Thursday, August 5, 2010 - 8:45 AM

SYMP 18-3: Does carbon matter?: Smallholder farmers negotiating shifting institutions

Kristen C. Nelson, University of Minnesota


Global, climate change initiatives create institutions that might work in theory but the true test of these initiatives is how local communities and social actors respond, providing insights into challenges and potential solutions that address greenhouse gases and environmental justice. Complex ecological, social, economic, and political ramifications have direct and indirect consequences for greenhouse gases. Ecological research suggests current climate change models need to reevaluate biodiversity, soil nutrients interactions, and changing phenology. Climate change institutions and environmental governance have evolved over the past fifteen years, but how do farmers use small-scale sustainable agricultural systems to respond to these shifting climate change institutions? What can we learn about decisions small-scale farmers make, how they engage in the climate discourse, the social institutions they create, and how carbon fits in their complex production systems? We explored these factors using two case examples, agroforestry systems in Chiapas Mexico and rotational grazing systems for dairy production in the Eastern United States.

Though smallholder agriculture has many advantages for addressing global warming, unexamined social systems can result in unintended adverse effects in a complex system. Among climate institutions, new socioeconomic structures are under pressure to conform to current market institutions. Governance structures designed for equitable decision making must negotiate within global political governance. Without monitoring and oversight by the farmers providing environmental services, such as carbon sequestration and mitigation, individual choices can result in unanticipated landscape level effects. In response to uncertainty, new social networks have been emerging to exchange information, monitor ecological and social systems, with the shared goal of supporting wellbeing, environmental justice, and sustainable production.