Farmers on the Frontlines of Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions

Empowering Smallholder Farmers: Sustainable Solutions for Climate-Resilient Food Systems

Demand for local sustainable and productive food systems is rising while witnessing that the global systems relying on intensive, extractive practices fail to feed the world. Frequent product shortages and increasing food insecurity highlight the need for place-based solutions. In the transition to local food systems, smallholder farmers play a crucial role in feeding communities while protecting natural resources.

Subsistence and small-scale farmers feed their families and communities with limited resources (inputs) and small plots of land. Sustainable farming methods take advantage of every surface area, local natural resources, and systems. For family farmers, crops are a lifeline and livelihood, making them acutely aware of the need to care for the land. Climate change threatens soil, water, and land needed to grow fresh, organic food. Farmers are the first to witness environmental changes as they depend on natural resources for every aspect of their lives.

SHI-Panama partner farmer Bartolo Gutiérrez weeding with his daughter, Photo by Sustainable Harvest International

Climate Change in Central America

Sustainable Harvest International (SHI), a nonprofit with over 27 years of experience in sustainable farming practices, partners with family farmers in Central America who face the impacts of climate change every day. SHI currently works with farmers in Honduras, Belize, and Panama. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the

Caribbean (ECLAC): Out of 183 countries, Honduras was most affected by climate change between 1996 and 2015. Droughts reduce water availability in Honduras and throughout Central America, endangering the livelihoods of rural farmers. Researchers predict that these harsh conditions will worsen as droughts become more frequent.

Top: Fire in Honduras, Bottom: SHI-Belize partner farmer Jorge Yam’s agroforestry parcel, Photos by Sustainable Harvest International

First and Worst

Climate change degrades soil, and farmers can only grow food with healthy soil. According to the United Nations, 33% of the earth’s soils are already degraded, and over 90% can become degraded by 2050. Soil degradation threatens food sources and public health. For farmers, the loss of soil signifies even more, including the loss of livelihood, lifestyle, connection to the land, and entire legacies. Their lives revolve around soil, so they feel the effects of climate change first and worst.

Conventional agricultural practices, like slash-and-burn techniques, increase soil degradation and weather extremes. Increased droughts lead to more heat and less rainfall, disturbing soil structures. Unhealthy soil loses its ability to absorb water effectively, leading to soil erosion.

Without sufficient water, family farmers risk losing their crops, business, and family’s future. Farmers are often taught harmful conventional practices early. However, they are eager to transition to sustainable farming once they see how it improves their land and food production. Tangible results, such as higher yields, demonstrate that they can achieve climate resilience despite environmental challenges. Agroforestry practices, which involve planting trees and maintaining forests, further support these efforts. Trees slow the velocity of rain reaching the ground, increasing the likelihood of water being stored in the soil. Forests create a cooler microclimate, reduce evaporation of stored soil water, and prevent soil erosion, thereby maintaining soil structure and health.

SHI-Honduras partner farmer Agapita Oviedo is proud of her backyard garden
Photos by Sustainable Harvest International

The Solution

Family farmers lack resources, financing, and vast amounts of land compared to large corporations. When crops fail due to storms, droughts, or disease, their lives and livelihoods are severely threatened. They are at the mercy of environmental conditions. However, sustainable farming methods enable them to adapt to changing conditions, utilize available resources, grow food without damaging the soil, and even restore degraded soil. They replant forests and capture rainwater. These organic, natural practices lead to abundant harvests and protect them from weather extremes that could otherwise cause crop failure.

SHI trains farmers in sustainable methods so they can provide for their families and communities. Partner farmers learn to grow food without damaging the soil and even restore degraded soil. They replant forests and capture rainwater. These organic, natural practices lead to abundant harvests and protect them from weather extremes that could otherwise cause crop failure. While SHI partner farmers are still on the frontlines of climate change, they gain the knowledge and skills through SHI’s program to produce nutritious food in a constantly changing world.

Watch our partners in action


Further reading

Women’s Role in Sustainable Farming – Real-life examples


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