Slow blog

Degrowth and the Unmaking of Capitalism

(5 February 2020)

By Giuseppe Feola and Olga Koretskaya

Originally published by 

Liberating our minds from the imperative of endless economic growth and profit maximization is one of the key inspirational ideas of degrowth. Scholars and activists call this liberation ‘decolonization of the imaginary’. Degrowth initiatives indeed disrupt our usual understanding of the capitalist economy, but they also go further than that – they disrupt social norms and physical spaces. How can we enrich our understanding of such disruptions of capitalism in a way that goes beyond the imaginary?

Our societies are facing multiple interconnected challenges, which include climate emergency, an unprecedented loss of biodiversity, growing inequality and plastic pollution. What connects these challenges is the underlying capitalist economic model, which prioritizes profit-making over wellbeing and requires endless economic growth simply to stay afloat.

Degrowth offers an alternative vision – it is a project of urgent and fundamental transformation. Degrowth requires reimagining our societies from the perspective of being profit-centred to being wellbeing-centred. This approach distinguishes degrowth from other, more compromising visions of transformation, such as ‘green growth’. But how can society transition towards degrowth?

One idea that has become prominent in thinking about such a transition is that of ‘decolonization of the imaginary’, a concept developed by Serge Latouche. This concept signals the need for a disruption of taken-for-granted ways of seeing the world, and their associated practices, rules and social norms. Decolonization of the imaginary questions deeply rooted beliefs about who we are, how we live, and about our place in this world. Are we merely self-interested individuals or are we also care-oriented members of communities? To what extent do technology and consumption contribute to human wellbeing? Does our constantly expansive economy threaten human communities and the natural world?

Decolonization of the imaginary has been an inspirational idea for scholars and activists alike. Yet, it alone seems to be insufficient to take us to fully grasping the depth of disruptions of capitalism that have been produced by initiatives such as transition towns, permaculture farms, and repair cafes. Decolonization of the imaginary emphasises the symbolic dimensions of social change but it underplays the material dimensions of such change. It is also usually understood as an end point, and hence fails to help us to recognize – and learn about – what happens along the way.

How can we think about the processes by which disruptions of capitalism occur in broader, deeper and more dynamic ways? Is it possible for us to better capture what is going on in concrete initiatives?

In a recent article, Giuseppe Feola proposes that we think about the disruption of capitalism in terms of ‘unmaking’. He suggests that an unmaking of capitalism is not only necessary, but possibly pre-conditional for a transformation of the magnitude and nature required by degrowth. ‘Unmaking’ refers to individual or collective actions of disengagement or active deconstructions of existing capitalist systems that ‘make space’ for alternatives. Such actions could take the form of a personal decision to limit consumption or to quit a high-paying job at an oil corporation. Unmaking can also be recognized in a community farm that refuses to submit to market pressure to expand production and instead turns to a community-supported model to sustain itself.

The processes of unmaking are dependent on the particular historical context. It means that there is no single way to unmake capitalist practices, rules or social norms. What can cause a rupture in one place in the system might not be what causes a rupture in another part. Various grassroots initiatives, therefore, naturally have a different focus, complimenting each other. This dependency on context also means that lessons learned from one experience of unmaking should be applied and transferred carefully between concrete initiatives.

Processes of unmaking involve both symbolic and material disruptions. In many concrete grassroots initiatives and individual actions, critiques of capitalist culture are usually accompanied by material and practical deconstructions of the status-quo. If we return to the example of the self-limitation of consumption at an individual level, we see that through their actions individuals are breaking down the social (symbolic) obligation of ever-growing consumption while simultaneously changing concrete (material) routines.

Unmaking is a contradictory personal experience. Breaking free from capitalist practices and logic involves a deliberate rejection of the dominant narratives, such as those referring to self-interested human beings. This rejection makes space for other logics of action, including those of cooperation, recognition, and dignity. These alternative logics are not alien to us: sacrifices for higher goods and acts that stem from ethics of care occur in many spheres of everyday life, such as in the lives of parents. The alternatives to capitalist logic and practices, however, are often neglected and socially unrewarded, and can sometimes even be sanctioned by the dominant economic rules. This means that personal unmaking can be ‘messy’ and might involve compromises, negotiations, setbacks, and dilemmas.

Unmaking is often hidden, but can be used strategically. Acts of unmaking undermine the established order, including: cultural norms (e.g., consumerism), material infrastructure (e.g., diesel cars, mass manufacturing plants), rules and regulations (e.g., the 40 hour working week), and socially accepted expectations (e.g., economic growth targets, the maximization of shareholders’ profit). Yet, to avoid direct confrontation with powerful actors, grassroots initiatives often keep these disruptions private or hidden. Moreover, the personal, small-scale character of many forms of unmaking pushes disruptions away from the spotlight – often they do not make newspaper headlines. In some other cases, in contrast, unmaking can occur through public actions such as civil disobedience and protests, as well as through the emergence of disruptive public discourse; the social movement ‘Extinction Rebellion’ is one such example.

Unmaking is generative. Processes of unmaking aim at interrupting the reproduction of capitalist logics and practices. At the same time, unmaking has and inherently implies creative power: it enables the imagination and prefiguration of different futures. By creating symbolic, material, spatial and temporal vacuums that may be filled in ‘other’ ways, unmaking enables the setting of new ethical and practical priorities. It opens up and cultivates possibilities otherwise unthinkable or thought to be out of reach.

The full paper ‘Degrowth and the Unmaking of Capitalism Beyond “Decolonization of the Imaginary”’ was published in ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies and is available in open access here. This research is part of the research programme UNMAKING.

Strategies for a degrowth transformation: How useful are historical analogies?

(October 2019)

This blog post was originally published on 9 October 2019 on the web portal. See here.

Degrowth scholars and activists often turn to past cases of social or socioecological transformation for inspiration to inform transformative action in the present. Yet, there has so far been insufficient awareness of the bias that comes with using any historical analogy. The insights provided by historical analogies are limited, but can fruitfully complement analyses of the present and future-oriented visions of societal change. 

As degrowth scholars and/or activists, we often turn to past cases of social or socioecological transformation for inspiration to inform transformative action in the present. This approach — to look back to the past for ‘lessons’ or insights on possible strategies — is not uncommon in sustainability studies.

However, it is apparent that there is no single most appropriate historical analogue of a degrowth transformation. The concept of a degrowth transformation has been associated by scholars with diverse historical analogues such as the agricultural revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the Great Transformation which saw the expansion of the market society (after the work of Karl Polanyi), among others.

There are various reasons for these diverse comparisons. First, there are a plurality of understandings of what a degrowth transformation may look like in practice, which multiplies the pool of possibly relevant historical examples. Second, there is the unprecedented character of such a transformation, and specifically, the fact that degrowth implies societal change beyond, rather than within, capitalism; a type of transformation of which there is hardly any historical experience.

In fact, no one historical analogue is inherently more relevant or appropriate than others when it comes to deriving insights into the conditions and processes of fundamental socioecological change towards sustainability. However, it can be noted that past experiences of social and socioecological transformation differ from each other in various respects. For example, different historical analogues may offer contrasting insights into:

– which societal ‘system(s)’ can undergo transformation (e.g. a community, a national society, global society, an industrial sector, a political regime, a cultural paradigm);
– how long transformations take (e.g. years, decades, centuries), and to what extent transformation entails ecological, political, economic or cultural catastrophes (e.g. financial crises, the collapse of a political regime or of an ecosystem);
– whether the primary force behind transformation is internal (e.g. actors within the economic or political system that undergoes transformation), external (e.g. broader ecological or economic shocks) or a combination of both internal and external forces;
– whether transformation can be the result of deliberate action by particular social groups, or is rather necessarily the result of complex, uncontrollable social dynamics;
– what the end result of transformation looks like (e.g. change of social structures, cultural practices, social justice, etc.)

