Climate Change

Reinventing climate action: Crucial to co-create with communities from India’s tropics

Smallholder agricultural landscapes of Global South offer extensive possibilities for nature-based solutions but need a paradigm shift to become viable

By Sreeja KG
Published: Tuesday 02 January 2024
Photo: iStock

Tropical agricultural systems are remarkable for their crop diversity, associated biodiversity, natural resource use, replenishment and management as well as direct and indirect livelihoods to millions of men and women. 

From spices and other high-value agricultural plantations in the hills and mountains to the saline-tolerant paddy farms in the coastal reaches, these agricultural systems are highly developed, have unique agro-ecologies and have played a crucial role in determining the land use-land cover trajectories of the Global South. 

Tropical agricultural systems are not just food production systems. Developed over centuries of knowing the rhythms of the land, the water and the seasons, these agricultural systems have also evolved into high-value landscapes that provide a multitude of ecosystem services from flood proofing to groundwater recharge to biodiversity conservation spaces. 

Read more: How agroforestry could solve climate crisis

In the current times, these landscapes have become even more crucial in the adaptation and mitigation of the varied impacts of climate change on local spaces. The coastal zones of India, for instance, have various forms of saline-tolerant paddy cultivation systems that are undertaken on polders. These structures have bunds to keep out tidal waters from entering the fields as well as residential areas.

Known as Pokkali and Kaippad in central and northern Kerala respectively, Kagga in the northern Karnataka coast and Khazan in Goa, these specialised paddy ecosystems were instrumental in making the low-lying coastal lands inhabitable. Strengthened and maintained annually, the upkeep of these coastal paddy landscapes have become vital in protecting the coastal lands from a rising sea.

Similarly, in the middle and lower stretches of a river basin, wetland paddy cultivation in the floodplains has helped in providing necessary room for flooding of rivers and act as drainage areas that channel rainwater into the rivers. These wetlands also act as sponges that replenish the groundwater reserves, thus providing drought proofing and drought resilience.

Highly stratified tropical home garden farms not only provide household food security, but also help harvest rain, recharge groundwaters and stabilise land and slopes. A unique agroforestry system, home gardens have also been noted for their high carbon sequestration potential. 

Read more: Not just green: Natural farming in Andhra yielded more produce than conventional methods, shows study

In the highlands, the many spice and coffee plantations grown in the shade of the rainforests, are high carbon sequesters and are also instrumental in providing slope stability to withstand extreme rainfall events compared to open monocrop plantations. 

It is in this context that organic low-input farming systems also gain contemporary added relevance. Not only do these systems nurture the land and protect it from extremities of rain and drought because of the many soil ameliorating practices inherent in the system, they are also being recognised as stable household-level food security in these times of crisis. They are seed banks of diversity, protecting against resurgent pests and diseases as well as the new thresholds of heat, cold, acidity, salinity and waterlogging that the climate crisis is going to cross. 

Smallholder agricultural landscapes of the Global South, thus, offer extensive possibilities for nature-based solutions. However, to make them viable solutions, a paradigm shift is necessary in the way these systems are protected and supported. 

Read more: ATM agriculture: There are reasons as to why there is so much resistance to the idea of natural farming

A community-led approach where the solutions are co-created by the community and which ensures that policies are formulated with hyper-local community inputs would be essential for these landscapes to continue to function in times of crisis. 

Sreeja KG is a research director at EQUINOCT Community Sourced Modelling Solutions. She is currently part of the Women Climate Collective, a community seeking to increase the representation of women’s voices and perspectives in the climate conversation.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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