The importance of peasant agriculture for Climate Change

The importance of peasant agriculture for Climate Change

René Mendoza V. *

 Francisco Cruz, a small scale producer from the community of Peñas Blancas (in the municipality of El Cua) said: “Coffee is taking more time to ripen, it is now January 5th and the rainy season continues here.” INETER announced at the end of last May that when the rainy season began the rains would be less, and that El Niño is coming (drought) between the months of July and August. Climate change is a worldwide concern. When the United States (Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds) and Europe (Global Trends 2030: Citizens in an Interconnected and Polycentric World), followed by China, Brazil, Russia and Korea, study world tendencies to refine their development strategies, they coincide on six tendencies, among them the scarcity of natural resources (water, food, energy and minerals, technological innovation) and climate change. J Sachs (Consultant to the United Nations on the Millennium Development Goals-MDG) announced that after the MDG (2000-2015) a new post 2015 agreement is coming with Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). (See:–sachs-proposes-a-new-curriculum-for-a-new-era).

 This global concern is a great opportunity that is not risk-free. Let us recall that in the second Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002, capital crushed science, breaking the agreements of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. With this precedent, starting in 2016 the northern countries are proposing to “adapt us” to climate change through the SDGs, mediated by asymmetrical north-south power relations, and in this way the SDGs could end up stillborn. To keep this from happening, and instead enable the SDGs to become a great opportunity for humanity, countries like Nicaragua should influence the United Nations demonstrating innovative practices that benefit the climate. In this and the next 3 articles we are going to show this route. Here we begin by understanding what climate change is, the importance of agriculture in this issue, and the importance of peasant agriculture for the SDGs to become an expression of the sustainability of natural resources and sustainable development.

The origins of climate change

Climate change occurs through the interaction between the atmosphere and the oceans due to natural and human factors. Historically the climate has affected humanity, but in recent times the climate is changing more through human influence: “Climate change is understood as a change in climate directly or indirectly attributable to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and that is added to the natural variability of the climate observed during comparable periods” (United Nations, 1992, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). The atmosphere is affected by the greenhouse gas emissions (GHE) caused by the growing and massive dependency of humanity on fuels.  The greenhouse effect is the infrared radiation (heat) from the sun rays that are captured within the atmosphere so that the earth maintains its heat. What has happened is that this greenhouse effect has been intensified because of gas emissions, principally 72% carbon dioxide (CO2), 18%  methane (CH4) and 9% nitrogen oxide (N2O), which has generated global warming, making the average surface temperature of the earth increase by 1 degree Fahrenheit in this last century.

The greatest source of carbon dioxide is the use of fossil fuels (96.5%), because carbon dioxide is generated when the combustion of fossil fuels happens (carbon, natural gas and oil), through which the carbon content is almost completely returned as carbon dioxide. Methane comes from garbage dumps, fossil fuels, mining and livestock. And the sources of nitrogen oxide are artificial fertilizers and stationary fossil fuels. These sources have been increasing in the last 150 years with the industrial revolution which required the combustion of organic products (among them, oil by-products), and with deforestation; likewise, first the so called developed countries caused climate change, then, in recent decades were added the so called emerging countries like China, India and Brazil, and in general we are all part of the problem with the pre-eminence of the economy above evertything else: “In terms of the politics of climate change, the crude reality is that no country will be willing to sacrifice their economy to solve the problem” (Tony Blair, First Minister of Britain 1997-2007).

The influence of agriculture on climate change and its impact on agriculture

Agriculture has an impact on climate change. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2008) agriculture generated a fifth of the foreseen effects of anthropogenic thermo active gases, in particular deforestation, desertification and fossil fuels, and affects climate change through the production and liberation of GHE (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxide). This impact could increase with the growing demand for products of animal origins, which, according to Acosta and Diaz (2013, Policy guidelines for the sustainable development of the livestock sector; FAO) could mean an additional increase of 32% in grazing areas by 2030, which would contribute to a larger emission of carbon dioxide because of the change in the use of soil from forests to pastures. Rice growing, according to the IPCC (2008) releases methane because the organic matter decomposes without oxygen,  like enteric fermentation (which occurs in the stomach) and the decomposition of cattle manure and garbage dumps (garbage out in the open full of organic material that decomposes under anaerobic conditions – without oxygen). In turn the application of fertilizers releases nitrogen oxide. These processes constitute 54% of methane emissions, 80% of the emissions of nitrous oxide , and almost all the emissions of carbon dioxide connected to the use of the soil.

