Summer is a busy season for climate change anthropologists, as with other areas of our field, but we are taking advantage of the year-round operation of the Anthropology News format to continue sharing stories of research on this important topic. This month, we introduce another Task Force member, Tony Oliver-Smith (Professor emeritus, University of Florida), along with an anthropologist who has been working in the area of climate change for many years, Carla Roncoli (Associate Director for the interdisciplinary Master’s program in Development Practice, and Adjunct Faculty in Anthropology a at Emory University). We congratulate Tony on being the recipient of this year’s Malinowski Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology, which recognizes a lifetime of important contributions to the field.
Working Our Way Up: Tony Oliver-Smith on Disasters, Development and Climate Change
Tony began working on climate change issues largely because of his long time dual focus on disasters and displacement, noting that “as the consequences of climate change began to gain attention, I realized that a lot of those impacts would be experienced by local people as crises or disasters, since in many circumstances climate change will accentuate the effects of natural forces that together with local vulnerability create disasters.” As we have begun to see in the examples documented in this column so far, the long list of actual and potential impacts will affect local people in multiple environments from the coastal to mountain dwellers. For example, hurricanes will get more intense and more frequent, and because of sea level rise will reach farther inland. Sea level rise itself is eroding coastlines and threatening coastal communities already, particularly in small island and delta regions. Droughts and floods may also get more severe.
As the consequences of climate change began to gain attention, I realized that a lot of those impacts would be experienced by local people as crises or disasters, since in many circumstances climate change will accentuate the effects of natural forces that together with local vulnerability create disasters.
Tony realized that, in effect, climate change would intensify many of the processes that in combination with vulnerability bring about disasters. At the same time, it became apparent that many climate change processes would create effects that might force vulnerable and exposed people to be displaced, either suddenly because of a coastal storm or as the result of longer term coastal erosion, sea level inundation, or loss of access to fresh water and soil contamination because of salinization. In mountain regions, changing rainfall and temperature regimes would alter rainfall patterns, endanger water resources, change growing seasons, extend disease and insect infestations, and affect the health of plants, animals and humans, all with the potential to displace people and, generally in combination with other factors, induce migration.
Right now, Tony’s work is split between consulting/advisory work and research. His consulting work has recently (2010) addressed the issue of environmental change and migration in the Andes of Peru for Oxfam and the UN University Institute on Environment and Human Security. “In various regions in the Peruvian Andes, our teams surveyed local people regarding their views on climate and other environmental changes and migration. Our findings at this point did not indicate that massive migration is taking place because of environmental change, but that such change was certainly on people’s minds and many people foresaw that environmental changes might figure importantly in decisions to migrate in the near future.” Tony is also a member of the UNESCO-IOC (Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission) working group on coastal hazards and climate change and the scientific committee on Integrated Research on Disaster Risk of the International Council for Science which among other issues, focuses on hazards research in the context of climate change.
His research currently is focusing on developing two projects. The first, which is being developed with colleagues from the UN University and the Catholic University of Peru, deals with disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in Peru, for which he has made two preliminary scoping trips. Tony points out that “Andean populations are currently experiencing a number of climate-linked changes that challenge their longstanding adaptations to their extremely diverse and hazard prone environment. Adaptation to and mitigation of these changing conditions will be required at the household and community level to reduce both exposure and vulnerability. The role of local institutions will be crucial in the implementation of adaptation/ mitigation strategies to reduce the impact of climate change effects as part of overall disaster risk reduction.”
Tony is also working with colleagues from the University of Florida and from three universities in the Brazilian Amazon on the development of an integrated research project that addresses the socio-ecological implications of dam construction and operation in the Amazon. Current Brazilian national government plans to construct a network of dams in the Amazon will have extensive impacts not only on river hydrology and biology, but on people, land use and forests as well. Moreover, changing hydro-meteorological conditions are predicted to exacerbate the effects of dams ultimately affecting climate, as well as the overall development process. The Brazilian Amazon is one of the most important natural environments in the world, playing a key role in global climate dynamics. In that regard, understanding the implications of dams in the Amazon for hemispheric and global climate conditions will be essential if appropriate mitigation and adaptation policies are to be developed. Currently, the Brazilian government has 60 large dams and 170 small/medium sized dams planned which will impact water resources, forests and land cover, and resident populations, many of whom are indigenous. “Considerable research has been done on dams in Brazil, but very little of it has attempted to integrate climate, hydrology, forests and people in the assessment of their impacts. Although dams have recently been touted as a carbon neutral energy source, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. With the dynamics of increasing climate change, the need for this kind of integrative research becomes urgent.”