For example, would a degrowth transformation be more like a deliberate social mobilisation over a relatively short (in historical terms) time period, such as the abolition of slavery, or a long and emergent process such as the agricultural revolution? Would a degrowth transformation be more likely after an ecological or socio-political collapse, like the transition of Central and Eastern European countries after the fall of the Soviet Union? Will it be more like a national liberation movement? Will it advance through single-issue struggles, such as the affirmation of social rights through struggles around race, gender and labour?

The insights we can derive from such different historical analogues would differ significantly with respect to, for example, the actors and coalitions driving change, the extent to which idealistic or materialistic motives can drive which type of social change, the timeframe of change, and whether social or socioecological transformation can ever be managed or even steered deliberately in the first place.

Therefore, the exercise of selecting a particular historical analogue is inherently laden with assumptions about the type of transformation pathway we might expect to observe in the future. Yet, there has so far been insufficient awareness of the bias that comes with using historical analogies. To respond to that fallacy and advance our thinking on the conditions and processes of a degrowth transformation, we are therefore challenged to develop an approach to using historical analogues.

It is important to consider that any ‘lessons’ learned from studying historical analogues may be narrowing our perspective, and missing the productive interconnections that exist in the present historical period among different forms of ‘actually existing’ degrowth (in grassroots initiatives, as a scientific paradigm, and a social movement). For example, the recent move towards knowledge co-production between practitioners and scientists, across much of the social sciences, as well as in research on degrowth, can be seen as a novel form of interconnection between degrowth as a social movement and as a scientific paradigm, which can reinforce processes of change in ways that were not possible in the past due to different social scientific practices. Similarly, rapidly developing global forms of online communication, which facilitate both social movement organisation and the spread of ideas, hardly have any historical precedent that matches the geographical coverage, speed and penetration in everyday life, but represent an important tool for the interconnection of these different social movements that can be allies of degrowth.

How should we deal with historical analogues? First, we need to be aware that, as there are multiple possible degrowth futures and pathways, there are also multiple possible historical analogues to learn from. Second, we may want to refrain from attempting to derive deterministic ‘lessons’, as there are hardly any ‘natural laws’ of social change. At most, we can hope to be inspired by understanding how past social and socioecological transformations occurred, while acknowledging that the mechanisms that caused social change in the past may not be the ones that lead to social change in the future.

Third, the limitations posed by the use of historical analogues urge a reconsideration of the balance between past-oriented research and thinking, and exercises of ‘futuring’ for degrowth, including modelling. The degrowth community can place more effort in using insights on how societies changed, and visions of how we desire them to change in the future to ‘stress-test’ each other: historical analogues can provide grounding for developing visions of the future, while the visions of the future can expand the range of conceptualisations of transformation pathways beyond what we could otherwise conceive on the sole basis of past transformations. When insights from past, present and future become meaningful in relation to one another, historical analogues are a useful complement to our understanding of societal change.

This short piece draws from an earlier paper presented at the 13th International Conference of the European Society for Ecological Economics in Turku, June 2019.

Land grabbing in peri-urban spaces in Colombia

This blog post was originally published in Spanish on the web platform LA. Network

A study reveals the subtle and ‘ordinary’ mechanisms of urban land grabbing in peri-urban spaces of small Colombian cities, and argues that policy incoherence and governance problematics drive land grabbing in peri-urban spaces.

We are not used to thinking of Colombian and Latin American cities as sites of land grabbing. We commonly associate the term land grabbing to the dispossession of locally owned or locally controlled land in rural spaces, at the advantage of large actors such as multinational companies and governments, which might appropriate land through the use of violence. Moreover, when we think about land grabbing in Colombia and Latin America, we usually associate it to large infrastructures, the extraction of natural resources, cash crop plantations, environmental conservation, and armed conflict. Land grabbing has generated environmental injustices, exacerbated social vulnerability and conflict, and generally disrupted the social fabric of local communities in Colombia and regionally.

Yet, land grabbing also occurs in urban areas, and especially at the urban border (peri-urban space), where urban expansion, agriculture and other land uses often clash in the name of diverging visions of development. Land grabbing in urban contexts is often more hidden, subtle and difficult to detect. Land grabbing in the city usually involved the appropriation of smaller areas of land at any one time, does not involve large, visible actors such as multinational companies, or national governments, nor does it necessarily occur under the use of armed force. For this reasons urban land grabbing has largely remained overlooked in Latin American cities.

A recent study conducted in the Colombian city of Sogamoso has brought some of those subtle and so far mostly hidden processes to light. In this city, urban expansionism, agriculture, mining and ecosystem conservation compete for the same, relatively small peri-urban space. Many peri-urban farmers have seen their land become unsuitable for farming as a result of mining practices that have damaged soil and water resources. Others face environmental conservation laws that essentially forbid most farming practices in ecologically valuable high-mountain páramo ecosystems that surround the city. Similarly, peri-urban farmers and residents have seen their land and property become too expensive or unsuitable for farming as a result of urban speculation and changing land use designation. In these cases farmers and residents have ended up unwillingly selling their land, which in many cases had depreciated, and/or have lost their livelihood. While land appropriation in peri-urban spaces is often of small scale, it is very impactful on the livelihoods of the citizens involved, who tend to be the already less powerful and politically unrepresented.

The study shows that the combination of incoherent policies and governance problematics is at the root of land use conflicts and land grabbing in the city’s peri-urban space. In Sogamoso, for instance, national mining and conservation legislation clashes with local planning (land classification). Local policies within or across sectors (for example: housing, agriculture, tourism) also often pursue incompatible goals (e.g. climate change mitigation and support for the extractive industries), or employ contradictory instruments (for example, regulations and incentives). This policy incoherence creates uncertainty about which piece of legislation, institutional actor, or interest group, will prevail and, consequently, it reinforces a generalized sense of injustice and distrust of the authorities. This situation generates social tensions which individuals and groups tend to resolve in ways that lie outside the democratic, transparent, deliberative governance system. The situation is compounded by the existence of various governance problematics: lack of reliable and up-to-date information (e.g. databases) on the state of the city, lack of technical capacity in the local governments, political short-termism, clientelism, and a poor civic participatory culture. This often results in more powerful, better organized or informed individuals and interest groups to acquire advantages, also in the form of land appropriation.

The case of Sogamoso may be unusual for the simultaneous convergence not only of urban expansion and agriculture, but of four distinct and to an extent incompatible land uses: urban expansionism, agriculture, ecosystem conservation and mining. But this case is not at all exceptional for what concerns the ‘ordinary’, subtle character of land appropriation, and the role of policy incoherence and governance problematics as factors of urban land grabbing in the region. In fact, it is rather illustrative of the pitfalls of territorial governance and policy incoherence which have been observed (albeit with some notable exceptions) in much of Colombia and Latin America.
Therefore, urban land grabbing should be on the agenda of policy-makers and civil society organizations alike as a serious issue to be tackled to support urban agriculture, and to reduce social conflict, injustice and vulnerability in the city.

