Vulnerable Populations and Climate Change in Latin America

In the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report (AR5), scientists reported observations of changing weather patterns throughout Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). Their climate projections for 2100 suggest increases in temperature and decreasing or increasing precipitation levels in different regions, meaning increases in frequency and intensity of floods and droughts. Other projections include increased rates of species extinction, increased deforestation and land degradation, changes in streamflow and water availability and degradation of marine ecosystems. All of these projections are in regards to changes that will happen to the environment, however, the implications of these environmental changes have already started having strong impacts on human health and activity. In order to begin taking adaptive measures to cope with these changes, it is necessary to understand how vulnerable the populations are. It is worth noting that topics surrounding climate change are nearly endless, and while every single one of them is valuable in itself, this post will focus mostly on how climate change affects vulnerable agricultural populations and what adaptive measures can be taken in response to it.

The assessment of a population’s vulnerability to climate change takes three factors into consideration: exposure to potential risks, sensitivity to said risks, and adaptive capacity to cope with or respond to changing environments. In a study conducted to evaluate the vulnerability of Latin American populations to climate change, results showed that over 50% of the region’s population is residing in countries with “high or extreme climate vulnerability risks.” Almost half of the region’s GDP comes from these same highly at-risk countries, meaning that shocks to their economies could potentially augment their already heightened level of vulnerability, resulting in terrible exposure to risks without the necessary adaptive capabilities to respond.

The agricultural sector is one of the most important in LAC’s economy. Caribbean agriculture, for example, employs between 20-30% of the region’s workforce, and countries in Central America like Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, agriculture also employ above 30% of the workforce. Livelihoods are directly affected by yearly productivity levels, and climate change, as evidence shows, will no doubt greatly affect agricultural productivity throughout the region. Farmers and agricultural workers are especially vulnerable to climate change for many reasons, one of them being their heavy reliance on rainfall and other traditional farming methods. These methods are becoming more and more unreliable because of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. To give an example, following a 2010 drought in the Dominican Republic, banana production dropped nearly 45% from the previous production year. Despite the fact that some projections show increased productivity in sectors with increased rainfall, others will be greatly affected by drought, which overall has dangerous effects on food security and access to water.

Why is it important for populations to increase their adaptability? Without adaptive measures such as technological inputs in farms, farmers and agricultural workers will find it increasingly difficult to maintain subsistence, which leads to other problems like urban migration, adding to the existing problem of urban poverty. In more extreme situations, with the increasing likelihood of extreme weather events to occur, like cyclones, hurricanes, floods, landslides, earthquakes and droughts, it will be much harder for populations without an adaptive capacity to ‘bounce bank’ from suffered setbacks. However, in order to adapt, individuals must have the capacity to do so, which unfortunately is not the case among rural populations in LAC. Despite government efforts throughout the region to work towards solutions, the most vulnerable individuals are kept marginalized and their livelihoods continue to be affected. They, unfortunately, do not have the luxury of time and thus need all the help possible to improve their adaptive capacities. How then can we as individuals help improve the adaptive capabilities of individuals in the agricultural sector while the slow churning of government wheels turn?

In Colombia, TRF supports InterActuar programs that help farmers improve productivity by conducting educational workshops on best agricultural practices and implementing appropriate technologies into their farming processes. The program contributes towards decreasing vulnerability by empowering farmers and agricultural workers and making them more adaptive to potential extreme weather events that could affect their crops.

Evidently, climate change is occurring and the consequences, as scientists tell us, could be quite damning. We are already seeing a change in weather patterns throughout the region that could potentially cause great harm to social and economic sectors. With over half of the region’s population living in countries considered having “high or extreme vulnerability risks”, it is critical for all efforts to be made in order to decrease vulnerabilities by helping strengthen resilience towards climate change. Other fights are still worth fighting, such as tackling the causes of climate change, however, we cannot ignore the fact that we are presently seeing people’s lives being negatively affected, and that we can act on that now.

By: Juan Sucre, Reporting Associate at TRF.