Altering the Pattern: How Can We Tailor Climate Services to Meet the Needs of Women Farmers in Low-Income Countries?

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Tiff van Huysen, C+S ’16

The woman in the photograph below is nameless. Not because she does not have a name, but because over the course of 10 years I have forgotten it. She is Filipino, but I met her in Taiwan during the summer of 2006 while participating in a fellowship program tied to my Ph.D. research.

My Taiwanese supervisor and I were returning from fieldwork at Fushan Experimental Forest, located in the beautiful, mountainous landscape southeast of the neon-saturated city of Taipei (beautiful in its own way). As we descended toward the coast to then make our way north and then west back to Taipei, my supervisor decided he wanted to stop at a small plantation he knew of to pick up some pineapples. It was there at the pineapple plantation that I met the woman in the photo.

Source: Tiff van Huysen

Source: Tiff van Huysen

She worked on the plantation and greeted us as we approached the house where a polite yet stern older woman resided. I do not know if the older woman owned the plantation, but she negotiated the transaction for the purchase of the pineapples with my supervisor.

The worker, though physically weathered, was light in spirit and eager to engage in conversation with me when I approached her. Unlike pineapple, hers was a spirit that could not be crushed, even though the older woman attempted to do so through her admonishing glances as the younger woman and I continued to converse. Though I do not remember her name, how long she had lived in Taiwan, or how long she had worked at the pineapple plantation, I do remember this: she had not seen her husband or her two children in two years. Like many other Filipino women over the years, she had left the Philippines to pursue economic opportunities and, in doing so, made the decision to leave her husband and children behind.

In the 10 years since that conversation in Taiwan, the percentage of women employed in the agriculture sector in low-income countries has exceeded that of men. The World Bank doesn’t classify Taiwan or the Philippines as low-income countries (they’ve been classified as high income and lower middle income respectively since 1987).

However, I chose to present agriculture sector employment data in low-income countries because this summer I am working with the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) program, a research program that works with poor countries to address challenges and risks to the agriculture sector, food security, and farmers and their livelihoods posed by weather, climate variability, and climate change. Specifically, I am endeavoring to identify and understand gender-differentiated needs with respect to climate services — the communication of tailored climate information to support farmers’ abilities and capacities to make informed decisions and manage risk over timescales ranging from days to decades.

Employment in the agriculture sector by gender. Note scale of y-axis. Source: Data from the International Labour Organization Key Indicators of the Labour Market

Employment in the agriculture sector by gender. Note scale of y-axis. Source: Data from the International Labour Organization Key Indicators of the Labour Market

In addition to identifying specific needs for women farmers with respect to climate services, I will also be reviewing approaches to providing such services. In doing so, I hope to determine what the practical challenges to providing equitable climate services are and how those challenges may influence women farmers’ needs with respect to content, format, and accessibility. This includes exploring gender-differentiated access to resources such as land or agricultural financing mechanisms, roles in agricultural decision-making, level of and access to education, and other roles and responsibilities such as family care.

For example, the maps below show the distribution of agricultural holders disaggregated by sex. An agricultural holder, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization, is the person “who makes the major decisions regarding resource use and exercises management control over the agricultural holding operation.” Thus, while women make up over 50 percent of the agricultural labor force in low-income countries, employment in the agriculture sector does not necessarily equate to management responsibilities or decision-making power.

Tiff 2

Tiff 3

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Gender and Land Rights Database

When I asked the woman who worked at the pineapple plantation if I could take a photograph of her, she was more than happy to oblige. She was wearing a bandanna on her head, but she decided to remove it for the photograph. After I took the photograph, she wrote down her name and address for me. I intended to send her a print of the photo after returning home and distilling her spirit and dignity on to a 4×6 sheet of photo paper in the darkroom.

I never sent the photo and she is now nameless because, to this day, I have not been able to find the place where she wrote her contact information. I was certain her name was recorded in the margin of a page in my Taiwan guidebook or in my small book of crossword puzzles. When I move or organize my belongings, I still search the memorabilia from my summer in Taiwan for her name, hoping that I somehow overlooked it in previous scans of any books or documents with margins or the space for a name.

In essence, that is what I am doing summer — scanning to see what we, scientists and practitioners, have overlooked in our efforts to meet the needs of women farmers who may be at the margins of agricultural policies and services. Doing this will hopefully help us identify actions to establish and sustain contact with these farmers, to support them in being agents of change, and to make space for their names and voices in the institutions, organizations, and decision-making processes that impact their livelihoods.


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