Viterbo, Italy – “Angry” is not the adjective that comes to mind when you first meet Nelly Damaris Chepkoskei.
The immaculately dressed 53-year-old Kenyan is generous with her time and with the smiles that light up her beautiful face and never misses a chance to crack a joke before punctuating it with hearty chuckles.
But the rage wells up when she speaks about how her life as a farmer in the Kericho District of Western Kenya has changed over the last 20 years.
She is angry because deficient rainfall has slashed the yields of her once-plentiful crops. She is angry because she is struggling to provide for her family. And, above all, she is angry because she believes that her troubles are due to climate change caused by rich nations burning carbon to fuel lifestyles that, in relation to hers, are lavish.
“It used to be a high yield area. There used to be rain throughout the year. But now the rains can fail up until November. Food production is down by three-quarters,” she told IPS at the ‘Greenaccord’ conference in the Italian city of Viterbo, near Rome.
“We have tea as a cash crop, maize for food and sometimes sell the surplus, (as well as) beans and vegetables. We used to have so many heads of cattle but now the grass has dried up and so we can only keep two or three for good milk production.
“These days we have to go a very long distance for water. The little streams have dried up completely. It’s becoming almost impossible to maintain families. I can no longer even maintain my mother. I can no longer maintain my in-laws. I can only afford to feed my eight children. If I fall sick I cannot afford to go to hospital. Yes, it makes us angry.”
Nelly is among 10 people the WWF environmental organisation has brought to Greenaccord from countries like Australia, Guatemala, Mongolia and India to testify how climate change is devastating their lives and call on world leaders to take action at next month’s United Nations climate change talks in Copenhagen.
Experts say the poorest are set to feel the effects of climate change hardest, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, in a world where many already suffer chronic food insecurity, with the ranks of the hungry passing the one-billion mark for the first time this year, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The International Food Policy Research Institute said in a September report that the output of rice in South Asia would be 14 percent lower in 2050 than if there was no climate change, while yields of wheat, rice and maize would drop by 34, 15 and 10 percent respectively in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Like Nelly, Mbiwo Constantine Kusebahasa, a 70-year-old farmer from the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, is already feeling the affects of changing weather patterns. He used to have two planting seasons for his crops of maize, sweet potatoes, beans, cassava and vegetables each year, in March-April and July-August, but erratic rains mean his planning is now reduced to guesswork.
“You have to imagine when to plant crops because the rain does not come as we are used to seeing it,” he told IPS. “I just use my imagination and plant food. The yields are very, very, very low.
“It’s having effects on my children because I’m failing to get their school fees. Hunger is a problem in the whole country. It’s caused by the changing climate. There’s a lot less rain. Many people are in my situation. Most of the farmers are badly off. Sometimes we feel angry because we know the factors that are the causes of the drought,’’ Kusebahasa said.
Drought is just one of the problems though. Increasingly frequent extreme weather such as storms and flooding are also affecting harvests, while rising sea levels and the withering of the glaciers that feed many of the world’s biggest rivers are big threats too.
“A one-metre sea-level rise will inundate large low-lying areas of Asia,” Janet Larsen, the U.S. Earth Policy Institute’s director of research, told the conference.
“Seasonal glacier melting sustains many rivers in that region, such as the Ganges and the Yangtze and if they were to go, irrigation would be hit… Copenhagen is really a conference about food security,’’ Larsen said.
WWF said its experts have verified that Nelly, Constantine and its other climate witnesses are affected by climate-change-induced phenomena, not temporary weather variations. What’s more, lower food production is not the only negative impact.
Both Nelly and Constantine, for example, say rising temperatures have enabled mosquitoes to spread to their high-lying areas, leading to rising rates of malaria.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the U.N.’s Rome-based rural poverty agency, says world leaders must prioritise the plight of people like Nelly and Constantine at next month’s talks, given that smallholder farmers and their families in developing countries are highly exposed and number around two billion people, almost a third of the global population.
As well as decisive action to slow global warming, what they need from the states and leaders meeting in Copenhagen is help in adapting to a problem that is not of their making, with funding for agricultural investment to give them the know-how, tools and seeds required to keep up yields.
Indeed, the farmers at the five-day Greenaccord meeting, which runs until Sunday, insist they want a hand-up, not a hand-out.
“I would like to tell them (the leaders in Copenhagen) to teach a person to fish, don’t give them fish. They should not be giving blindly, they should follow to see the production on the ground. Donors sometimes don’t follow to see the impact of their donations,” Nelly said.
“Our African communities should be educated, informed, empowered to withstand the impact of climate change. For example, if we could afford to buy for each household a harvesting method for the little rain water we get, maybe for the irrigation of small kitchen gardens for some vegetables, this would be great. Give Africans the farming methods to put food on their families’ tables and be strong.”