From Tony’s perspective, anthropologists can make the greatest contribution by doing what they do best, which is to work with and research climate change issues at the local level. He suggests that “Anthropologists should focus on how local people perceive (or not) climate change and respond (or not) to the changes that are taking place in their environments. Of particular importance is the role of local environmental knowledge, perhaps in cooperation with global knowledge, in adapting to and mitigating climate change. Also important to focus on are the issues of local vulnerabilities and the capacities of local institutions both to act locally and to articulate national climate change policies and strategies with local perceptions and needs. There is also clearly a need for cultural analysis of climate change as a cultural phenomenon, particularly as it relates to various political and economic forces.”
Carla Roncoli: CFAR and Other Significant Climate Change Collaborations
Carla Roncoli’s training and early work in the 1980s was in economic anthropology, focused on understanding agrarian change in the theoretical tradition of Marxist anthropology. She was doing her doctoral research in northern Ghana in the late 1980s, on the heel of one of the most devastating African droughts. “Though I did not start my research with a specific focus on climate – and the theoretical tradition I worked in tended to downplay the role of “natural” factors in the making of food security and environmental crises,” Carla said, “the impact of climate variation on local livelihoods and social dynamics was hard to ignore. Even at that time, African farmers had a clear sense that climate patterns were shifting and they spent a lot of time discussing this, whether you wanted to hear about it or not.” Further, Carla found that, contrary to the prevailing dichotomies (nature/society or nature/culture) of the time, it was an issue that brought together many dimensions of social, cultural, and moral life.
While she was in the field in northern Ghana, one of her advisors, Michael Horowitz, sent Carla a query about whether and how farmers predicted climate patterns for the upcoming rainy season. Horowitz was one of the most prominent development anthropologists of that time, and he was advising USAID on the development of a Famine Early Warning System. So Carla did a series of interviews on this topic in the communities where she worked, and found that there was a wealth of knowledge whereby farmers relied on to anticipate and adapt to climate patterns. “I also learned that this was a questions that had many spin offs into anthropological questions about how people know, what they trust, how they plan, and how they decide what to do.”
A few years later, while an Associate Research Scientist at the University of Georgia, Carla was recruited to help with a proposal for interdisciplinary research on potential application of scientific climate forecasts to agricultural decisions in Africa. She went back to that experience in the field to develop a successful proposal for what became the Climate Forecasting and Agricultural Resources (CFAR) project, with a focus on Burkina Faso. It was funded by NOAA’s Human Dimensions for Global Change program, which as a forward-looking, innovative program that supported the research by some of the first anthropologists working on climate issues (Orlove, Broad, Finan, etc.), unfortunately then dismantled during the Bush years. The CFAR project received different rounds of funding for about 10 years, so it was able to establish a long term presence in local communities and strong partnerships with climate and agricultural institutions at national and regional levels. Carla notes that “I believe this project, as well as the work of the other NOAA-funded anthropologists, made a significant impact on the climate science community, by raising its awareness of the value of anthropology and of the need to take into account farmers’ knowledge and experience.”
A second project of Carla’s – which is ongoing and also involves AAA Task Force member Ben Orlove – was developed on the basis of our previous experience and partnerships in Burkina Faso and was funded by NSF through the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. With respect to CFAR, this project shifted the focus from forecasts of seasonal rainfall to more integrated predictive tools to guide water management from decisions by individual farmers to decisions by local water governance bodies. “We used this perspective as a frame to explore social dynamics surrounding water in the context of climate risk and policy changes. Here too – especially through our partnerships – we are trying to insert anthropology as an active voice in policy processes in Burkina Faso, which is among the countries that have embraced most fully the global discourse on integrated water resource management. At the same time we want to place the dominance of this discourse in perspective, to show how it frames the relationship between water and climate in ways that privilege technical over political solutions.”
As far as Carla is concerned, a major issue for the anthropology of climate change is less about the “what” than the “how.” How can anthropologists be effective voices in climate policies and in global discourses on climate mitigation and adaptation? She argues that “we need greater professional commitment to and investment in collaborations with the hard sciences (climate, agriculture, ecology, hydrology, etc.), host-country scientists, and communicators.” This practice can produce rich material for anthropological analysis – in terms of looking at how meanings, relationships, and resources, are negotiated — but the challenge is to do it in ways that are constructive and collaborative. Science and Technology Studies scholars have produced some brilliant analyses , she comments, “but I am not sure how successful they have been in actively engaging the structures they study. I would like for anthropologists to find ways of reconciling our strengths in critical thinking, contextual understanding, and long-term engagement with localities, with the capacity to articulate our insights and findings in ways that make sense – not just to other anthropologists – but also to other scientists and to decision makers in a range of settings. I would like to see anthropology departments provide better methodological training to doctoral students, encourage policy- and practice-oriented research, and value co-authored articles in interdisciplinary journals, especially those reflecting collaborations with host-country scientists.” Overall, Carla feels that there is also a need for greater cross-training – of students and faculty – to be more effective and credible in talking to colleagues in the climate, agricultural, health sciences. She finds the AAA Task Force to be a very promising step in this direction of making anthropology a relevant and responsible actor in global climate circles.