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UNEP: In Jamaica, farmers struggle to contend with a changing climate

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It’s 9 am and the rural district of Mount Airy in central Jamaica is already sweltering. As cars trundle along the region’s unpaved roads, chocolate-brown dust clouds burst from behind their back wheels.

It is here, 50km west of Kingston and 500 meters above sea level, that the Mount Airy Farmers group are having a morning meeting. There are around two dozen people and they all say the same thing; they’re struggling to keep their plots productive amid dwindling rainfall, a byproduct of climate change.

“The weather here’s a lot drier for longer these days,” says Althea Spencer, the treasurer of the Mount Airy Farmers group, which is based in Northern Clarendon. “If you don’t have water, it makes no sense to plant seeds because they will just die.”

The farmers though, have recently gotten some help in their search for water.

Just meters from where they are gathered stands a two-storey shed with a drainpipe on the roof that funnels rainwater into a tall, black tank. It’s one of more than two dozen reservoirs dotted across these mountains. They are part of a project backed by six United Nations (UN) bodies to help Mount Airy’s farmers adapt to climate change.

“This partnership among the UN and with communities is exactly the type of activity needed to address the day-to-day and practical impacts of climate change,” says Vincent Sweeney, Head of the Caribbean Sub-Regional Office at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “As we look beyond the Glasgow Climate Change Conference, it is vital that we… adapt to the new realities of a warmer planet in order to protect lives and livelihoods in Jamaica and the Caribbean.”

The challenge is not unique to the region. Droughts, floods, and the spread of pests, the byproducts of climate change, are threatening agricultural production around the globe, says the Food and Agriculture Organization. That is potentially disastrous in a world where almost 700 million people go hungry each year.

Small-hold farmers, who work more than 80 per cent of the world‘s farms, in particular, will need support to remain resilient in the face of climate change, say experts.

A country at risk
Althea Spencer harvests her tomato crop. Dwindling rainfall in central Jamaica has made farming a challenge. Photo: UNEP / Thomas Gordon-Martin
Farmers in Jamaica, an island nation of 3 million, are especially vulnerable. In 2020, Jamaica became the first Caribbean country to submit a tougher climate action plan to the UN because the country was at risk from rising sea levels, drought and more intense hurricanes, its government said.

In 2018, the Mount Airy farmers enrolled in the United Nations-backed programme that helps build the resilience of communities to threats such as climate change, poverty and water insecurity. It is regarded as the first joint programme of the United Nations in Jamaica, combining the resources of six agencies, including UNEP.

In Mount Airy, the UN programme has invested in 30 new water harvesting systems. The large, black tanks, which appear across the hilltops like turrets, catch and store rainfall, allowing the farmers to use it evenly via a drip irrigation system. This reduces the emerging threat of longer and more intense dry spells.

“Everybody I know faces the same challenge of reduced and less predictable rainfall. If my father had this harvesting system, would I have gone to school more? Yes, probably.”

Althea Spencer
The new irrigation system also frees farmers from watering their crops by hand. “Before we got the new system, you had to predict rainfall to put seedlings in,” says Spencer, a rollerball pen tucked neatly into her hair and her feet shifting on the sunbaked earth. “It feels pretty good. It allows me more time to do housework, keep up with my farm records, and I have time to go down to the market.”

Alongside the tanks sit drums which mix fertilizer with water and spread it evenly among the crops, saving the farmers valuable time. The dissolvable fertilizer is also cheaper than standard fertilizers.

On top of that, the irrigation system improves yields. Spencer now grows and sells more sweet potatoes, peppers and tomatoes than ever before.

Coupled with the water tanks, the programme has also prioritized education. Seminars are run by the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, a government agency, which aims to broaden the farmer’s knowledge and skills.

Although it is not unusual for women to farm these lands, Spencer speaks about how the trainings have helped to empower the female members of the group by coming together. “To me, the learnings and the trainings bond us ladies together,” she says.

A life in the mountains

Back at the gathering of the Mount Airy farmers, the assembled say some prayers and repeat their mantra aloud two times: “We are the Mount Airy Farmers Group our motto is: All grow in fear and failure bearing fruits of confidence and success.”

Spencer, who is in her 40s, is a vocal participant at the meeting and obviously well-liked. She was born in Mount Airy and has been farming these fields most of her life. She has vivid memories of working on her father’s farm as a child. Unable to afford to pay anyone else, he often pulled her out of school to sow and reap the fields.

That’s a common refrain among many who grew up in Mount Airy – and one the new UN programme is aiming to change.

“If my father had this harvesting system, would I have gone to school more?” Spencer asks herself. “Yes, probably. But even then, he was always working us. So I’m sure he’d find something for us to do,” she says laughing.

Spencer welcomes the introduction of the water tanks. However, she says current rainfall patterns mean water sometimes still runs out. “If you don’t manage your water properly, one will run out before you get anywhere,” she says ominously.

Her story may be one of success today, but it shows that living with climate change will require adaptation and continued investment for years to come. UNEP’s 2021 Adaptation Gap Report called for an urgent increase in financing for climate adaptation. It found that adaptation costs in developing countries are five to ten times greater than current public adaptation finance flows, and the adaptation finance gap is widening.

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