Achieving well-being or a similarly acceptable quality of life is a fundamental goal in most development projects focused on poverty alleviation . Our findings also showed that farmers expressed an interest in improving their well-being, but with a particular emphasis on the need to reduce vulnerability when exposed to outside shocks and stresses. This finding agrees with those of Place et al. and encourages a move away from the focus only on poverty alleviation to focus on the reduction of the vulnerability of poor populations .
Using these ideas expressed by farmers, we modified, for the use of our analysis, the definitions of well-being discussed in the literature [30–32]. We define well-being as the ability to improve one’s household income, assets, and food security in the face of outside stresses and shocks (modified from 30, 31). This definition is unique because it takes into account the need to achieve well-being improvements while exposed to climate-related hazards and it specifically stresses the importance of food security and other tangible changes.
We found that food security is a concept very important to the farmers interviewed but it is not always emphasized in the literature’s definitions of well-being. Food insecure farmers in Lower Nyando explained that all of their long-term decisions were dependent on their food supply. These farmers were forced to stop long-term projects, including the care of their seedlings, when faced with the significant food shortage during the 2009 to 2010 season. In contrast, farmers in Middle Nyando, where average hunger periods were less severe, felt much better equipped to plan and save for their futures. This contrast between how farmers in Lower and Middle Nyando think about long-term goals supports Appadurai’s conclusion that more marginalized groups have a more limited ability to aspire . It also supports evidence that food insecure farmers tend to be less innovative. This has recently been shown in a representative survey of 700 farmer households in four countries in East Africa .
Farmers’ emphasis on food security should provide a reminder to development academics of the importance of dealing with basic necessities when considering more complex development interventions. It is paramount that development projects operating in food-insecure areas show how they can help households improve their food security from the outset. This lesson is especially relevant to agroforestry development projects, as farmers are asked to invest substantial time in tree seedling care before any benefits are accrued. For households that are still struggling to ensure they have enough to eat, tree seedlings and other long-term investments are often neglected until this need is met.
The impacts of the recent floods, droughts and rainfall variability on farmers are consistent with much of the literature of similar climate-related hazards in the area . The literature on coping strategies also highlights similar strategies to those used by farmers in this study . However, from our analysis it is clear that the current use of these traditional coping strategies will not be able to sustain households in the face of more frequent exposure to climate-related hazards predicted by climate change models such as Nelson et al.’s . Already, farmers experience intense periods of food insecurity and are forced to engage in detrimental coping strategies that threaten the long-term sustainability of their farms and households’ well-being. This finding is consistent with other analyses of the ability of subsistence farmers to cope with climate variability in the region .
The literature exhibits some tension on whether to focus climate change adaptation on these specific adaptation strategies or on the more general well-being improvements [38, 39]. Through our discussions with farmers on future adaptation options, farmers largely agree with the literature that supports general well-being improvements to deal with future climate-related hazards [37, 40–42]. Specifically, farmers are interested in improving their off-farm incomes and farm productivity. As climate change predictions continue to be highly unpredictable, it is important to focus on adaptation strategies that are robust and help ensure farmers’ well-being under a variety of forms of climate-related hazards.
Farmers report, and the literature agrees, that some specific adaptation strategies, such as the current forms of drought-resistant crops, may actually increase farmers’ vulnerability under certain climate-related hazards . Farmers interviewed refused to use more drought-tolerant types of maize, as they could not afford the loss of productivity associated with these strains if the rains did come. These results highlight the need to do place-based studies of adaptive strategies to assess which specific projects will be most effective at reducing farmer vulnerability under a wide variety of climate hazards. Through our analysis, it appears that agroforestry can be an effective adaptation strategy, as agroforestry was shown to be beneficial under a wide range of climatic conditions. This interpretation also provides evidence for the introduction of financial safety networks, such as index insurances, as a means of reducing climate risk while allowing farmers to continue using improved seedling material for higher yields under normal climatic conditions. The index insurance could help farmers cope with greater losses during weather extremes such as droughts.