The study cited in this article is a collaboration between the Department of Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Reading (United Kingdom), the Copernicus institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University (the Netherlands), and the Fundación Jischana Huitaca (Colombia). The study was funded by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) through the Environment and Sustainability Research Grant 2017/1. The study (in English) can requested via email at: or downloaded here.   

Researching the Geography of Transition

(October 2017)

Originally posted on the Transition Research Network’s website at


I have been interested in grassroots sustainability movements for a long time, and have studied the voluntary simplicity movement and solidarity purchasing groups in Italy, and the Transition Towns Network internationally. In the past few years I have been especially curious about the geography of the Transition Network. These were some of the questions that guided my research: why do grassroots-led transitions to sustainability occur in one place and not in another? How do place, space and scale influence these processes of transition? How do such grassroots sustainability movements re-make places and spaces both symbolically and materially? Can we learn anything useful for grassroots sustainability movements by uncovering their spatial patterns of diffusion?

I believe one of the most interesting findings of my research to date is that the Transition Network does not diffuse everywhere. We know that the Transition Network has spread in just a few years from Britain to many countries worldwide. This rapid spread of Transition in many different contexts has been talked about by some observers in terms of a ‘viral’ diffusion. This narrative tends to imply, explicitly or more subtly, that Transition could happen—in fact, that it is already happening—everywhere! This is a positive and powerful narrative that can motivate others to embrace Transition. However my research has shown that the Transition Network is characterized by clear spatial patterns: geographical location matters with regard to both where transition initiatives take root and the extent of their success. First the Transition Network has not spread equally everywhere and I have identified ‘hotspots’ of Transition (places where Transition Initiatives have emerged more densely). Second place-specific factors contribute to determining the likelihood of a transition initiative existing in the long term and bringing about desired change locally. Transition Initiatives remain largely determined by place-specific processes despite their interdependence with a trans-local network like Transition Network.


What does this mean for Transition? Does it mean that Transition is necessarily bound to fail in certain places? Not really. Far from implying a resizing of the potential of Transition, these findings suggest that Transitioners should be perhaps more aware of the preconditions that may favour grassroots movements in particular places, and of the possible barriers that local initiatives may encounter in other places. By being more aware of these place-specific conditions and barriers, both international and national hubs and local initiatives can be more prepared while also attempting to influence those contextual conditions (for example: local coalitions). In sum the Transition Network is not an unstoppable ‘viral’ wave that is sweeping any place, but to realize this can be good: by understanding where Transition does well and where it does not, we can help it adapt to different contexts, that is to be prepared to seize place-specific opportunities and avoid equally place-specific challenges. This research has had resonance in some Transition discussion groups online and has been used by transition training programmes.

Another interesting aspect of this research is that I have used methods that are uncommon in Transition research. Most studies of Transition have employed qualitative methods (e.g. participant observation, in-depth interviews) in one or a very limited number of case studies. This type of research in helpful in gaining insight into specific cases, but is not appropriate to know whether those insights apply to other cases as well, that is whether the lessons learned from one or a few cases can be generalized to other cases. Moreover, when focussing on only one case study, we cannot appreciate differences between contexts, and therefore it is more difficult to appreciate the importance of place, space and scale in the emergence and development of Transition Initiatives. The methods that I have used, instead, were a quantitative survey and spatial statistics. Through these methods I have been able to identify general patterns of spatial diffusion and of success and failure. This knowledge complements qualitative in-depth studies of individual transition initiatives.

Various people have accompanied me in this research. Beside the many Transitioners who have kindly participated in my survey, Richard Nunes (University of Reading) has been invaluable and inspiring collaborator. Various students, particularly Anisa Butt and Mina R. Him, have also been important in conducting this work. I am currently co-supervising a doctoral student (Emily Nicolosi, University of Utah) who is further developing some of these ideas in her study of grassroots innovations for sustainability in the United States of America.

Most of the findings of my research on the geography of Transition to date are published in four articles that can be freely downloaded or requested at the following links:

  • Feola, G., Nunes, J.R. 2014. Success and failure of Grassroots Innovations for addressing climate change: the case of the Transition Movement. Global Environmental Change, 24:232-250. [Open access here] 
  • Feola, G., Him, M.R. 2016. The diffusion of the Transition Network in four European countries. Environment and Planning A, 48(11):2112-2115. [Open access here]
  • Nicolosi, E., Feola, G. 2016. Transition in Place: Dynamics, Possibilities, and Constraints. Geoforum, 76:153-163. [Open access here]
  • Feola, G., Butt, A. 2017. The diffusion of grassroots innovations for sustainability in Italy and Great Britain: an exploratory spatial data analysis. Geographical Journal, 183(1): 16-33. [Open access here]

Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Innovation Systems and climate change adaptation in Kazakhstan

(February 2017)

Re-blogged from the Participation Lab, University of Reading.

How can participatory methods be adapted to different socio-cultural contexts? A critical evaluation of Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Innovation Systems, and its application to agricultural adaptation to climate change in Kazakhstan.

Rapid participatory appraisal techniques have a long history. Many interdisciplinary and participatory approaches have been proposed to examine and address complex problems in agricultural systems, such as vulnerability to environmental change, innovation, or sustainability.

This paper critically discusses the modification and application of one particular participatory approach to agricultural systems analysis (Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Innovation Systems [RAAIS]) to agricultural adaptation to climate change in Southeast Kazakhstan.

We employed RAAIS in the project Climate Change, Water Resources and Food Security in Kazakhstan to investigate the main challenges and ways forward in water use in agriculture. The project aimed to examine and predict impacts of climate change on water resources and crop production in Kazakhstan. Focusing on the two villages of Karaoi and Koram in the south-eastern Almaty region, RAAIS was employed to: (i) characterise the water systems in their multiple dimensions (i.e. technical, economic, social, cultural, political); (ii) identify the challenges faced by a range of actors directly or indirectly involved and affected by water use in agriculture (small- and large-holding farmers, local authorities, environmental organizations); (iii) identify current water use and water management practices employed to deal with water stress and variability; (iv) identify entry points for adaptation of water use in agriculture.

We conducted one-day multi-stakeholder workshops in each of the two villages. The workshops brought together approximately 30 people per workshop in separate stakeholder groups of small farmers, medium and large-scale farmers, non-governmental organisations, scientists, agribusinesses, and representatives of state structures (e.g. local and regional authorities, water users associations) to discuss the theme: Water-use in agriculture: main challenges and ways forward. The workshops consisted of seven exercises conducted in small groups and plenary discussions.

This was the first application of RAAIS in Kazakhstan or Central Asia. It was also the first application of RAAIS in a country undergoing a post-Soviet transformation. Based on our experience and two preparatory field visits, we hypothesised that our application of RAAIS may be influenced by a range of local socio-cultural and political conditions that made our context different from the ones in which the approach had previously been applied (Africa, Central America, and China). We were specifically concerned with two potential issues. Firstly, we expected that strong social hierarchies, notions of authority, and a culture of top-down decision-making would work against the open, frank and equal participation of different actors. Secondly, we hypothesised that contextual differences may challenge some of the implicit assumptions of RAAIS. These included, for example the assumption that the civil society and scientists would be present and play an influential role in any given farming system. Similarly RAAIS implicitly assumed general (non-locally specific) definitions of fundamental terms such as ‘large- or smallholding’, or of ‘farming’ as a socially recognised activity, and overlooked the fact that these definitions may be contested locally.

