Ecosystem-based adaptation takes nature-based, people-centric approach to agriculture

  • Ecosystem-based adaptation in agriculture helps farmers reduce their vulnerability to climate change and overcome its vagaries by harnessing biodiversity and natural resources.
  • Small-holder farmers can increase their food security, diversify and increase their sources of income generation, take advantage of local or traditional knowledge and have low implementation and labour costs by adopting EbA in farming.
  • Ecosystem-based adaptation is considered to be essential in achieving various sustainable development goals and is aligned with the Indian government’s MissionLiFE programme that encourages people to be pro-planet.

Bhairab Saini took up paddy farming when he was old enough to tell the grain from the chaff. A farmer in Panchal village in Bankura district of West Bengal, Saini hails from a family of paddy growers. In the last four years, he switched to organic farming of paddy and potatoes on his 45-acre farm. Four kathas (0.066 acres) of land adjacent to his house is a multilayer kitchen farm. It has everything from creepers to root vegetables and greens and fruit trees jostling for space.

Saini follows multilayer farming in his kitchen garden — a technique steeped in tradition where the entire land is used up for farming throughout the season with multiple crops. Saini grows creepers as the first layer on a maachan (a bamboo and rope structure on which creepers can grow) followed by another layer of greens and then a third layer of root vegetables such as turmeric and ginger. On the sides of the farmland are seasonal vegetables such as pumpkin, okra, perennial pulses like pigeon peas as well as fruiting trees such as papaya, moringa and a few bananas. “We are cautious of growing bananas. We don’t want to tussle with elephants,” chuckled Saini.

Bhairab Saini (right) with some farmers. Bhairab practises multilayer farming.
Bhairab Saini (right) with other farmers. Saini practises multilayer farming, one of the ecosystem-based adaptation approaches to agriculture. Photo by Rohan Mukherjee/Keystone Foundation.

Ecosystem-based adaptation is nature-based and people-centric

Multilayer farming, which Saini practises, is an example of an ecosystem-based adaptation (or EbA) approach in agriculture. EbA is a relatively new term coined in 2008 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and defined in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity as a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promote conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way. EbA comes under the umbrella of nature-based solutions (NbS) and is people-centric in its approach.

The IUCN defines ecosystem-based adaptation as a nature-based solution that “harnesses biodiversity and ecosystem services to reduce vulnerability and build resilience to climate change”.

A 2015 study provides a framework for EbA which includes those practices that are based on the conservation, restoration or management of biodiversity, ecosystem processes or services, and those that can improve the ability of crops to maintain crop yields by buffering biophysical impacts of climate change. “When executed, these practices must also help small-holder farmers increase their food security, increase or diversify their sources of income generation, take advantage of local or traditional knowledge, be based on local inputs, and have low implementation and labor costs,” the study says.

Read more: Integrated farming systems emerge as possible climate adaptation solution

The World Meteorological Organization announced that there is a 90% chance of the El Niño event continuing through the second half of 2023. If that happens, India may see decreased rainfall conditions and increased heat waves leading to droughts. The 132-year historical rainfall record reveals that severe droughts in India have always been accompanied by El Niño events though all El Niño events have not resulted in droughts. Considering about 51% of the country’s net sown area is dominated by rainfed agriculture, accounting for nearly 40% of total food production, the event can have a significant impact on the country’s food security.

Ecosystem-based adaptation can help communities adapt to impacts that are already devastating their lives and livelihoods. The concept of EbA is aligned with the Mission LiFE programme of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) to encourage people to lead a lifestyle that is pro-planet.

Water sharing, crop diversity at the heart of EbA

Pushpa Hande of Bhojdari village in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra leads a team of farmers that meets every month to discuss water availability and water sharing and take crucial decisions on cropping patterns in accordance with water availability. The agriculture in Bhojdari, a semi-arid region that receives an average annual rainfall of just 400-600 mm, is largely rain-fed which makes the judicious use of water resources important for the farmers. Before the sowing season, the farmers take collective decisions on what crops need to be sown and where.

Hande and her team of farmers are trained in water stewardship by Pune-based Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR). The project is designed to build capacity among local people to manage scarce water resources in a sustainable, equitable, and efficient way. Judicious management of natural resources is at the heart of ecosystem-based adaptation.

“In semi-arid and arid regions, farmers go for cash crops without enough water for irrigation,” said an agriculture expert at WOTR, Madhav Gholkar. “We encourage farmers to adopt cropping patterns depending primarily on soil nutrition and water availability. They are trained in water sharing and also use less chemicals in farming. If they are already into chemical farming, we encourage integrated farming of at least 50% of organic farming and then phase out chemicals from the farm,” explained Gholkar. Integrated pest management, wherein cultural and biological practices are given more importance than chemical management, is also encouraged here.

A farmer sowing seeds in a farm in India.
Ecosystem-based adaptation aims to increase climate resilience and reduce vulnerability among small-holder farmer. Photo by Pappu Sarkar01/Wikimedia Commons.

Reduce emissions through climate-smart agriculture

Agriculture production is a major greenhouse gas emitter in India, accounting for 18% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Considering over a billion people need to be fed every day, there is an unavoidable need to scale up food production in the country. Apart from adaptation to climate change, mitigation is another aspect of EbA.

The idea is to increase climate resilience and reduce vulnerability among small-holder farmers, said Rohit Sharma, a senior climate specialist at Digital Green, a global agricultural development organisation. One of the programmes of Digital Green in Bihar uses the monitoring, reporting and verification or MRV platform that ensures a rigorous standard for tracking farmer practices and emissions via calibrated climate models as well as promotes science-backed agriculture practices for reducing agricultural emissions.

Most farmers lack consistent access to locally relevant, trustworthy information that will help them leverage climate-resilient agricultural practices. “Multiple digital platforms like Farmstack (an open-source data-sharing platform) and AgNext (for chili quality assaying) are introduced to farmers to provide value-added services like timely advisories and market information, among others,” said Sharma. They also use videos, interactive voice response (IVR) messages, and WhatsApp-based chatbots to send customised recommendations to thousands of chili and cashew farmers in places like Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

In the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) guidelines for integrating EbA into National Adaptation Plans, EbA is acknowledged to be essential in achieving the sustainable development goals of zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, sustainable cities and communities, climate action, life below water and life on land.

Saini and his family of five have benefitted immensely from their small kitchen farm, especially in ensuring food security during unpredictable climate scenarios. “Climate change does not spare anyone here,” said Saini but admits his family and friends did not have to go hungry since “one crop or the other, if not all, would give us enough to eat,” he said. His paddy and potatoes have also survived the test of changing times which he dedicates largely to his traditional and organic approach to farming.

Read more: EbA keeps water running in Bhojdari even in the dry months


Banner image: A representational image of a farm in India. EbA is defined as a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promote conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way. Photo by CGIAR System Organization/Flickr.


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