Terms of change: How farmers in Uganda talk about climate change

- Indicates paper has been withdrawn from meeting
- Indicates an Award Winner
Tuesday, 19 January 2010: 3:30 PM
B213 (GWCC)
Carla Roncoli, University of Georgia, Griffin, GA; and B. S. Orlove and M. Kabugo

Presentation PDF (92.1 kB)

Even in areas that have not experienced such extreme climate change impacts as in the Arctic, local residents are beginning to notice shifts from what is their established knowledge of local climatology and normal variation within it. Rakai district in southern Uganda is located near the Equator but, due to interannual variability in the timing and amount of precipitation and the vulnerability of crops to moisture deficits, the area frequently experiences climate-related food insecurity. Rural households derive most of their food and income from rainfed agriculture, including a mix of perennial (banana, coffee) and annual crops (maize, beans, peanut). Because of the centrality of rainfall for their livelihood, at the onset of the rainy season farmers scrutinize the skies. They formulate predictions, and discuss the weather, comparing it to the recent and distant past. In particular, they note that rains are less regular and less abundant than in the past and the seasons less clearly demarcated.

The case study is based on ethnographic and linguistic research conducted under the auspices of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, a research program that focuses on the role of group processes and dynamics in shaping understanding and use of climate information. At the onset of the 2005 and 2006 rainy seasons, the research team set up 15 meetings with existing farmers' groups, and presented seasonal climate forecasts prepared by the national Department of Meteorology. Unstructured discussions among group members followed the presentation of forecasts. Farmers' discussions were recorded, transcribed, translated, and coded for the different local language terms that denote change (in relation to weather). This work was complemented by individual interviews and focus groups with representatives of different sub-groups (including pastoralists, immigrants, women, etc.).

The topic of climate change was not purposely introduced by the researchers, but arose spontaneously during meetings, as farmers commented on how seasonal climate has changed from earlier times. Since change is a function of time, researchers paid particular attention to the temporal frames used to understand shifts in climate. As in many parts of the world, farmers of Rakai district do not have different words for weather and climate and do not embrace binary distinctions between climate variability and climate change. The transcript analysis shows that farmers' interpretations of current and future climate conditions (ex. predicted scenarios) evoke a multiplicity of time scales relative to the past. For example, speakers may link present weather patterns to a past period or date, to historical events, to prior generations, or to a mythical or imagined epoch. Furthermore, farmers' discussions used “change” terminology to refer to a shift in the expected patterns, such as when a forecast for abundant rainfall is followed by drought.

More than one third of the conversation turns coded related to changes in the season onset. This is the period of greatest variability and is the most critical time for planting the annual crops, when time farmers are most attuned to signs and clues as to how the season will unfold. Another way of talking about climate change is by noting that traditional forecasting indicators are not as reliable as before. Other, especially women who do most of the farm work, comments focused on agronomic issues (cropping choices and crop diseases related to climate change). Farmers also discussed the causes of noted climatic shifts, drawing on different religious, cultural and political discourses. The dominant argument links climate change to tree cutting, hill burning, and wetland cultivation, which is a recurrent theme in public pronouncements by government agencies and NGO conservation efforts. This topic was typically brought up by male farmers with some education or with political ambitions.

This case study provides insight into the ways that people around the world note changes in climate. It indicates that understanding of climate change draw on established patterns for noticing and talking about the weather, such as farmers' attentiveness to anomalies in the onset of the rainy season. Ugandan farmers' discussion of changes in weather and climate are shown to be rooted in local ways of conceptualizing change and framing the past, both of which are constituted by local language and knowledge systems. At the same times, their conversations also invoke broader discourse of environmental policy that percolates to the local level through the conservation efforts of local government and non-governmental organizations. These understandings need to inform efforts to communicate with rural population about risks associated with climate variability and change.