We are looking forward to an active climate change focus at the annual meeting next month in San Francisco—look for previews in the November column, and plan your time by looking at the Annual Meeting Preliminary Program. Another reminder to check out the CCTF listserv, climate-change-anth, which can be accessed at https://archives.binhost.com/lists/listinfo/climate-change-anth. We will also have a special feature for the November issue, a photographic essay by Jen Shaffer, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, who is profiled below. Also introduced in the column this month is AAA GCC Task Force member Ben Orlove, professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, also directs the master’s program in Climate and Society, co-directs the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, and works as a senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.
Ben Orlove: Climatic Variability and Glacier Retreat in the Andes and Beyond
Ben Orlove was first exposed to climate as an element in human social life during an undergraduate class at Harvard, where he learned that the Maya farmers of Chiapas, Mexico classified their territory into cold, temperate and hot regions. Says Ben, “During my stay in this area as a participant in an undergraduate summer field school, the contrasts of these regions impressed me greatly. My time was spent primarily in the cool highlands with extensive forests of pine and oak. I stayed with a family, joining in as much as I could in their daily activities. I heard of their travels to the warm lowlands and of different crop varieties that they could grow there. Among the few words that have remained with me of the Tzotzil I learned is the phrase for hot country, k’isin osil.”
This contrast of warmer and cooler climates strongly shaped his later field research in the Peruvian Andes, where areas with conditions that support maize and potato agriculture lie close to higher tundra-like zones of extensive pastoralism, and where a variety of systems shape the exchange of products between these zones. Climatic variability was central to his work at that time, though he did not know this phrase when he began his work. The Quechua-speaking farmers and herders impressed him with the importance of periodic drought. In both his first fieldwork project on sheep and alpaca herders in Cusco and his second on fishers in Lake Titicaca, Ben studied technologies and social institutions which allowed local populations to cope with this hazard. He comments that “I learned of practices by which villagers forecast the risk of drought each year before the start of the rainy season, but did not think to evaluate their empirical validity. Rather, I examined the social organization of the forecasting itself—which I termed ‘divination,’ suggesting that the practice belonged more to the study of religion than of the environment or economy.”
Ben spent a sabbatical at Columbia in 1997-98, working with Mark Cane, a climate scientist who had traveled to Peru and heard of these indigenous forecasts. Together, they explored these forecasts, compiling a list of a dozen cases across the Andes and finding close associations that linked El Niño events both with the particular features on which the indigenous forecasts focused and with the variations in rainfall that they predicted. “I realized as well that the droughts that I had studied earlier on were connected to climate variability,” said Ben.
Looking to begin research in other regions affected by El Niño, Ben began a new project in Uganda with Carla Roncoli (see the June Changing the Atmosphere column for more on Carla’s work), in which village organizations, the national meteorological service and the ministry of agriculture coordinated on the development and dissemination of seasonal climate forecasts, produced for smaller regions, in African languages to supplement the nation-wide forecasts in English, which farmers found difficult to use. Since Ben’s move from UC Davis to Columbia in 2010, he and Carla are now working on a second project focused on water management in Burkina Faso, linking the use of climate forecasting with participatory political processes.
In the early 2000s, Ben’s breakfast encounter at an annual AAA meeting with Ellen Wiegandt, a former student of Eric Wolf and John Cole at Michigan, led to another significant collaboration. As he mentioned in an email, “She proposed to me that we organize a meeting to discuss the physical and social dimensions of glacier retreat. In our conversations over the years, we had often compared our research areas of the Andes and the Alps and our common efforts to bridge the worlds of anthropology, of interdisciplinary environmental social science and of policy. I realized that the glaciers in the Andes formed another elevation zone even higher than the pastures, one that I had visited only infrequently but to which I was eager to return. The prospect of these visits and opportunity to address climate change issues were both appealing to me. This discussion led to the conference and to a book; it led us both to develop field research on this topic to document local perceptions of glacier retreat, but which, in her case, was tragically cut short by her premature death in 2009. Her insight into the importance of this topic, and her contributions to the volume remain major influences on this growing area of research.” Ben’s work on glacier retreat continues, with returns to the Andes and to new sites like Bhutan.