Farmers also expressed a strong desire to remain autonomous in making decisions about the implementation of climate-change adaptation strategies. However, it was also clear that households will need, and are interested in receiving, information and advice on potential climate-change adaptation strategies. This distinction between outside organizations’ role as an advisor on adaptation options and an implementer of specific strategies is somewhat nuanced, but will be important to ensure farmer buy-in to future adaptation strategies. Adger et al. highlight the need to facilitate climate-change adaptation decisions among households, as individual autonomy alone does not necessarily lead to the most effective decisions . Future research is needed to find effective advising strategies that can help farmers access information on and capital to invest in adaptation strategies.
Our findings provide quantitative results, supported and nuanced by qualitative descriptions, on how agroforestry techniques can help farmers mitigate their vulnerability to climate-related hazards, both through improving general well-being and through providing specific coping measures that are effective in the face of a wide range of climate-related hazards.
Despite the high standard errors within our quantitative analysis, in conjunction with our qualitative findings they suggest a positive correlation between agroforestry involvement and farm productivity and household wealth, similar to other literature in the field . It is unsurprising that we observed only a small improvement in farm productivity because few farmers used intensive agroforestry techniques in their fields. Intercropping of nitrogen-fixing trees had low adoption among farmers because farmers considered planting trees in their field as risky. Planting trees along household boundaries appears to show greater acceptability among farmers and may be a good first step to integrate agroforestry practices into farms without the perceived risk of intercropping.
Improvements in household wealth were also limited due to the maturity of the trees. Most income comes from selling fruit, excess fuel wood and timber, and many farmers interviewed had only a limited number of mature trees on their land at the time of the survey. Limited improvements are therefore expected among the farmers who have only been using agroforestry techniques for 2 to 4 years. In addition, we feel that using livestock as a surrogate for household wealth did not capture the full change in farmers’ wealth due to agroforestry practices. Future studies should consider a more robust measurement of wealth among subsistence farmers.
Our findings also highlight the length of time it takes for agroforestry practices to benefit farmers, as many of the impacts reported were quite small. We expect the magnitude of improvements in farm productivity and household wealth will increase as trees mature, as all of the qualitative data collected supports this trend. Future studies of this area would need to confirm such an assertion. These conclusions underline the need to provide agroforestry techniques in collaboration with other development initiatives that can deliver short-term benefits to farmers while waiting for the investments in trees to pay off.
We approached our research with an understanding that agroforestry practices may be used and perceived differently by men and women . However, we did not find that women participated in agroforestry in a substantially different way, as all farmers reported planting, tending to and harvesting from trees. The one gender difference we observed was that women were primarily responsible for fuel wood collection and thus ranked fuel wood collection as a more significant benefit than men did.
Our study was particular to a specific agroforestry project and location, allowing us to deeply understand the unique context of these communities [46, 47]. However, we feel that the conclusions can still provide significant guidance to future studies on reducing farmers’ vulnerability to climate-related hazards. Our findings suggest that it is likely that for extremely poor households, improving general well-being will be the most effective way to reduce vulnerability to future hazards associated with climate change. This finding can be generalized to other subsistence farming communities, as the most basic problems faced by farmers during climate-related hazards are widespread. Whether this finding can be applied to more successful small-scale farmers remains to be explored.
Finally, we found that fully engaging farmers in the research process significantly improved our analysis. Farmers report benefiting from the research process because it provided them with an opportunity to discuss constraints to their well-being and think about potential solutions. Communities found that discussions of vulnerability allowed them to reflect on their current farming practices and engage in a community conversation of future adaptation options. This dialogue really flourished when we presented our initial findings to the farmers in a community gathering we organized at the end of our field research. This conclusion supports White’s assertion that encouraging reflection among communities is of value in and of itself .
Discussions with farmers at this community gathering stressed the responsibility field researchers have to provide feedback and results to the participants in their study. As the local chief explained, ‘Many scientists have come here, but you are the first to return with results’. We hope that future studies can continue to build on this approach and engage farmers more fully throughout the research process. This will allow the scientific community to further the dialogue with farmers in how we can work together to ensure environmental sustainability and well-being improvements in the face of future climate-related hazards.