Why community 'based' adaptation to climate change is not enough

Proponents of community-based adaptation to climate change need to put communities in the driving seat, says Anju Sharma.

Anju Sharma's picture
Insight by 
Anju Sharma
18 March 2014
The Ewaso Ng'iro River, in Isiolo County's Shaba National Reserve, Kenya where pilot projects to support adaptation 'may not yet be perfect, but have the right idea'. (Photo: Ninara via Creative Commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

The Ewaso Ng'iro River, in Isiolo County's Shaba National Reserve, Kenya where pilot projects to support adaptation 'may not yet be perfect, but have the right idea'. (Copyright Ninara via Creative Commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

For some time now, I have been meaning to write a blog on why splitting climate change adaptation into "community-based adaptation" (CBA) and "ecosystem-based adaptation" (EBA) is not necessarily a good thing from the point of view of local level implementation, where both communities and ecosystem concerns need to be taken equally into account.

We need Community and Ecosystem Based adaptation – "CEBA", if anything. While the proponents of CBA and EBA both claim to look out for the other, surely a more joined-up terminology will help us to better promote joined-up thinking and implementation.

Revisiting the experience with sustainable development implementation in India through the lens of adaptation, however, has convinced me that we actually need a more radical change in terminology: "based" is simply too weak for what we're aiming for. Let me explain.

In the implementation of sustainable development, most of us have slowly come to recognise the key role of communities. Put simply, if the communities are not fully on board, money spent on implementing sustainable development activities is wasted.

We have grudgingly acknowledged this by saying we must "base" our action in communities. They must be "involved" in adaptation, ecosystem-based or otherwise.

Fuzzy definitions

"Community-based" can mean anything. It can mean that one meeting was held with a community to inform them of a project or activity that has already been pre-decided by a donor or a government.

It almost certainly means that someone else is holding the purse strings, and is therefore calling the shots. We have already travelled the long and arduous road of learning the pitfalls of such fuzzy definitions during our two decades of implementing sustainable development.

For instance, the realisation that communities need to be involved in forest management led to the conception of "Joint Forest Management" (JFM) in India. JFM by communities and India's powerful forest bureaucracy is described as a 'principal element of forest management strategies' in India since 1988.

Under this model, however, the balance of power continues to tilt towards the forest bureaucracy, which has ultimate control over funds, and over conflict resolution mechanisms. JFM therefore continues to focus more heavily on the conservation of forests (the main concern of foresters) rather than on poverty alleviation (the main concern of local communities).

It is now viewed as a top-down, non-participatory process that exacerbates existing social tensions. Meaningful participation of communities in the planning process is often weak, with insufficient regard given to people's subsistence forest requirements and broader development needs. Villagers want the JFM Committees disbanded, seeing them as exploitative rather than beneficial, creating rather than resolving conflict within and between villages.

In the driving seat

The point, slowly being realised by India's policy-makers (though not necessarily its foresters), is that communities must DRIVE the process by controlling the use of funds, and have the means for planning, transparency, implementation and conflict resolution.

Thus the push for devolving decision-making to communities through a constitutional amendment to give more power to local governments, through programmes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) and its innovative social audit mechanism, and policies such as the Right to Information Act.

Why do we stop short of saying quite simply that communities must DRIVE adaptation and ecosystem management? Surely this is what our experience so far has taught us?

Let's start putting our money where our mouth should be after our experience with sustainable development.

Call it Community Driven Adaptation, and find ways to get money to communities so they can decide and address their own priorities, including how to conserve the ecosystems that they depend on. What we need are easily accessible local funds (from national and international sources) that enable and empower community planning and decision-making.

Undoubtedly, there will be problems – corruption, graft, elite capture. But like in the context of India's NREGA, these are problems that will have to be identified and dealt with, and solutions found.

There are already projects out there that are showing the way ­– like the community driven Kecamatan Development Programme in Indonesia, and the pilot project to support adaptation in Kenya's Isiolo County. They may not yet be perfect, but they have the right idea.

Empowering communities to address their development needs is the only way in which we can hand back some of the dignity we have stolen from the world's poor, after inflicting global warming on them.

Anju Sharma is a visiting fellow with IIED's Climate Change Group ([email protected]). This post first appeared on her blog It Must Be Said!