Building Local Strategies for the Adaptation to Climate Change of Farming Livelihoods: Review of a Participatory Approach Applied in Mesoamerica

Current impacts of climate change on Mesoamerican ecosystems and rural communities are undeniable, as evidenced by scientific studies (Castellanos et al., 2013; Harvey et al., 2015; Robalino, Jimenez, & Chacon, 2015) and the perception of smallholder farmers (Forero, Hernandez, & Zafra, 2014; Vélez-Torres, Santos-Ocampo, Tejera-Hernândez, & Monterroso-Rivas, 2016). Livelihood diversification and local organization are strategies with which rural families in the region have faced high natural climatic variability for hundreds of years (Altieri, 2013), but increase in the rate of change and intensity of drought conditions and climate variability, plus unprecedented pressures on natural ecosystems and agricultural systems, make adaptation increasingly difficult (Baethgen, Meinke, & Giménez, 2003). Further, information that allows a better understanding of the vulnerability of smallholder farmers to develop adaptation measures is extremely limited in the region (Holland et al., 2017). On the other hand, there is a growing effort to define policy frameworks and strategies for adaptation in the agriculture sector in Mesoamerican countries (UNEP & Euroclima, 2015), which support food security and rural employment and make a substantial contribution to export earnings. These efforts have resulted in adjustments in policy, institutional and financing mechanisms (Donatti, Harvey, Martinez-Rodriguez, Vignola, & Rodriguez, 2017). However, adaptation is mostly a local process. Therefore, processes that allow linkage of these efforts with local requirements are needed.

Here we present a summary of a methodological proposal for the participatory building of local strategies for adaptation to climate change (ELACCs, by its Spanish acronym) based on the Community Capitals Framework (CCF) (Flora, 2004). We review the results of its application between 2014 and 2016

in five micro-watersheds of the Pacific slope of Mexico, El Salvador and Costa Rica using three criteria: first, the consistency of the perceptions of exposure to climate processes and impacts on livelihoods (Pearce et al., 2010; Simelton et al., 2013); second, the constraints in the adaptation process (Imbach & Prado, 2014); and third, the transformational level of the adaptation measures proposed (Rickards & Howden, 2012). Finally, we identify some conclusions and recommendations for the implementation of the ELACCs proposal. As far as we know, this is the only methodological proposal based on the CCF within the emerging body of methodologies for local planning for adaptation to climate change (e.g., Adapt-Chile & Euroclima, 2015; Diesner, 2013; Frankel-Reed, Frode, Porsche, Eberhardt, & Svendsen, 2013).

We focused on subsistence farming livelihoods, the predominant form of smallholder agriculture in the study region, where it is expected that climate suitability for coffee, maize, beans and even extensive cattle ranching will decrease in many areas in the coming years (Baca, Laderach, Haggar, Schroth, & Ovalle-Rivera, 2014; Bouroncle et al., 2017; Eitzinger et al., 2012;Thornton, Steeg, Notenbaert, & Herrero, 2009). Subsistence farming livelihoods are in general highly vulnerable to climate change, due to their reliance on rainfall and ecosystem services and limited access to financial and technical assistance (Holland et al., 2017).

Developing and Reviewing the Local Strategies

Sites Selection and Description

We carried out the ELACCs to answer specific requests from governmental organizations, sponsored by a regional cooperation agency and an international NGO. The sites were selected according to the predominance of subsistence farming livelihoods (Table 3.1). Livelihoods based on coffee (site or SI, S2, S3 and S4), staple grains (beans and maize; SI, S3 and S4) and livestock farming for dairy and beef production (SI, S3, S4 and S5) predominate.

TABLE 3.1 Study sites and predominant rural livelihoods.

Site, Country (site code)

Altitudinal Range (masl)

Predominant Livelihoods

Jalponga, El Salvador (1)


Coffee (U), livestock, basic grains (M)

Pirris, Costa Rica (2)


Coffee (U, M)

Coapa-Pijijiapan, Mexico (3)


Coffee (U), basic grains (M), livestock (M-Lo)

El Tablón, Mexico (4)


Coffee (U); livestock, basic grains (M-Lo)

Lagartero, Mexico (5)


Livestock (U, M, Lo)

Note: U: upper watershed, M: middle watershed, Lo: lower watershed

Since rain-fed agriculture on the Pacific slope of Mesoamerica depends on the onset,length and temporal distribution of rainfall (Magaña, Amador, & Medina, 1999), knowledge of current and projected changes of climate is critical for the estimation of the vulnerability of subsistence farming livelihoods. Key characteristics of the regional climate, and relevant to all our study sites, described by these authors are: the bimodal distribution of the rainy season, with peaks of precipitation during May and June and, less pronounced, during September and October; the midsummer drought (canícula) during July and August and a dry season from November through April. Intra-annual temperature variation is minor and is associated with stronger trade winds in December through January and July (Taylor & Alfaro, 2005). Rising temperatures and changes in rainfall seasonality have been observed in the region over the last several decades (Aguilar et al., 2005; Hidalgo, Alfaro, & Quesada-Montano, 2017; Rauscher, Giorgi, Diffenbaugh, & Seth, 2008) and climate projections suggest these trends will continue (Magrin et al., 2014; Marengo et al., 2014).This overall climatic context is accentuated in the Dry Corridor, a region with an extended dry season (IICA, 2014) which includes all our study sites except S2.

The sites were located in narrow micro-watersheds of 200-500 km2, typical of the Mesoamerican Pacific slope. This type of watershed rapidly concentrates run-off and generates high peaks of flow rates after rain events and, eventually, floods. Remnants of natural forests (shade-grown coffee in the case of El Salvador) in the upper watersheds are thus crucial for groundwater recharge and water flow regulation (Calder, Hofer,Vermont, & Warren, 2007). In the Mexican and Costa Rican sites, sectors of these natural forests are in state protected areas.

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