Overall, we found the RAAIS approach to be an effective diagnostic tool for complex problem analysis in farming systems research. Notwithstanding, the adaptation of RAAIS to different socio-cultural and political contexts may require more consideration than is apparent in the original design of this method. While the tool is flexible, researchers need to be aware that RAAIS cannot be applied ‘as is’ to any setting or problem. Adaptation to context and flexibility may be needed for two purposes. First, in practical terms, one may need to change the workshop length (and thus select particular exercises) or adapt it for different languages. Second, and conceptually more important, one may need to adapt workshop design to different types of actors (for instance, there may be no civil society in the Euroamerican sense implicit in the methodology) and gender or age groups, as well as be aware that seemingly basic concepts like ‘farmer’, or ‘large land-holding’ may mean different things in different contexts.

Furthermore in this respect, we found that the training of facilitators, note-takers, and other organisers is much more important than acknowledged in the original design of this method. In many contexts, therefore, it may be essential to brief facilitators on the epistemological approach that informs the research, even before providing training in RAAIS. Second, training can prepare the facilitators to overcome existing social relationships, hierarchies, and local power relations, which can significantly affect the outcome of the participatory process, so that they might be provisionally suspended during the workshop.

Our experience in Southeast Kazakhstan suggests that these considerations can improve the likelihood of RAAIS, and similar participatory research methods, being successfully adapted to different research topics and contexts more broadly.

The paper “The application of Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Innovation Systems (RAAIS) to agricultural adaptation to climate change in Kazakhstan: A critical evaluation”, by BarrettFeola, Krylova, and Khusnitdinova, is available here on request:

The paper was produced as part of the project Climate Change, Water Resources and Food Security in Kazakhstan (CCKAZ), which was funded by the United Kingdom’s Newton Fund Institutional Links Programme (Grant No. 172722855).

Special Issue on Resilience in the rural Andes 

(December 2016)

The Andes present an ideal learning space to draw lessons on existing and emerging resilience challenges and opportunities. Andean people and societies have co-evolved with the unique high-mountain contexts in which they live, sometimes in altitudes of more than 3800 m. Although historical achievements including irrigation systems, domestication of cameloids (llama and alpaca) and crop preservation techniques facilitated the development of ancient civilisations in the Andes, modern Andean people face serious challenges in achieving food security and wellbeing.

A new Special Issue that I co-edited with Diana Sietz (Wageningen University) aims to improve our understanding of the key dynamics of socio-ecological systems that constrain or foster resilience in the rural Andes. The Special Issue, published in the journal Regional Environmental Change, comprises six papers that investigate three core features of resilience in a variety of socio-ecological systems: diversity, connectivity and development models. The novel insights into resilience dynamics include specific features related to the high-mountain contexts and socio-political tensions in the Andes. Future research can build on this knowledge to further not only resilience theory but also methodological approaches which reflect both case-specific and generic complexity.

Papers included in this Special Issue:

Sietz, D. and Feola, G. (2016) Resilience in the rural Andes: Critical dynamics, constraints and emerging opportunities.

Vallejo-Rojas, V., Ravera, F. and Rivera-Ferre, MG. (2016) Developing an integrated framework to assess agri-food systems and its application in the Ecuadorian Andes.

Doughty, CA. (2016) Building climate change resilience through local cooperation: a Peruvian Andes case study.

Zimmerer, K. and Rojas Vaca, H. (2016) Fine-grain spatial patterning and dynamics of land use and agrobiodiversity amid global changes in the Bolivian Andes.

Montaña, E., Diaz, H. and Hurlbert, M. (2016) Development, local livelihoods, and vulnerabilities to global environmental change in the South American Dry Andes.

Chelleri, L., Minucci, G. and Skrimizea, E. (2016) Does community resilience decrease social-ecological vulnerability? Adaptation pathways trade-off in the Bolivian Altiplano.

Easdale, MH., Aguiar, MR. and Paz, R. (2016) A social–ecological network analysis of Argentinean Andes transhumant pastoralism.

Why do farmers behave the way they do and make the decisions they make?

(September 2016)

Climate change, volatile prices, changing consumption patterns, and increasing competition for agricultural land makes the hard business of farming even more challenging. How do we make our farming systems sustainable and resilient? In search for the answer to this question, we tend to focus on inputs and outputs, forgetting about the people who are at the center of the issue. However, perhaps it is the understanding of farmer behavior that can fill in the gaps in our search for sustainable farming solutions that will work on the ground. Continue reading...

“Si, ingeniero”: Advice for engaging research participants on equal footing.

(May 2015)

Reblogged from the SAGE(S) Advice: Fieldwork, Gender & Careers

I have done research on peasant agriculture in Colombia for over 8 years now. In one project, I studied farmer decision-making to explain why peasants were adopting pesticide use patterns that were uneconomical and dangerous for their own health and for the environment. In a second project, I studied traditional informal institutions that were seemingly hindering, rather than supporting, adaptation to external disturbances such as climate and market fluctuations. These studies have led me to carry out fieldwork in two peasant communities in the Department of Boyacá, in the Eastern Andean Cordillera. Over 8 years I conducted a total of 5 fieldwork campaigns, each campaign requiring a stay of 4 to 10 weeks.To conduct fieldwork in this region has been challenging in many ways, but the biggest challenge has been to engage with local peasants on equal footing.

When visiting households for face-to-face interviews, or in focus groups, I was initially surprised to hear myself called ingeniero (engineer) by the local peasants. People participating in my research would also respond to most of my questions with default affirmative answers such as “Si, ingeniero”, or “Si señor” (Yes, engineer; Yes sir). I soon learned that this is a quite common manner of interaction adopted by local peasants when interacting with supposed ‘experts’ (for example government officials and extension agents) coming from outside the local community. So, by calling me ingeniero the people participating in my research were manifesting their deference and respect for the scientific knowledge that I held and which, they thought, I must have considered superior to their experiential knowledge. But there is something subtler to it; this deferential and slightly submissive attitude is not quite what it seems. In fact, peasants most often believe they know farming better than ‘experts’, but tend to rehearse such deference to avoid gainsaying the experts, and to show instead –at least officially- that they comply with and accept the expert’s opinions or recommendations. To the British reader, this may bring back memories of the “Yes minister” TV series. Similarly to the sly bureaucrat in the TV series, in practice, peasants’ reverence hides practices of everyday resistance that include telling lies, incompliance with laws, and refusal to participate in communal schemes and projects. This attitude has been explained by various scholars (for example Orlando Fals-Borda) as being the legacy of centuries of colonial and post-colonial exploitation of peasants. In effect, it can be interpreted as a protective strategy adopted by marginal groups against the oppression and exploitation of more powerful actors (see for example the great “Weapons of the weak” by James Scott).

This was clearly a problem for my research. I wanted participants to engage in truthful conversations with me. It was not my aim to influence farming practices, and even less so to make recommendations to peasants, on the basis of what they thought I would consider my ‘expert’ knowledge, regarding their crops. For instance, regarding pesticide use or measures to adapt to increase climatic variability. In fact, these were exactly the things I wanted to understand from them, to make sense of the decision-making resulting in dangerous pesticide use patterns, and informal institutions seemingly hindering adaptation to external disturbances such as climate and market fluctuations.

Therefore, if I were to make sense of the social reality of those peasant communities, I needed to break open the protective layer that peasants were interposing between us. After more than 8 years of experience in the field, I can say that I have made significant progress in engaging Colombian peasants on more equal footing. This has not been easy, and if I’ve seen some success, it is only thanks to a long and continuing negotiation of my identity as a researcher in the field. In short, that is what I have learned:

– Written consent raises suspicions. Unsurprisingly, research participants often do not to understand the mechanisms researchers need to follow to fulfil ethical guidelines and best practices. Peasants tended to be very suspicious of anyone asking for a signature on any sheet of paper (i.e., their consent to participate in the research), as in their experience, there is only one category of people who does this, and by definition they are to be avoided: tax officers! Moreover, many peasants in the communities that I studied can barely read and write, and therefore dealing with written consent forms may cause some discomfort. Thus, I had to find other ways to record the consent to participate in my research (e.g., via a voice recorder).

– Technology is a barrier. It can be tempting to aid the data collection with various devices (hand held data capture devices, GPS, tablets, and so on). Technology can indeed be very helpful and increase the efficiency of data collection and processing. However, such devices reinforce the divide between the ‘expert’ and the laymen and women who are hardly familiar with such devices and may potentially be seeing them for the first time. Thus, whenever possible I used the simplest technology possible: pen and paper (and voice recorder). This resulted in more demanding data processing for me and my research assistants, but the trade off was higher data quality and enhanced personal connection with the participants.

– Looking and behaving like an ingeniero is counterproductive. The ‘experts’ who visit the community usually move around by car, dress smart casual (even in the field!), talk jargon and are sometimes very dismissive of peasants. I avoided doing these things and travelled by public (and often erratic!) transport and by foot rather than by private car (which also helps in getting to know people and getting a better feel of the place); dressed in more causal outfit (which is also more practical if you have to trek to get to the sparse households in these communities); avoided using difficult or technical terms (well, that was easy for me given my less than perfect Spanish); and, very importantly, did not fall into the trap of telling peasants what they should do, even–and especially–if they asked me.

– Time is crucial. First, the ingenieros normally do not take the time to understand the context, and do not spend much time with the local people, but rather work through short one-off visits. Peasants in one of the two communities where I conducted research were very surprised when they saw me come back the year after my first fieldwork. Second, it simply takes time to build trust and relationships. Peasants were sharing a wealth of experiences and information with me, but they were also curious about my trip, my origin and, of course, about agriculture in Europe.

– (Following from the above) Build relationships. As much as I could, the people I met and who participated in my research were not simply research ‘participants’. I had food at their place, sent them cards from Europe, helped them clean the local primary school, exchanged stories and experiences. Far from being a distraction from data collection, these things made fieldwork much more enjoyable and helped me understand them on a personal level rather than as simply ‘data’ for my research.

Finally, and giving meaning to all the above, what helped me to reach more equal engagement with Colombian peasants was an honest, sincere, open, sensitive and empathic approach to fieldwork. Without this, any of the above pieces of advice would be purely instrumental. Peasants, like anybody participating in research, feel the researcher’s honesty, sincerity, respect and enjoyment (or lack thereof) and in my experience, this has been the single most important ingredient for fruitfully engaging with Colombian peasants on more equal footing. Fieldwork is what makes research alive. It can change the researcher’s, as well as the participants’ life for the better beyond the impact that the research may, or may not, have. This change happens because fieldwork is more than mechanical data collection. For a researcher, fieldwork is about becoming part of other places and people’s life, and letting them become part of one’s own.

Societal transformation in response to global environmental change. Open questions and challenges ahead

(February 2015)

Given the mounting evidence that human activities drive global environmental change there should be no need any more to prove the need for a rapid and deep change in the way human societies interact with the biophysical environment. It is therefore no surprise to observe the increasing call for ‘transformation’ –in various forms- in policy, advocacy and academia, and the birth of global collaborative research efforts such as Future Earth and others.

I would argue that ‘transformation’ has somehow replaced, or is on its way to replace ‘sustainable development’ as the main discourse of those pursuing social and economic models that can insure a sustainable interaction of human activities with the environment.

In a sense, this change can be welcomed as sustainable development is a term that has been mis-used for almost thirty years to the extent it has become to be largely void of meaning. Such a long time of distortions, re-interpretations and applications to strongly contrasting policy and scientific research endeavours have made of this seeming oxymoron a less powerful and inspiring label under which to gather to pursue any form of strong sustainability. T is true, of course, that sustainable development has informed many exemplary cases of development and reduced environmental impact in particular places. It has also contributed to reflecting upon current models of development, but it is impossible not to observe that this has not resulted in the deep change, the redirection that is considered necessary by many to respond to environmental change. The data on global environmental change, not to mention those on inequality and other socio-economic trends, are there as a warning.

Yet, is transformation any better than sustainable development? Has it got more potential to inform, stimulate, understand deep social change in response to environmental change? I would also argue that transformation is highly exposed to the same drawbacks that have weakened the idea of sustainable development. For example, both ideas:

  • are loose concepts, with unclear boundaries (largely due to the very complex and contested nature of sustainability), open to many definitions;
  • lend themselves to be used merely as metaphors and slogans, rather than substantive concepts;
  • are often inflected or used in combination with other terms that aim to specify, but often alter or obfuscate the fundamental idea (e.g. transformative adaptation, sustainable social development);
  • call for research interdisciplinarity and forms of action research, that is, of direct intervention of researchers to contribute solutions to ‘real life’ problems.

I would suggest that these (and possibly other) similarities expose transformation to a similar fate to that of sustainable development.

To be sure, there are also some differences between transformation and sustainable development, and these may prove to be quite important in determining the potential of the idea of transformation to inform rapid and deep social change in response to environmental change. For example:

  • the call for transformation is being largely led by the social, rather than the physical sciences;
  • transformation, like sustainable development, entails interdisciplinarity, but research on transformation in response to environmental change has often extended the realm of integration to the psychological and emotional dimension, which are important influences of human behaviour;
  • transformation tend to focus our attention to the global North, rather than the South, that is, to the areas of the world where some of the drivers of environmental change historically originate, and where in many cases ultimate drivers are still to be found (e.g. consumption).

And, of course, we may want to hope perhaps we all, policy makers, activists and researchers have learnt something from the history of the sustainable development idea and may reflexively respond to the failure of previous attempts to avoid the same pitfalls and mistakes.

This leaves us, I think, with many open questions and with a need for serous conversations across the social sciences about social and environmental change. Can that of transformation be an idea that truly informs and perhaps stimulates radical, deep social change towards sustainability? If yes, under what conditions? And what is transformation in the first place? Does transformation need to be defined more precisely, perhaps even univocally, and is this possible at all given the complex nature of the challenges we are facing? How can -or should- transformation be researched?

More on this topic here: Feola, G. 2014. Societal transformation in response to global environmental change: a review of emerging concepts. AMBIO, 44(5): 376-390. [Open access here]

Impactos económicos del cambio climático en la agricultura colombiana 

(Octubre 2014)

El Departamento Nacional de Planeación (DNP) de Colombia ha publicado recientemente los resultados de un estudio sobre los impactos económicos del cambio climático en Colombia (disponible aquí en español). 

El estudio se llevó a cabo en colaboración y con el apoyo de varias organizaciones, entre ellas el Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo, el Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical, y la Universidad Nacional. 