The impact of climate change, according to Lobell, Burke, Tebaldi, Mastrandrea, Falcon and Naylor (2008, Prioritizing climate change adaptation needs for food security in 2030, Science Vol. 319, No. 5863), is global, but differentiated, with the poor countries ending up being more affected, because they are more vulnerable to the changes. For example, South Africa in 2030 could lose more than 30% of its principal harvest which is corn; southern Asia would have losses of basic regional foods like rice and corn. According to the IPCC (2008) production would drop in tropical and subtropical regions due to the reduced availability of water, and new incidences of pests and insects. In addition in Africa and Latin America many crops are close to their maximum temperature tolerance, which is why their yields could drop with small changes in the climate through which the farm productivity  could fall by up to 30%. Stern (2006, What is the economics of climate change? World Economics, Vol. 7.2) thinks that poor countries would have crop losses and a change in soil use with droughts, flooding, storms and a rise in the sea level. Colombia showed in a documentary video how some zones that 10 years ago were coffee areas now with global warming are changing their soil use, some to cassava, bananas and pineapple, and others to livestock, while coffee is pushed into even higher areas. (See: In Central America, according to Villalobos (director of the Interamerican Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, IICA), water tables are being affected by climate change, which has an enormous impact on agriculture, because “to produce a kilo of corn today on average a thousand liters of water is needed, to produce a kilo of meat we need a thousand liters of water…agriculture is using 70% of the water tables in the world” (La Prensa, 27-06-2012).

Peasant agriculture, a practice with high potential for mitigating the impact of climate change and at the same time reducing GHE.

Even though the predictions in the tendencies of these studies are hypothetical, their impact in the country is evident, as Francisco Cruz from Peñas Blancas says as well as INETER, and as we have seen in the proliferation of coffee rust and increasing agricultural vulnerability. It is clear that the pattern of agricultural growth followed so far is a generator of GHE and of many injustices. This pattern is the large estate system based on deforestation and mono-cropping (e.g. extensive systems like ranching, and intensive systems like sugar cane, peanuts, rice, soybeans, unshaded coffee…), excessive use of water and soils, mechanized technology and the indiscriminate use of chemical inputs; it is a system that systematically dispossesses the peasant and indigenous families of their land and their organizations (see Borras, Franco, Kay and Spoor, 2011 The Hoarding of Land in Latin America and the Caribbean seen from a broader perspective; FAO); it is an economic-focused system supported by a chain of actors and national and international policies; and it is a system that, because of its high level  influence on public and private institutions, will translate the SDG to favor their own interests.

In the face of this system that is moving like a 50 meter high tsunami, peasant agriculture, that according to the Censuses constitutes the largest number in the country, is fighting like a cat on its back. They do it based on diversified production systems, crop association, with trees on the farm, rescuing their water springs, with less use of chemical inputs; it is a system with the potential for better production perspectives, for reducing the generation of the GHE and for mitigating the impact of climate change. This peasant agriculture, nevertheless, has persisted in spite of being excluded and ignored: the financial institutions see them with large estate-monocropping lens and not as families with their diversified farms; research institutions describe them as destined to “extensive technology” without realizing that the strategy of these families is diversification, and that from their logic, productivity should be understood combined with the reduction in the generation of GHE. How different the reality would be if the peasant-farmer path were supported!

In the face of the increase in world population, which in the coming years will demand twice the production of our times, this increase in production should, at the same time, bring about a significant reduction of GHE. How can this challenge be met? Given the reality of the country, the paradigm of the “green revolution” (see Altieri, M.A. and Nicholls, C.I., 2012, “Agroecology Scaling Up for Food Sovereignty and Resiliency” in: E. Lichtfouse (ed.), Sustainable Agriculture Reviews 11), accompanied by the monocropping, extractive and dispossessing large estate system, should be left in the past. An agriculture compatible with the sustainability of natural resources and within a framework of sustainable development should come in to take its place, accompanied by transformed institutions; and Nicaragua, having these new practices, should have an impact on international bodies to help the SDG serve humanity and our planet earth.

* René Mendoza V. ( has a Phd in development studies, and is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (

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