Integrating the subjective dimensions of climate change in El Salvador

Integrating Subjectivity into Climate Change Adaptation

For the field of climate change studies, the issue of climate change is addressed as something environmental, with a focus on the technical and scientific aspect of the issue. But in the lived realities of Salvadorans (and many others on the planet) this is a matter of life and death, faith and hope, social justice and community resilience. In this project, IWB partner organizations Drishti and Centro Bartolome de las Casas, have sought to include the ‘human dimensions’ of climate change adaptation by combining methodologies in an integral approach. It is a first step in a much longer and comprehensive action-inquiry.

The NGO Drishti (who is our partner, and has drawn on the inspiration and mentoring support of IWB) has carried out this project in partnership with Centro Bartolome de las Casas in El Salvador. Four Salvadorans visited Canada in November, two project coordinators, Larry and Monica, and two women from the communities. Hearing directly from the two women, Gloria Ayala and Helia Rivera, who were community participants (and researchers!) in this project was illuminating. They described in great detail how people in these communities of Arcatao and Los Pozos (at the headwaters of the Rio Lempa watershed) already knew that the climate is changing prior to this project. Not that the word “climate change” meant more to them than hearing it in passing in the media and seeing it written in newspaper (i.e. no other group has been focusing on climate change in that region until our project), yet they are already witnessing disruptions and irregularities in their weather patterns every year.

What this project offered them was a way to move from being 'subject to' these changes to being able to 'see' climate change as an object; as an issue for which they can now plan more consciously and with greater preparedness.

Their adaptation planning will build on the existing ways they've already had to respond to this unpredictability. For example, as hotter temperatures increase, they have brought new plant and animal diseases, for which local people have had to find alternative crops or natural remedies. This adaptation is already occurring. Some participants didn’t like the word, “adaptation,” since for them this is simply part of surviving! They are doing what they need to do to survive. And so, the term “resilience” felt a lot more resonant to many. Building on the years of war / post-war resilience, this particular region has a lot to build on to generate resilience in the face of these new challenges.

And it became unavoidably apparent that climate change just cannot be thought of as a discrete phenomenon. Being about the very air we breathe, the very space we inhabit that makes life possible, it is linked to everything. These agrarian societies have co-evolved with their ecosystems, so as the climate changes it puts out of sync the interrelated domains of weather, agriculture, local practices, culture, consciousness, and identity.

Which again points back to how we need to develop ways to address this complex issue with a more integral approach.

Integrating Methodologies

Climate change is a difficult phenomenon to conceive of—it is occurring over timelines that we often don’t think in, it is overwhelming to envision the changes that it might produce, and it is challenging to plan for a future that we can’t yet see or barely imagine. As a result, particularly in rural communities in the developing world, climate change science can be misunderstood, bewildering, and often disempowering. Rather than starting with the science, we began using photo voice with communities, in which local people use photography to explore the meaning of climate change in their lives in practical, real ways. This supports local people to draw on their own meaning-making about the issue, and thus evokes a greater sense of empowerment and resilience. The photo voice was accompanied with community meetings and, eventually, adaptation planning. A central principle in our approach is that balanced attention to the experiential, cultural, behavioural and systemic dimensions of disaster risk and climate change adaptation can promote more relevant policies and much deeper forms of resilience.

The Future:
Centro Bartolome de las Casas and Drishti will complete the final stage of this project this winter (including forming environmental committees in both communities which can then plan for adaptive strategies, writing on the project to date, and creating a photo journal for both communities). In the meantime, we have two proposals submitted in the UK and Norway to continue this type of community-based action-research. We are committed to continuing with these communities as best we can, and perhaps expanding into other vulnerable communities in the country, as we work towards a model for use in other regions of the world.


Who's involved: