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Livelihoods in the Long-term: EFF’s approach through a climate lens

Around 10,000 years ago, human beings experienced a paradigm shift in their existence that led to the birth of modern civilisation – agriculture. Sheltered by the stable, fertile conditions of the Holocene epoch, communities bloomed around the cultivation of land; a marked change from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of preceding years. Today, as our planet experiences unprecedented shifts in its climate, scientists have proposed a new term for the present geological era: the Anthropocene, or the age of man. Characterised by urbanisation and the loss of nature, this era threatens the very same base on which our civilisation has been built. 

Tribal communities living around Kanha National Park, in Madhya Pradesh, are a microcosm of this threat. Dependent on the land for a living, they cultivate crops and collect forest produce for sale and consumption. As the Indian monsoon grows increasingly erratic under the pressure of climate change, unseasonal or inadequate rain causes significant damage to tribal livelihoods. For example, farmers in Madhya Pradesh experienced both drought and unseasonal rain in the monsoon of 2023. Rising temperatures and heat waves also lead to an increase in forest fires, with Madhya Pradesh topping the list of states with the highest number of forest fire events in the second half of March 2024. In light of these changes, communities whose livelihoods are based on agriculture and forests need support to safeguard themselves against climate impacts.

Savantibai (left), a Gond farmer, is pictured harvesting kodo millets with her daughter. Her crop was flattened by unseasonal rain in the winter of 2023.

Earth Focus Foundation (EFF), an organisation focused on tribal communities living in Kanha, has been working to build their resilience through a number of different avenues. EFF’s key focus is on diversifying income streams for forest-dwelling communities, beyond the most common, low-hanging fruit of the region – rainfed paddy cultivation. Communities are drawn to paddy cultivation due to its guaranteed sale through Minimum Support Price (MSP), the aspirational quality of rice, and the camaraderie that has evolved around its sowing and harvest. However, growing a singular crop that is highly water-intensive exposes tribal farmers to risks if extreme heat or drought cause crop failure. In addition, hybrid rice has high input costs and is dependent on the use of synthetic fertlisers and pesticides, which are damaging to environmental and human health. For example, occupational exposure to synthetic pesticides has been linked to cancer and neurological disorders.

To address these challenges, EFF has developed an agroecological model of working with tribal farmers that increases their resilience to climate shocks. Firstly, this is enabled by ensuring that farmers have access to irrigation, to buffer against climate shocks like heat stress and drought. This includes a mix of building and improving water harvesting structures, such as lined farm ponds and check dams, ensuring recharge through water absorption trenches, and judicious use through low-cost drip irrigation and sprinklers. Once perennial irrigation is available to farmers, especially in a way that does not deplete groundwater resources, several options open up for farm-based diversification. This includes introducing mixed cropping of indigenous crops like millets, oilseeds, and pulses, which are nutritious, water-efficient, and resilient to climate shocks. Additionally, many local species have evolved in symbiosis with these crop varieties, which helps build local pollinator populations. 

Irrigation and water harvesting, such as through the creation and improvement of farm ponds, supports livelihood diversification to build climate resilience.

Through convergence with government schemes like MGNREGA and State Bamboo Mission, farmers can avail of free saplings and direct cash transfers (to maintain plantations) in the years before trees are ready for harvest. The intervention includes a mix of native and horticulture trees – while planting native trees enables regeneration of local species and fulfills communities dependence on forest resources, grafted horticulture saplings like mango mature sooner and provide high-value produce to increase farmer incomes. Similarly, bamboo, which is native to this region, fulfills the dual purpose of enhancing incomes and meeting communities’ personal needs, as it is used to create a number of household requirements like fencing, baskets, and others. Integrating tree and bamboo species in farms improves the water retention of soil and provides shade to protect humans, livestock, and crops from extreme heat. Additionally, connectivity with government schemes and a higher disposable income is a critical part of climate adaptation, because it helps build communities’ social security and ability to invest in protective measures such as insurance. 

Charan Singh, a Baiga farmer and the earliest adopter of EFF’s program, stands in front of his two-year-old bamboo patch.

In terms of mitigation, these interventions reduce emissions in two particular ways. Firstly, the integration of tree and bamboo agroforestry captures carbon from the atmosphere – especially since these trees are being grown for long-term use, rather than with the intention to log them for timber. Secondly, this program trains farmers on the production and usage of natural inputs, such as vermi-compost and jeevamrut, to avoid the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. Urea, a synthetic fertiliser, is commonly used in paddy cultivation in the landscape, which emits a potent greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide during the production process and after application to soil. Avoiding these synthetic inputs also has benefits for the human and biodiversity health, as they commonly seep into and contaminate water sources. 

Tribal communities, who live on the razor’s edge between nature’s vagaries and human civilization, are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Yet human society is only as resilient as its weakest link; and vulnerabilities experienced by agriculture- and forest-dependent communities have ripple effects on markets, supply chains, and food prices. Our solutions are also a part of this web of interdependence – interventions to build resilience often have co-benefits for mitigation or vice versa, as demonstrated by the example of agroforestry. Approaches like this, which offer the trifecta of reduced greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, enhanced resilience to climate risks, and socioeconomic development, are some of our most critical tools in a warming world. 

Madhya Pradesh: Crops destroyed by dry August and excess September rain”, DownToEarth, September 2023.
Large Forest Fires Monitoring Programme”, Forest Survey of India
 “Synthetic Pesticides and Health in Vulnerable Populations: Agricultural Workers”, Curl et al., March 2021.
India Biennial Update Report (BUR3)”, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), February 2021.

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