Building community resilience in Eastern Luzon: Women lead the way

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by Olivia Ebenstål Almeida, Nordic Africa Institute

While communities are facing the dual challenge of climate change and social inequities, there are also inspiring examples of positive adaptation, innovation, and women’s leadership emerging in the face of adversity.

Recently, while on field travel in the Philippines as part of the CGIAR Research Initiative on Climate Resilience (ClimBeR), and in collaboration with our local partner – the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), I had the opportunity to explore both local perspectives of social equity and the key dynamics that shape climate change preparedness and potential transformative adaptation pathways.

With its geographic vulnerability to extreme weather events, the Philippines has long experienced adverse climate impacts. Vulnerable communities in rural and hazard-prone areas are grappling with increased climate risks. The communities I came across reported longer droughts, more frequent and intense storms, erosion, and biodiversity loss, as key threats, especially to their livelihoods. Lack of access to land ownership compounded by the urgent need for alternative incomes exacerbates these challenges, leaving many families vulnerable to displacement and economic insecurity.

Despite these challenges, there is still room for optimism. One of the most encouraging trends I observed is the diversification of livelihood opportunities among vulnerable rural communities in the eastern reaches of Luzon Island. From sustainable aquaculture practices to innovative crop diversification strategies, there is a sense of creativity and adaptability at play. Supported by a strategic partnership that brings together local government and international NGOs, and particularly IIRR, these alternative initiatives include duck rearing, raising native pigs, planting high-yielding fruit varieties, and handicraft production.

Women play a prominent leadership role here. They coordinate grassroots women’s organizations, drive partnerships forward to build resilient livelihoods and businesses, like KALIPI (Kababaihan sa Pagkaunlad) – a nationally federated women’s group that advocates for empowerment through livelihood and skills development, and the 4K’s (Kabuhayan at Kaunlaran ng Kababayang Katutubo) – a special program by the Department of Agriculture, and advocate for the community’s needs through their participation and leadership in community-based farmer associations.

Flavia – a middle-aged farmer and mother of three, illustrates the strong entrepreneurial mindset needed to address climate risks. Initially introduced to a biodiversity kit for home gardening and beekeeping by IIRR, including training on Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) and sustainable practices, she recognized its economic and food security benefits when increased crop yields generated an income of USD 70 post-harvest – a ‘substantial increase from before’. She is now training her neighbors to replicate such practices. She also runs a small grocery store that she established amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, for which she applied and received a stipend from the DSWD to scale her business and acquire more stock for her store.

Flavia has ideas to improve existing projects, especially considering the increased climate variability and frequency of extremes. Observing a worrying trend toward using synthetic fertilizers instead of organic ones, she proposes introducing greenhouse solutions or shade cloths in her community to shield crops from direct sunlight.

In the same spirit, Michaela runs a community-based farmer’s association. With support from the local government, she spearheaded the rollout of a crop and livestock insurance scheme. This initiative provides much-needed assistance to her community following the destruction from natural disasters. Initially, only a handful of farmers were enlisted in the scheme, but through her persistent advocacy and door-to-door outreach, nearly all 36 members (80% women) of her association are now enrolled, providing essential protection for their livelihoods.

Despite these innovations, social disparities continue to present barriers to the success and sustainability of such initiatives. Land ownership serves as a tangible asset for climate adaptation strategies, providing communities with the resources they need to buffer environmental shifts. Efforts aimed at addressing land inequality and insecure access are gaining traction at a national level, yet ownership among poorer households, particularly female-headed ones, remains limited in eastern Luzon. Other reflections on equity include a limited capacity to participate in certain networks and institutions through which resources are made accessible to community members.

Flavia echoes concerns of preferential treatment that were also raised by several interviewees, related to political affiliation in her village, reinforcing the call for greater equality in how local communities access opportunities.

“During the previous administration, if projects were given, they were only given to those favorites in the community, often those who had voted for the administration, instead of asking other people to be more involved. Today, groups that are part of an organization are often prioritized.”

There are also concerns about gender inequities in access to job opportunities:

“…in terms of job opportunities, men have a higher percentage of getting hired. Most of the projects here are for men; they focus more on construction, physical labor, and the fishing industry. If I was given the chance to lead a project, I would organize the women in this community.”

Social equity and justice lie at the heart of effective climate adaptation strategies. These narratives underscore the potential of grassroots initiatives in not only fostering climate resilience and sustainable livelihoods but also the role of women as agents of change in the face of climate adversity. They also highlight the importance of recognizing the complex interplay between social equity and climate adaptation and the need to confront inequities in resource allocation, which risk undermining the effectiveness and sustainability of climate solutions.

This necessitates not only policy interventions at the national level but concerted efforts to empower marginalized, vulnerable communities by fostering an environment that values diversity, promotes gender equality, and embraces participatory approaches.

Transformative adaptation, therefore, cannot take place without a social equity approach that fosters equality, inclusion, and justice.

*This blog refers to research conducted in February 2024 as part of the CGIAR Research Initiative on Climate Resilience (ClimBeR). The author would like to thank those who shared their experiences and perspectives, IIRR, and local government authorities for their support. The ClimBeR team would also like to thank all funders who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund.

Related reading:

Social equity in climate-resilient agriculture

Transformative adaptation: From climate-smart to climate-resilient agriculture

Transformative adaptation and implications for transdisciplinary climate change research

Notes:

Olivia Ebenstål Almeida is a Research Officer to ClimBeR’s Social Equity (SE) crosscutting team through the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI).

Edited by Martina Mascarenhas, Communications Lead, ClimBeR

Feature image: Eastern Luzon, The Philippines, January 2024. Women farmers discussing their understandings of and experiences with social equity and climate adaptation. Photo: Sonica Salcedo

[1] Flavia is a pseudonym. Names have been withheld at the request of the individuals with whom we spoke.

[2] FRESH Initiative: Promoting Sustainable Diets and Empowering Communities – IIRR

[3] DSWD livelihood program helps businesses to rise amid the pandemic | Department of Social Welfare and Development

[4] Michaela is a pseudonym. Names have been withheld at the request of the individuals with whom we spoke.

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