#GardensforClimate Part I: Let's Cross Sectors

Photo by Katy Carlson/GHI

Photo by Katy Carlson/GHI


If I were to ask you to think of an image that best describes climate change, you might think of many things. A chunk of ice crumbling from a glacier into a rising ocean. A devastating hurricane. A drought. Many people’s first thoughts may not be of disease.

The truth is that climate change, through its slow, seemingly relentless onslaught, will exacerbate the inequities, injustices, and injuries that citizens of low-income countries worldwide already experience. And this means that areas already facing widespread disparities in access to healthcare will continue to feel the pressure as temperatures rise. Dr. Paul Farmer et al. may have said it best:

“The people who will suffer most are those who were most vulnerable to begin with, living in regions of the world with perilous human security, pervasive poverty,…geographic disadvantage, and contributing the least towards greenhouse gas emissions.”

But these effects are years away, right?

Yes and no. 2015 was the hottest year to date on record, with the top ten hottest years on record occurring since 1998. Seawater is overtaking the Marshall Islands. Greenland is melting. Heat waves are plaguing the Indian subcontinent. Global average temperatures have increased .85ºC since 1880, and are on track to hit a dire 2ºC increase in a few decades if we do not severely limit carbon emissions. By the UN’s tally, more than 600,000 people have died in the last 20 years in climate change-related extreme weather disasters. It’s not a distant, looming scourge anymore, it’s not going away, it’s not affecting people, societies, countries, or cultures equitably — and unless something is done, it’s only going to make people sicker.


Source: CDC’s  Climate and Health Program

A climate going haywire affects every facet of human health, especially in resource-poor settings. And crises that are already prevalent, if left unimpeded, are simply going to get worse.

In places like Rwanda, where 85% of the population is engaged in agriculture as a primary occupation, 38% of the country’s children are still chronically malnourished. In order to nutritiously feed their families, smallholder farmers in Rwanda are dependent on environmental resources and climatic cycles that are no longer as reliable as they once were. Topsoil depletion and erosion, unreliable rainy seasons, shifting temperatures — all are wreaking havoc on crops, food supplies, families, and communities unaccustomed to these weather phenomena . Smallholder farmers provide up to 80 percent of food for families in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.. The nutritional status of much of the developing world depends on the capacity of smallholder farmers to adapt to climatic shocks.

Global leaders met last month in Paris, attempting to agree on plans to mitigate, and adapt to, the climate emergency. Governments made commitments, dignitaries made addresses, and protestors made big splashes. Some of the biggest arguments have been about how to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and whose responsibility it is to do so. Urges and pleas from climate activists to keep fossil fuels in the ground have been largely ignored, and though COP21 is a landmark meeting drawing international attention, many environmental justice groups are saying it’s only making things worse.

Despite these politically fraught negotiations, forthcoming climatic shifts and the weather events they’ll cause are inevitable. Where we need to concentrate the most, then, is on building resilience in countries like Rwanda, where so much of daily livelihood, health, and wellbeing is dependent on a reliable climate. It’s no coincidence that African women are and will continue to be some of those hardest-hit by climate change. This includes women smallholder farmers in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, who bear immense responsibility in ensuring that their children are fed and cared for, their plots are tended to, and their families and communities function and thrive. In Rwanda, these responsibilities are often complicated by the pervasive nature of malnutrition in children.

At Gardens for Health International (GHI), we’ve worked tirelessly over the past 5 years to advocate for, partner with, and serve Rwandan smallholder farmers whose children, suffer from chronic malnutrition. We’ve achieved success through our recognition that the health and agriculture sectors, often falsely dichotomized, are actually inextricable. And our understanding of the primacy of agriculture in the treatment of malnutrition has allowed us to explore and innovate, blurring the borders between these two sectors. It is through such a silo-busting, collaborative framework that all future paths to resilience against climate change must lead.

One of the most exciting aspects of our work at GHI is our commitment to sustainable, minimally-harmful agriculture. We understand that the health of the world — of the soil, systems, land, and water we call home — is intrinsically tied to our own health. And by committing to organic farming, composting, and disrupting our environment as little as possible, we are also spreading a curriculum of care, global stewardship, and resilience to our partner families. As it turns out, what’s good for Rwanda’s 1,000 hills is also good for the nearly 2,000 farm families with whom we partner annually. In building resilience against chronic malnutrition by breaking down sectors, we’re also building a bulwark against the fallout of a changing climate.

Local knowledge is at the heart of GHI’s curriculum. We build on the expertise already present in our communities , and the skills partners gain in GHI trainings round out what they already know about the environments in which they’ve worked their whole lives. We’ve combined both traditional and innovative agricultural techniques with species that do well in Rwandan conditions. On our farm we’re continually running agriculture trials; we aim to ensure that the inputs we provide families have the inbuilt tenacity necessary to withstand a warming climate and all it will bring.

As we approach an unknown future, the symptoms of climate change affecting our world will be, by their very nature, multi-sectoral. The concerns of land use, environmental advocacy, food and agriculture, and health must all be combined with local knowledge to find and promulgate solutions that are creative and appropriate. GHI is already proving that with the right combination of partnership, systems-level thinking, resources, and support, malnutrition is a problem we can solve. Climate change can be, too. We just need to break down a few walls.