Battling for survival on the frontier of climate change

By Gemma Handy
Portland, Jamaica

image captionDenise Reid is growing pineapples after her banana crop failed

When the rains stopped coming two years ago, transforming Denise Reid's once flourishing banana fields into an expanse of desiccated wasteland, she was bewildered at first.

Here in rural Portland, Jamaica's wettest parish for as long as anyone can remember, farmers like Mrs Reid are battling for survival on the frontier of climate change.

"I couldn't understand why it was so dry. We used to have lovely seasons; now everything has changed," she says.

Una May Gordon is the principal director of the climate change division at Jamaica's ministry of economic growth. She says that Portland is experiencing a "significant drought".

"Farmers didn't know how to manage those issues as they've always had rain. There was a lot of confusion," she says.

Evolving weather patterns are making their impact felt across the Caribbean, according to Glenroy Brown, a climate service specialist at Jamaica's Meteorological Service.

He says that during the drought which hit Jamaica in 2014-2015, losses in agriculture production were as high as 72%.

In a nation where one in six working people earns a living from agriculture, those losses are far-reaching and sorely felt.

"We can't be reactive to climate change anymore," Mr Brown urges. "Agriculture is a significant percentage of GDP so if anything happens to affect it, it's very bad for the country."

Smart tools

Now, experts behind a trailblazing venture with innovative technology at its core hope to give islanders the tools to fight back.

A climate-smart project is being implemented and funded by the Netherlands-based Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) in three parishes in the east of Jamaica, which is most susceptible to extreme weather.

"We are seeing more drought and more extreme weather, that's why we need to make things happen to cope with this," explains programme co-ordinator Bertil Videt.

Working closely with government agencies, the aim is to boost productivity and food security, while improving planters' resilience and income.

Data is gleaned from weather satellites, combined with local met offices' predictions and delivered to farmers via sophisticated weather apps. The free apps, downloaded on to smartphones, are capable of forecasting three months ahead.

image captionFarmers receive detailed weather forecasts for their specific area on their smartphones

This is key for farmers who have not only been hit by droughts but also by erratic downpours, tropical storms and hurricanes.

Oluyede Ajayi, also from the CTA, says that they had to take this into account when developing their programme for Jamaica.

"The rain either comes in torrents or not at all. Very wide extremes have become the new normal," he says.

Farmers can also sign up for planting tips via text message and early warning alerts for hazards like flash floods and fires.

The work has seen 5,000 farmers across Portland, St Mary and St Thomas digitally profiled for the first time. Storing their personal details, plus information about their farms and produce, onto a national database means they can receive location-specific advice.

Coupled with savvy land management training and the development of drought-resistant seeds by the Jamaican government, farmers are expected to see up to a 40% increase in output within two to three years.

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Mr Ajayi, who heads similar work in Mali and Ethiopia, says the weather apps boast an impressive 88% reliability.

Mrs Reid may have lost hope for her beloved bananas but expects to reap thousands of pounds of hardier pineapples this year instead.

"I started with just 17 plants," she says proudly, surveying the abundance of fruit thriving again at her Belle Castle orchard.

Mulching to retain moisture is just one of the techniques she was taught by attending local farmer forums. The regular gatherings are also used to share information from the apps to growers with limited internet connectivity.

'The river took it'

In neighbouring St Mary, parts of the Pagee River, used for irrigation by farmers for decades, have been bone dry since March.

image captionThe bed of the Pagee River has been dry for months

Vultures soar above a former coconut plantation destroyed by one of hundreds of fires that have plagued the parish this summer.

Howard White lost his previous farm to intense floods.

"The river came and took it by night," he recalls with a shudder. "My two feet trembled when I saw that but I knew I had to stay strong and replant."

It is not just erratic rainfall giving him headaches but crucifying heat too, he continues, wiping his brow.

June was the hottest month ever recorded in Jamaica with temperatures topping 39C.

image captionA lot of the training is carried out on location in the fields

Still, thanks to the weather apps which tell him precisely how much rain he can expect for the next five days, along with wind direction and speed, temperature and humidity, his new farm higher up the hillside is thriving.

Mr White now plans to extend beyond plantain and cocoa plants and plant scotch bonnet peppers too.

He has also been taught to create contours in the sloped land, fringed with log barriers to prevent soil erosion.

'Leaps and bounds ahead'

CTA's involvement has taken government efforts to help farmers to a new dimension, says Dwayne Henry, of Jamaica's Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA).

"We are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were," he tells the BBC.

"Some of the older folk take longer to warm up to the apps but they get there and are now relying on us to send out the information."

The user-friendly, interactive design with brief, pithy text helps accommodate all literacy levels, Mr Henry explains.

image captionMessages are sent directly to the farmers' phones

Since the project began in June 2018, it has proved so popular the government now hopes to roll it out nationwide.

CTA's Bertil Videt hopes the initiative will reap the rewards seen in Africa.

"We've seen vast differences in the yields of farmers in Mali using the project, compared to those who did not," he explains.

Success cannot come soon enough for planters like Elaine Reid who says drought has reduced the size of her onions, slashing the income from her half-acre Belle Castle holding by half.

Her neighbour Kofi Mendes agrees. "We see climate change first-hand; we live it each day," he says. "It makes me angry, sad, confused. Knowing how to adapt to it is crucial."

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media captionAgricultural technology is helping many farmers in South Africa to increase productivity

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