El estudio estima el impacto económico del cambio climático en cinco sectores clave de la economía nacional (silvicultura, agricultura, transporte, pesca y ganadería), y en unos departamentos muestreados. Como es habitual en este tipo de estudios, las interpretaciones de los hallazgos deben tener en cuenta muchas suposiciones. Por ejemplo, en este estudio, los investigadores han examinado los efectos de los cambios en la temperatura y la disponibilidad de agua, pero no han evaluado cambios en los patrones de infestación de plagas o la radiación solar. Los investigadores estimaron los impactos económicos del cambio climático en contra de la línea de base del año 2010, y supusieron que ninguna adaptación se llevaría a cabo (por ejemplo, cambios en las fechas de siembra, semillas, o en la tecnología empleada) para los plazos 2010-2040, 2040-2070 y 2070- 2010. Se consideraron tres escenarios de cambio climático diferentes, A1B, A2 y B2 entre los identificados por el Panel Intergubernamental sobre el Cambio Climático. 

Con esto en mente, es interesante comparar los resultados de este estudio y los resultados de una reciente revisión de la literatura existente sobre los efectos del cambio climático en la agricultura colombiana, que he escrito con Luis Alfonso Agudelo y Bernardita Contesse Bamón (Feola et al 2014 - acceso disponible aquí y bajo petición aquí). 

La comparación sólo puede ser limitada en su alcance, entre otras razones debido a las incertidumbres que rodean a cada estudio individual, la diversidad de suposiciones (por ejemplo, adaptación o ninguna adaptación), los indicadores utilizados para medir el impacto (por ejemplo, adaptabilidad climática, la productividad, o ingreso del hogar agrícola), y los diferentes horizontes temporales considerados. Sin embargo, algunos puntos importantes se pueden hacer con respecto a los resultados y las recomendaciones de las medidas de adaptación formuladas en estas dos publicaciones. 


Tanto el estudio del DNP y la revisión de Feola et al. encontraron que hay pruebas inequívocas de que del cambio climático se está produciendo en Colombia, y que el clima seguirá cambiando en los próximos decenios. Se espera que dicho cambio tenga efectos negativos en la agricultura, y en particular en los hogares agrícolas más pobres. Sin embargo, dada la diversidad social, productiva y ecológica extrema de este país, los impactos previstos del cambio climático en la agricultura son altamente heterogéneos y su distribución es desigual a nivel nacional. 

Las estimaciones del cambio promedio de productividad hechas por cultivos específicos que se presentan en el estudio del DNP tienden a coincidir con las de los estudios revisados ​​por Feola et al. (2014). Si bien no es posible comparar plenamente la magnitud de los cambios, el estudio de la DNP confirma que, en ausencia de medidas de adaptación, los impactos negativos agregados del cambio climático en la agricultura serán sustanciales, con una disminución en la productividad hasta un cuarto de los niveles actuales para algunos cultivos y regiones. Es urgente que las medidas de adaptación se pongan en práctica para evitar esos impactos negativos. Pero, ¿qué se debe hacer? 


El estudio de la DPN y Feola et al. difieren con respecto a las recomendaciones para la adaptación. El estudio de la DPN tiende a enfatizar medidas tales como la generación y difusión de más información sobre el cambio climático y sus impactos, el desarrollo y la adopción de técnicas mejoradas de producción, la planificación territorial y las medidas económicas (como los seguros contra eventos climáticos extremos). 

Feola et al., sin dejar de reconocer la importancia general de medidas como las que se proponen en el estudio del DNP, en cambio proponen una agenda de investigación que se centra en torno a tres ejes, es decir, (i) los “trade-offs” entre las medidas de adaptación (por ejemplo, las adoptadas para responder a los cambios climáticos o económicos); (ii) los mecanismos sociales, es decir, la comprensión de las decisiones de los agricultores, y la activación de un proceso de aprendizaje mutuo entre los científicos y los agricultores; (iii) la gobernanza, en particular el reto de abordar la integración frente a la diversidad de Colombia. 

Como sostuve en otro artículo (Feola 2013 - disponible con acceso abierto aquí), esta divergencia en las recomendaciones de política refleja una diferencia profunda en las concepciones de la adaptación (y vulnerabilidad) que informan a los dos estudios. Por un lado hay un planteamiento a la adaptación como de arriba hacia abajo (es decir, de las organizaciones de agricultores), técnica (es decir, basado en las nuevas tecnologías e incentivos económicos), sectorial (es decir, limitada al sector agrícola y enlaces en gran medida de desatención con otros) y productivista (destinado a mantener y posiblemente incrementar los indicadores de rendimiento, tales como la productividad y los ingresos). Por otro lado hay un planteamiento de la vulnerabilidad intrínseca y la adaptación transformativa, es decir, la adaptación que aborde las causas profundas de la vulnerabilidad (que a menudo se encuentran en la historia política y social de los diferentes grupos sociales y lugares, y no en la falta de información, tecnología agrícola o capital financiero), y que reconoce la coexistencia de presiones múltiples (por ejemplo, los conflictos violentos, la liberalización económica), y el valor de la agricultura más allá de la mera producción de alimentos (por ejemplo, su valor cultural). 

La distinción entre las concepciones de la adaptación es crecientemente reconocida en la literatura académica (véase, por ejemplo Ribot 2011, Pelling 2010; y con referencia a Colombia, Lampis 2013). Sin embargo, parece que las recomendaciones para la adaptación en Colombia todavía están dominadas por la parte superior hacia abajo, técnica, sectorial y perspectivas productivistas. 

La adaptación agrícola al cambio climático en Colombia: vuelta a la realidad

Esta es decepcionante, aunque quizás no es sorprendente, ya que esta perspectiva sobre la adaptación es más compatible con los modelos actuales de desarrollo agrícola y la formulación de políticas de arriba hacia abajo. 

Este es un momento en el que Colombia es sacudida por movilizaciones campesinas. Un tiempo en el que el gobierno y los grupos rebeldes están negociando un acuerdo de paz que se apoya en cinco pilares, en donde el primero de los cuales en ser abordado fue la reforma rural. Un momento de rondas de tratados de libre comercio, que se reconoce van a impactar directa e indirectamente el sector agrícola. Y un tiempo en que un conflicto violento está disminuyendo lentamente, pero aún así su legado está afectando a grandes zonas del país y de la población. Un tiempo, en otras palabras, en el que los patrones fundamentales de la vulnerabilidad y capacidad de adaptación como han sido conocidos están cambiando radicalmente, para peor o mejor. 

¿Puede una discusión sensata de la adaptación agrícola al cambio climático en Colombia suponer que la agricultura se coloca en un hipotético y poco realista "vacío" económico, político, social y cultural? Mi humilde opinión es que no puede. 

Para ser verdad, simplificaciones controladas son necesarias para poder desarrollar modelos y hacer posible su interpretación. Las dinámicas económicas, políticas, sociales y culturales, la mayoría de las cuales acaban de surgir o se encuentran en pleno desarrollo, son extremamente difíciles de capturar en un modelo matemático. Sin embargo, para los interesados ​​en la adaptación a los problemas del cambio climático, la complejidad técnica no puede ser una excusa por no abordar algunas de las causas más fundamentales de la vulnerabilidad en la Colombia rural. No reconocer -voluntariamente o involuntariamente- las tensiones entre la adaptación agrícola al cambio climático y el contexto económico, político, social y cultural, hace que un estudio de impacto del cambio climático tenga más probabilidades de ser bien recibido entre los que apoyan la adaptación gradual y el mantenimiento del statu quo, pero dificulta el análisis de las causas profundas de la vulnerabilidad de los hogares rurales y de las regiones, y por lo tanto la capacidad para hacer frente al cambio climático de manera efectiva. 

