Climate change affecting small-scale farmers in Kenya

Kenyan farmers are concerned about climate change as they see crop production decrease because of rising temperatures, unreliable rainfall, soil erosion and drought.

KOLA, Kenya - Changes in climate patterns here make it impossible for small-scale farmers to continue growing primary food crops such as maize and beans, said a local farmer.

About 50 years ago farmers could expect to produce 25 bags of maize from one hectare (almost 2.5 acres), each bag weighing about 198 pounds, said Joshua Mukusya, a farmer whose family has been tilling the ground for generations. He lives in Kola, a community in the semi-arid Machakos District in eastern Kenya, about 56 miles southeast of Nairobi.

"Now, you will be very lucky if you get five bags per hectare," he added.

Mukusya said farmers in Kenya see global climate change as the major factor contributing to rising temperatures, delayed and unreliable rainfall, soil erosion and droughts that are becoming more frequent, more severe and less predictable.

"The climate is changing - it is very clear," said Mukusya, a leader of the Utooni Self-Help Group, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner organization. Formerly called Excellent Development, the Utooni Self-Help Group was formed in 1978 to help rural families improve food and water security by terracing land, building sand dams and planting trees.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet in Copenhagen in December 2009 to come up with a global strategy to address climate change post 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires.

Mukusya is hopeful that discussions at the Copenhagen conference will lead to bold and meaningful measures that will increase international support to help the country improve food production, restore water tables and redevelop pastures and wildlife habitat.

"The majority of people here have no resources to cope with the situation," he explained. "If we don't make changes, we cannot survive."

With assistance from MCC and other non-governmental organizations, Utooni Self Help Group is helping rural families rediscover skills to grow, cook and store indigenous crops, such as millet, sorghum, cowpeas, cassava and sweet potatoes.

"Maize and beans used to grow well in our climate but we are now going back to the old crops which can withstand the drought," he explained.

Rural families are also improving agricultural productivity and sustainability through building sand dams, reducing soil erosion, planting trees and other soil and water conservation projects.

"People are interested in making changes - everybody recognizes there is a need for change, but the demand is bigger than we can reach," explained Mukusya.

The Copenhagen conference on climate change is an opportunity for people and governments to accept responsibility for producing greenhouse gases that threaten livelihoods and food resources of poor and marginalized people in developing countries, said Bruce Guenther, who works with MCC's food and disaster program.

People most at risk of increased drought and other extreme events, such as floods, hurricanes and cyclones, are those who are already experiencing poverty, live in vulnerable settings and have limited access to resources to help them cope with increased disasters, he said.

"For me, it is an equity issue," said Guenther. "Those who are the least responsible for the crisis are most affected. How can we ignore it?"

Solutions are within reach but there needs to be political will to accept responsibility and accountability for actions that create hunger and hardships for people "who are already in precarious situations," he said.

"These things are preventable - we need to show through our actions that as a Christian community we understand accountability," said Guenther. "From a faith perspective, this is fundamental to what God calls us to do - to feed the hungry and to walk with the most vulnerable."

Mukusya is hoping that countries will act on the strategies that are developed. "When you talk about what you are going to do, are you going to do it or are you just preaching a gospel that you won't execute properly?" he asked.

"For us, this is a matter of survival. God created abundant land. We need to find solutions to the destruction we have made for ourselves."

Gladys Terichow is a writer for MCC.