These past and current projects reflect some of the key issues that anthropologists are addressing with regard to climate change. As Ben puts it, “these issues center on expanding the global debates about climate change. This expansion requires the incorporation of voices of people around the world affected by climate change—whether indigenous people in the Andes or Australia, or the rural poor in the Sahel, or the western United States. It requires the attention to systems of valuation different than the more managerial and technical modes of assessment that have dominated. And it requires recognition of the long histories of conflict around the world that shape environmental policies about climate, as they do for land use, water, and pollution. The core methods and analytical perspectives of anthropology make the discipline particularly well-suited to carry out this expansion.”
Jen Shaffer: Adaptive Management and Participatory Research across Africa
In her dissertation fieldwork, Jen Shaffer explored the relationship between culture and landscape in southern Mozambique: “I asked about adaptations and responses to past environmental changes like Mozambique’s civil war, the introduction of new conservation policies, and climate events. While all these changes have been important in shaping the human-environment relationship, rainfall is central to the Ronga subsistence economy and local socio-ecological system. Ronga farmers in the district where I worked have to deal with both droughts and floods, and told me about the rising temperatures and seasonal timing changes to precipitation. Their perceptions and experiences paralleled the regional climate data I got from the nearest meteorological station.” She notes that farming communities in southern Mozambique have developed many household and community level adaptations to mitigate and reduce negative climate impacts, but locals recognize that the changes they are currently experiencing are becoming increasingly more difficult to deal with. In some cases, people lost their ability to access well-known fallback resources because of economic change, the civil war and new conservation policies.
During her two year postdoc at Penn State University with Petra Tschakert, Jen worked with an interdisciplinary and international research team looking at anticipatory learning for climate change adaptation and resilience. The team used a participatory research focus on learning within the process of adaptation in order to understand factors inhibiting and facilitating climate change adaptation in rural Ghana and Tanzania. As part of the project, Jen said, “I collaborated with the four Tanzanian study communities to develop a community-based environmental monitoring program. Residents chose sectors to monitor – including climate, water availability, crop health and production, livestock health and production, trees and deforestation rates, and fish catch – while I provided trainings on specialized equipment, data collection methods, and data analysis.” The program built on ongoing local monitoring of various social and environmental indicators related to livelihood activities. This kind of monitoring is often underappreciated and not shared with family and neighbors. Local people also felt empowered to conduct research on topics of personal interest, and the work gave them a stake in ongoing climate research activities.
Currently, Jen is working with colleagues in Mozambique and the United States to develop a long-term research program that looks at the intersection of sustainable livelihoods, biodiversity conservation, and climate uncertainty. “Our group is interested in rural communities within, adjacent to, and near protected areas. Projected temperature increases and declines in rainfall will affect species distributions, ecosystem services, and subsistence production among other things. Our overarching goal is to develop an interdisciplinary methodology that can generate the information necessary for adaptive management of Mozambique’s complex socio-ecological landscape under climate uncertainty. I’m really interested in how community members define concepts of sustainable, resilient, and uncertainty, what their priorities for biodiversity and ecosystem service protection are, and their information needs, knowledge about, and adaptation to climate change.” This sort of research can utilize the community-based monitoring methods Jen developed during her postdoc to foster interdisciplinary collaboration with scholars working on issues of wildlife ecology, resource economics, and sustainable development.
From Jen’s perspective, humans are an extraordinarily adaptable species. How people respond to current climate events and adapt to future uncertainty involves new technologies, behaviors and cultural configurations, as well as previously successful innovations developed by generations past. Says Shaffer, “Anthropologists are in a good position to uncover factors that limit the behavioral and cultural changes that will be required to mitigate climate changes and adapt to new conditions. I think we can also help facilitate information sharing between different groups of people–whether it is between communities and policy makers and NGOs to develop adaptive management policies and plans or between different communities to share knowledge, experiences and innovative solutions. Lastly, I believe it is really important to work with communities–citizens, scientists, policy makers, aid organizations–to build adaptive capacity and resilience in preparation for future uncertainty. This builds on my previous point of facilitating conversations and information sharing. All of us will need to work together to create a future that supports us and our fellow species sustainably.”