¿Cuál será el momento propicio para un cambio de paso en la investigación y la política en materia de adaptación al cambio climático -y, de hecho, al desarrollo sostenible- en Colombia? Hablar sobre el cambio climático, pasando por alto los acontecimientos en los mercados agrícolas provocados por los acuerdos de libre comercio, o los cambios potencialmente transcendentes -y grandes desafíos- del post-conflicto puede ser de poca utilidad. Como puede ser, por el contrario, de poca utilidad estimar el impacto de los acuerdos de libre comercio, pasando por alto los posibles cambios en la idoneidad climática de diferentes cultivos y regiones. Dada la complejidad de estos desafíos y oportunidades interconectadas, es necesario tener en cuenta el futuro de la agricultura colombiana de una manera más holística. Hay que ser atrevidos en el análisis, la búsqueda, y aceptación del cambio que vaya a la raíz de los problemas de larga data del país. Ello necesitará un esfuerzo prolongado y colectivo, y en muchos sectores no será bien recibido, pero podría dar lugar a un cambio transformador que -de paso- allanaría el camino hacia la adaptación al cambio climático.


Departamento Nacional de Planeación (DNP), 2014. Impactos economicos del cambio climatico en ColombiaDepartamento Nacional de Planeación .

Feola, G., 2013. What (science for) adaptation to climate change in Colombian agriculture? A commentary on "A way forward on adaptation to climate change in Colombian agriculture: perspectives towards 2050" by J. Ramirez-Villegas, M. Salazar, A. Jarvis, C. E. Navarro-Valcines. Climatic Change, 119 (3-4):565-574. [Open access here]

Feola, G., Agudelo, L.A., Bamón, B.C., 2014. Colombian agriculture under multiple exposures: a review and research agendaClimate and Development, 7(3):278-292. [Open access here | Resumen en Castillano aquí]

Lampis, A., 2013, Vulnerabilidad y adaptación al cambio climático: Debatesacerca del concepto de vulnerabilidad y su medición. Revista Colombiana de Geografía 22(2), 17-33.

Pelling, M., 2010. Adaptation to climate change: from resilience to transformation. Routledge.

Ribot, J., 2011. Vulnerability before adaptation: Toward transformative climate action. Global Environmental Change 21, 1160–1162.

Economic impact of climate change on agriculture in Colombia

(October 2014)

The Department of National Planning (Departamento Nacional de Planeación - DNP) of Colombia has recently published the results of a study on the economic impacts of climate change in Colombia (PDF available here in Spanish).

The study was carried out in collaboration with, and with the support of several organizations including the Interamerican Development Bank, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, and the National University.

The study estimates the economic impact of climate change in five key sectors of the national economy (i.e. forestry, agriculture, transport, fishery, livestock), and selected departments. As usual for such studies, the interpretations of the findings must take into consideration the many assumptions made. For example in this study, the researchers have considered the impacts of expected changes in temperature and water availability, but not changes in pest infestation patterns, or solar radiation. The researchers estimated the economic impacts of climate change against the baseline of the year 2010, and assumed no adaptation will take place (e.g. no change in sowing dates, seeds, or technology) for the time frames 2010-2040, 2040-2070 and 2070-2010. Three different climate change scenarios were considered, A1B, A2 and B2 among those identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

With this in mind, it is interesting to compare this study's results and the results of a recent review of the existing literature on the effects of climate change on Colombian agriculture, which I have co-authored with Luis Alfonso Agudelo and Bernardita Contesse Bamón (Feola et al. 2014 - available here, and open access on request here)

The comparison can only be limited in scope, among other reasons because of the uncertainties that surround each single study, the assumptions (e.g. adaptation or no adaptation), the indicators used to measure impact (e.g. climate suitability, productivity, or farm household income), and the different time frames considered. Nevertheless, some important points can be made with respect to the results and the recommendations of adaptation measures formulated in these two publications.


Both the DNP's study and Feola et al.'s review found that there is unequivocal evidence that of climate change is occurring in Colombia, and that the climate will keep changing in the next decades. Such change is expected to have negative effects on agriculture, and particularly on the poorest farm households. However, given the extreme social, productive and ecological diversity of this country, the expected impacts of climate change on agriculture are highly heterogeneous and unevenly distributed nationally.

The crop-specific estimates of average productivity change presented in the DNP's study  tend to coincide in sign with previous studies reviewed by Feola et al. (2014). While it is not possible to fully compare the magnitude of the changes, the DNP's study confirms that in absence of adaptation measures the overall negative impacts of climate change on agriculture will be substantial, with decreases in productivity up to a quarter of current levels for some crops and regions. It is urgent that adaptation measures are put in place to avoid such negative impacts. But what should be done and how can research contribute to adaptation?


The DPN's study and Feola et al.'s review differ regarding the recommendations for adaptation. The DPN's study tends to stress measures such as the generation and diffusion of more information on climate change and its impacts, the development and adoption of enhanced production techniques, territorial planning, and economic measures (such as insurances against extreme climatic events).

Feola et al., while recognizing the general importance of measures like those proposed in the DNP's study, propose instead a research agenda that is centred around three axes, i.e. (i) trade-offs between adaptation measures (e.g. those taken to respond to climate or economic change); (ii) social mechanisms, i.e. the understanding of farmers decisions, and the activation of a process of mutual learning between scientists and farmers; (iii) governance, particularly the challenge of addressing integration in the face of Colombia's diversity.

As I discussed in another article (Feola 2013 - available open access here), this divergence in policy recommendations reflects a deep difference in the conceptions of adaptation (and vulnerability) that inform the two studies. On the one hand there is a view of adaptation as top-down (i.e. from organizations to farmers), technical (i.e. based on novel technologies and economic incentives), sectorial (i.e. bounded to the agricultural sector and largely overlooking links with other ones), and productivist (aimed at maintaining, and possibly increasing indicators of performance such as productivity and income). On the other hand there is a view of inherent vulnerability and transformative adaptation , i.e. adaptation that tackles the root causes of vulnerability (which are often to be found in political and social history of different social groups and places, rather than in the lack of information, farming technology or financial capital), and that recognizes the co-existence of multiple pressures (e.g. violent conflict, economic liberalization), and the value of agriculture beyond mere food production (e.g. cultural value).

Such distinction between conceptions of adaptation is growingly recognized in the academic literature (see for example Ribot 2011, Pelling 2010 and, with reference to Colombia, Lampis 2013). However, it appears that recommendations for adaptation in Colombia are still dominated by top down, technical, sectorial and productivist perspectives.

Agricultural adaptation to climate change in Colombia: back to reality.

This is disappointing, although perhaps not surprising, since this perspective on adaptation is more compatible with current productivist models of agricultural development and top-down policy making.

This is a time in which Colombia is shaken by peasant mobilizations. A time in which the government and rebel groups are negotiating a peace agreement that rests on five pillars, of which rural reform was the first to be addressed. A time of trade liberalization rounds, which is recognized to impact directly and indirectly the agricultural sector. And a time in which violent conflict is slowly declining, but still its legacy is affecting large areas of the country and the population. A time, in other words, in which the fundamental patterns of vulnerability and adaptive capacity as they have been known are changing radically, for the worse or the better.

