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Adapting to climate change: Transforming agricultural production in the middle Himalayas

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Situated in a lush and verdant section of the middle Himalayas, the Kullu Valley is famous for apple production across India. In recent years, however, climate change has brought new challenges to apple production. Warming winter temperatures and declining snowfall has inhibited spring tree pollination, leading to a significant decline in productivity at lower altitudes. As the apple belt has shifted to higher terrain, farmers at the lower reaches of the valley have lost their main cash crop, and with it, their most important source of household income. It is hard to imagine the intensity of loss and insecurity that many households have experienced. One farmer recounted to me how, after realizing that apples could no longer provide a viable livelihood, he cried as he cut down his trees.

Yet as apples have declined in these areas, they have slowly been replaced by a variety of other fruit and vegetable crops. Farmers have not only averted the worst effects of climate change, they have continued to thrive. The lower Kullu Valley is a success story of climate adaptation—one that offers important insights into how to assist farmers to confront the challenges of global climate change.

In recent years, the threats posed by climate change have dominated discussions of rural development. It is widely recognized that rural communities in the developing world are particularly susceptible to loss and suffering; many already live precariously close to the margin. Policy makers at various levels, from the global to the local, have initiated efforts to assist vulnerable populations to confront these challenges. To date, however, we have only limited evidence about what actually enables rural communities to adapt. The experience of the lower Kullu Valley tells us that it is possible for communities to continue to prosper amidst changing climate conditions—provided that adequate forms of support are in place to assist.

My colleagues and I have been conducting research in the village of Takoli to understand how farmers are responding to climate threats and the factors that have enabled them to do so. Apples had been promoted by the state as a means to improve household incomes since the mid-1960s; by the 1980s, apples were the dominant crop in the area (Figure 1). The relatively high degree of profitability elevated living standards substantially. Yet, by the mid-1990s, several years of exceptionally bad harvests caused most farmers to abandon apple production. Since then, however, the local agricultural economy has undergone a remarkable transformation. Following the decline of apples, farmers embraced a wide variety of other crops. Standards of living have even improved.

During our survey in 2011, we counted 26 different vegetable species and 8 kinds of fruit grown in Takoli. Some of these were already grown in the village and were simply scaled up, while others were adopted more recently. Importantly, we found that different farmers have undertaken very different strategies. While some have chosen to specialize in one major crop type—whether vegetables, fruits, or food grains—others have chosen a more diversified combination across these categories. To a significant extent, farmers’ choice of agricultural strategy is driven by resource availability and asset endowments. For example, farmers with larger landholding sizes are significantly more likely to adopt diversified strategies or specialize in fruit, while farmers with at an irrigation source are more likely to adopt vegetables as a substantial part of their agricultural profile. Although farmers’ capacities to undertake different strategies are not the same, the diversity of available crops has helped to ensure that different farmers are better able to select options that suit their particular needs.

But what has enabled farmers to embrace such diverse agricultural strategies? Several factors have been at play.

To begin with, the ability to undertake different strategies has also been influenced by several key infrastructural interventions. A system of drainage canals sponsored by German bilateral assistance in the mid-1990s transformed the swampy lowlands next to the Beas River into productive agricultural fields. Expanding availability of formal credit enabled many lowland farmers to invest in bore wells that, in turn, have enabled a greater intensification of vegetables. A lift-irrigation system sponsored by Himachal Pradesh’s Department of Irrigation and Public Health extended the range of viable crops in the middle hills. Finally, the construction of a new state-run marketing facility in the southern end of Takoli in 1998 provided farmers with new opportunities to sell their crops as part of a broader network of markets selling agricultural produce to urban centers across northern India. Each of these interventions expanded the opportunities of different farmers to experiment with, produce, and market new varieties.

Second, several key state institutions have played a crucial role in promoting new production strategies, namely the state Agricultural Department, the Horticulture Department, and a research station affiliated with the Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University. These institutions provide important technical information about new crops and techniques, while also helping farmers confront various challenges from climate risks to pests. As agriculture has become more diverse and profitable, a handful of private shops supplying agricultural products have opened on the village’s main road, which have also become an important source of agricultural information, thus enabling further experimentation.

Finally, households’ agricultural strategies are influenced by their social network. People with more social connections tend to grow a wider diversity of crops. These individuals are often the source of agricultural information for other, less diverse, farmers. Even people that do not interact with state institutions often receive knowledge and support derived from these institutions through their interactions with farmers that do. This network of interactions is key to understanding the process of experimentation and diffusion whereby new crops are adopted and embraced by different farmers in the village.

Despite extensive discussion about climate change in the development sector, we still have comparatively few long-term cases of successful adaptation from which we can learn what works. The present case has several important insights for our understanding of the kinds of policy support that can enable effective responses.

First of all, no single institution, intervention, or program is likely to be sufficient. In Takoli, a variety of assistance strategies worked together to enlarge the opportunities of different farmers, thus making the agricultural system more dynamic as a whole.

Second, in most cases adaptation is not a single event; it requires ongoing experimentation, innovation, and diffusion of new strategies and opportunities. Public support systems may work best where they do not simply prescribe solutions, but work with famers to figure out what works best for them.

Finally, while concerns about climate change have caused policy makers to focus extensively on climate threats, the success of assistance efforts may often depend significantly upon existing support systems—especially those that are already well-integrated within their communities. In Takoli, adaptation was not the effect of policies to target climate change at all; farmers’ responses were enabled by state institutions that were simply doing what they were supposed to do. In many cases, the most important policy response to climate change may simply be to ensure that existing institutions have the resources and capacities to respond to changing conditions as they emerge.