By Felix Donkor and Christopher Mabeza

Co-op farmers demonstrate the process of rooibos farming to visitors.

Co-op farmers demonstrate the process of rooibos farming to visitors.

Anthropogenic climate change has been given different accolades from being a “wicked problem” (Rittel and Webber, 1973) to a “super wicked problem” (Levin, 2012). A common denominator in both descriptions is that climate change, due to its hyper-complexity, defies simplistic or straightforward planning responses. Consequently, as we grapple with complexity in the Anthropocene, response interventions merit an interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary approach.

The South African Adaptation Network responded to a call for an advanced platform where discussions could be deepened and stimulated and climate change adaptation initiatives and experiences could be shared among practitioners in the adaptation landscape. The platform was facilitated in the form of a Adaptation Retreat, held in the town of Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape from 15 -18 May 2017. Facilitated by Noel Oettle (Adaptation Network), Shannon Parring (Indigo development & change) and Athina Copteros, the Adaptation Network hosted 18 participants from different disciplines across South Africa and neighbouring countries who anticipated a week filled with cross pollination of ideas on enhancing adaptation practices and increasing their knowledge.

Experimental site for organic rooibos for co-op farmers

Experimental site for organic rooibos for co-op farmers

“The opportunity to attend a retreat in Nieuwoudtville was very enticing for us. It was a much-needed break from the hustle and bustle of city life. It was also an opportunity for a Trump-less week, an escape from the unrelenting bombardment by Cable News Network (CNN) on Donald Trump’s seemingly unending gaffes. We packed our bags and off we went to Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape, the land of rooibos tea” said  Chris Mabeza, a PhD graduate from Rhodes University.

The programme involved an intercourse of theoretical input, critical analysis of a case study, field experience of adaptation initiatives with farmers who live on the frontline of the adverse effects of climate change, individual and shared reflection on practice and immersion in the unique natural environs of Nieuwoudtville. Hence the retreat afforded practitioners with the opportunity to deepen their theoretical knowledge of adaptation and share experiences from the field.

During the first day of the retreat, participants and the facilitators were introduced to each other and the rationale of the retreat. Additional background information was articulated and participants agreed on norms that would guide their participation, which included respect for each other’s views and cultural and professional backgrounds. This set the scene for a harmonious and collaborative ambiance. Participants showcased their artistic skills as they illustrated and shared their journeys in the adaptation landscape through drawings.

Human scale needs model used to evaluate the value of co-op activities and guide interventions.

Human scale needs model used to evaluate the value of co-op activities and guide interventions.

Of all the stories that we heard during the retreat, none so epitomises hope as the story of Maria Kotze, known as Lena. Lena, a rooibos tea farmer and a member of the Heiveld Cooperative in Nieuwoudtville, described the adaptive strategies behind the success of the rooibos tea farming communities in the Suid Bokkeveld with the meticulousness of a heart surgeon. Lena chronicled how her life and that of the small-scale farmers in the cooperative has been transformed through the work of the Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG). The organisation introduced the farmers to climate smart farming techniques and other capacity development programmes. The story of Lena is a good news story. It is a story about relentless tenacity and attests to the fact that smallholder farmers can hold their own as the vagaries of a human-induced climate change begin to be felt.

To illustrate the impacts of climate change and responding adaptation initiative, the participants visited the Heiveld Tea Court and interacted with rooibos tea farmers on the farm Melkkraal, both located in the Suid Bokkeveld. We witnessed first-hand the effects of an eight month long dry spell which threatens the viability of the Cooperative. However, it was a humbling experience to learn about the adaptive measures the cooperative has put in place as they attempt to adapt to rainfall variability. One such measure is rainwater harvesting. Admittedly, rainwater can only be harvested when it rains and as already alluded to, it has not rained in that part of the country for eight months. However, like all interventions, there are no easy answers to complex problems such as climate change. Suffice to say that rainwater harvesting has potential to help communities adapt.

On the third day of the retreat, the participants discussed relevant theoretical frameworks that can enhance the effectiveness of adaptation interventions such as the Human Scale Development framework. Basic human needs, as defined by Manfred Max-Neef and others are argued to be few, finite and classifiable contrary to economic “wants” that are infinite and insatiable. Moreover, they are constant across cultures and historical time periods. What varies over time and between individuals and communities are the means by which they are met. Human needs can also be appreciated as a system—i.e., they are interrelated and interactive. Consequently simultaneity, complementarity and trade-offs are features of the process of needs satisfaction. Manfred Max-Neef and his colleagues developed a taxonomy of human needs and a process by which communities can identify their “wealths” and “poverties” according to how their fundamental human needs are satisfied.

Armed with this knowledge, participants formed three teams that were tasked with designing interventions that would help reverse degradation in the livelihoods of three imaginary communities. One team addressed the needs of an insect harvesting community, another dealt with livestock farmers experiencing draught on large areas of land due to climate change impacts whilst the third one focused on the needs of a flood prone community suffering from rural-urban migration and dwindling agriculture. Following each team’s presentation, the other participants “voted with their feet” to provide their assessment of how convinced they were of the likelihood of each intervention to achieve synergic satisfaction of a range of human needs. Lively discussion ensued!

Co-op member demonstrates how she re-channels profits to invest in livelihood security.

Co-op member demonstrates how she re-channels profits to invest in livelihood security.

The final day involved activities in ecopsychology, which sought to develop and expand the emotional connection between participants and the natural world through ecological and psychological principles, thereby assisting them with developing sustainable lifestyles and remedying alienation from nature. Most participants were overwhelmed with the experience and expressed their satisfaction. This was followed up with a final wrap up of the retreat and participants had the chance to evaluate the event and share their perspectives for future events. Final thoughts from some of the participants included,

Being a priest and being on regular retreats I thought to myself, what NEW can I learn from this one. But one thing I always have to bear in mind is to be always open for the birth of something NEW. I was also internally confronted about the Adaptation Retreat in praxis vs my expectations as a grassroots person coming from a very climate challenging area – Namakwa! And again it was good to be open to the OTHER than the expected. This retreat ignited a fire within to know more, explore more and be more for my people and myself.” Earl Richards, Step Up Foundation.

“As a first time participant in such an event, it was a good experience with all the activities that were conducted. Meeting new people and also joining them on their individual journeys, makes you feel that in some point even though we come from different backgrounds on a personal and professional level we are related to each other, because we are striving towards the same thing. One thing that stood out for me was the visit to Melkkraal, and seeing how passionate these people are about the work they are doing especially Maria Kotze (Lena)”. Albert Koopman, Indigo development & change

The Retreat was ended with a word of thanks to the participants, organisers and the facilitators. What a remarkably insightful retreat it was! We listened, we saw, we had fun, we learned. And that’s not the only positive spin-off from the retreat – not by a long shot.

Citations used in this news article: Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S. et al. Policy Sci (2012) 45: 123. doi:10.1007/s11077-012-9151-0; Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.