Can a sensible discussion of agricultural adaptation to climate change in Colombia assume that agriculture is placed in a hypothetical and unrealistic economic, political, social and cultural 'vacuum'? My humble view is that it cannot.

To be true, controlled simplifications are necessary to allow model development and make interpretation possible. The economic, political, social and cultural dynamics, most of which are moreover just emerging or in development, are utmostly difficult to capture in a mathematical model. However, for those concerned with adaptation to climate change, issues of technical complexity cannot be an excuse failing to engage with some of the most fundamental causes of vulnerability in rural Colombia. Failing -voluntarily or involuntary- to even just acknowledge the tensions or synergies between agricultural adaptation to climate change and economic, political, social and cultural context, perhaps makes a climate change impact assessment more likely to be well received by those who support incremental adaptation and the maintenance of the status quo, but hinders the analysis of the root causes of vulnerability of rural household and regions, and hence the capacity to effectively tackle them.

May the time be ripe for a step change in research and policy on adaptation to climate change -and, in fact, sustainable development- in Colombia? To discuss climate change while overlooking the developments in agricultural markets triggered by free trade agreements, or the potentially dramatic changes -and great challenges- of the postconflict era may be of little use (as it may be, on the other hand, to estimate the impact of free trade agreements while overlooking the likely changes in climatic suitability of different crops and regions). Given the complexity of such interconnected challenges and opportunities, it is necessary to look at the future of Colombian agriculture in a more holistic fashion. It is necessary to be bold in analysing, pursuing, and embracing change that goes at the root of the long standing problems of the country. This will need a prolonged and collective effort, and a research approach that is more participatory and bottom-up than the one that appears to be currently dominating the landscape. This will not be well received in some sectors, but may result in transformative change which -incidentally- paves the way to adaptation to climate change.


Departamento Nacional de Planeación (DNP), 2014. Impactos economicos del cambio climatico en ColombiaDepartamento Nacional de Planeación .

Feola, G., 2013. What (science for) adaptation to climate change in Colombian agriculture? A commentary on "A way forward on adaptation to climate change in Colombian agriculture: perspectives towards 2050" by J. Ramirez-Villegas, M. Salazar, A. Jarvis, C. E. Navarro-Valcines. Climatic Change, 119 (3-4):565-574. [Open access here]

Feola, G., Agudelo, L.A., Bamón, B.C., 2014. Colombian agriculture under multiple exposures: a review and research agendaClimate and Development, 7(3):278-292. [Open access here | Resumen en Castillano aquí]

Lampis, A., 2013, Vulnerabilidad y adaptación al cambio climático: Debatesacerca del concepto de vulnerabilidad y su medición. Revista Colombiana de Geografía 22(2), 17-33.

Pelling, M., 2010. Adaptation to climate change: from resilience to transformation. Routledge.

Ribot, J., 2011. Vulnerability before adaptation: Toward transformative climate action. Global Environmental Change 21, 1160–1162.

Trade liberalization, rural development, and the future of Colombian peasantry

(post originally published in The Forum on November 12, 2013)

Out of the radar of most British and European mass media, Colombia was recently shaken by an historical social mobilization that raised important questions on the future of Colombian peasantry, and exposed the unsustainability of market-based rural development models in the country.

For 21 days thousands of farmers across the country went on strike and took to the highways including the vital Ruta Panamericana linking the north and the south. This was the extreme measure adopted by several organizations of smallholders to make their objections and petitions heard by the national Government. The farmers were concerned by the high production costs (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides, transport), and the free trade agreements with the United States of America (USA) and the European Union (EU), which came into force in 2012 and 2013 respectively. These treaties are considered to put smallholder Colombian farmers in open competition with stronger international competitors, for example by reducing or eliminating protectionist barriers, constraining the use of native seeds in favour of certified ones, and facilitating the import of produce at low prices.

The strike had significant effects on the food prices in most of Colombian cities, with produce seeing an increase of up to 150% in the markets of Bogotá, the capital district. The protests were faced with an inconsistent approach by the government. In a 2-week time span, they were first denied, then demeaned, then violently repressed, and, finally, acknowledged with the opening of negotiation talks between representatives of the national Government and of the farmers.

This social mobilization was historical for at least two reasons. Firstly, despite the food price increase, it was widely supported by the urban middle classes. This marked a symbolic convergence between urban and rural areas, which in the last decades have been divided by a growing gap, wealth spreading -albeit unevenly- in urban areas and poverty dominating in rural ones. Secondly, the social mobilization was initiated in regions such as the Andean Department of Boyacá, in which peasant have traditionally known to be characterized by an ethos of passivity, social reserve and scarce aspirations to improve. Moreover, this social mobilization came at a crucial point in the long and sad history of violent conflict in Colombia.

The government of president Santos and the biggest armed group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are negotiating a peace agreement of which rural development constitutes one of five main axes. If the recent entry into force of the above mentioned free trade agreements, and the current implementation of a governmental sustainable development plan under the slogan ‘Prosperidad para todos‘ (‘Prosperity for all‘), of which agriculture is one of five locomotoras‘ (‘locomotives’), are considered, it is apparent that the current time is a very significant window of opportunity for historic change for Colombian peasantry and Colombian agriculture more broadly.

In fact, the protest and the strike were largely the result of a decades-long crisis, address through  market-based policies that were pursued by several successive governments in substitution of a proper agrarian reform, and accompanied by the demeaning of the social, cultural and economic role that peasants play in the national economy and society. Colombia has one of the most unequal land distributions in the world, land property rights are often informal and uncertain, and 65% of agricultural workers live in poverty conditions.

The liberalization of Colombian agriculture has been promoted on the assumption that the exposure of local markets to competition from regional and global ones would attract foreign investment, promote innovation and efficiency, and thus favour both the productive sector and consumers. Similarly to what observed in other Latin American countries, liberalization policies have favoured the supply of cheap food to the growing urban middle classes, but have been largely based on abstract and oversimplified neoclassical economic models that do not account for the diversity and specificity of local agricultural systems, ignore the social and cultural value -as opposed to the purely economic one- of particular farming systems, and leave little space for practices that are to not compatible with profit maximization in a competitive market.

What was actually at stake, therefore, was much more than the price of agricultural inputs, or the right to use native seeds. The social mobilization put fundamentally into question the type of rural development that Colombia decided to follow: one in which peasants and smallholders are bound to become workforce in those industrialized agricultural firms that will stand international competition, or in urban industry and services, and in which agricultural land will possibly be used to fuel other ‘locomotives‘ such as mining. However, it is not yet clear how radically the negotiations will tackle these issues. While the Minister for Agriculture recently promised an agrarian reform, the fact that grassroots peasant organization decided not to take part in the talks because not satisfied by the agenda on the table, unlike the well organized representation of more industrialized agricultural sectors, is a sign of the limited scope of the reform to come.

Is there a future for Colombian peasantry? Is there a future for small scale food production which is culturally and socially rooted in a territory, in a growingly globalized and liberalized agri-food system? Will the urban middle class be willing to concretize the symbolic support for peasants, for example by paying an extra price for food produced locally and at small scale, but inevitably at higher cost? Will peasant and smallholders, on their hand, manage to develop practices that are socially and culturally meaningful, but more environmentally sustainable and economically efficient? Most importantly, how radically is the Colombian government ready, or able, to discuss current models of rural development? Will peasants and indigenous populations have a say in this process? Colombian agriculture faces transformative pressures, but it is in the hand of the Government and the interested parties to shape the breath, depth and direction of this transformation.