agricultural system toward sustainable climate-smart agriculture implementation.
 

Stay tuned for our next installment, which will focus on critical contributions from partners in Guyana and additional findings from the research. We will also cover numerous policy recommendations that can be implemented to build on this research.