Adapting to the
Words by Janice Cantieri
Humans have emitted over 400 billion tons of carbon since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, according to data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. Developed countries are the largest contributors: The United States alone has emitted nearly a third of the world’s cumulative carbon emissions.
The planet’s average surface temperature has increased by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, with 17 of the 18 warmest years on record occurring since 2001, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This seemingly small temperature increase has had significant impacts: Sea levels have risen about eight inches in the last century, enough to regularly inundate the homes of some island and coastal communities. Sea ice is now melting three times faster than it did just five years ago, a loss of 241 billion tons per year. Droughts have become longer and more severe, rainfall has become unpredictable, and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events—like wildfires, heat waves, and hurricanes—has increased.
These are some of the consequences of burning fossil fuels—but fossil fuel production itself is also destructive. The extractive drilling, mining, and transportation of oil through pipelines has destroyed swaths of boreal forests, led to massive oil spills, damaged ecosystems, and threatened the water supply on land important to indigenous communities across North America and around the world. We’ve changed our environment, and these changes are now affecting a range of human communities around the world, who have been forced to adapt in order to survive.
The communities bearing the burden of these changes every day are those with an intimate connection to the land: small farmers and indigenous communities who have, for generations, depended on their environment for survival. Climate change has the potential to amplify existing food and water shortages in developing countries, expand the areas affected by mosquito-borne diseases, and increase weather-related natural disasters, like flooding, that can displace people and destroy crops. While their cultures and way of life are most threatened by global climate change, many of these communities have developed their own low-cost, creative ways to survive a changing environment.
Photographs by Will Warasila
Eritai Kateibwi spent much of his life watching rising ocean levels wipe out many of the staple food crops around his home in the low-lying, Central Pacific island nation of Kiribati. Kiribati is not the verdant paradise that you might imagine when you think of the Pacific—all but one of Kiribati’s 33 islands are sandy, flat coral atolls that sit less than three meters above sea level, making them particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. Salt water has already infiltrated many of the drinking water wells and in some villages, the land is so narrow that you can throw a rock across from the ocean side of the island to the lagoon side. But instead of leaving his island or giving up hope, Kateibwi learned how to grow vegetables in raised hydroponic boxes and introduced the method to his community so that they can adapt to the rising seas and remain self-sufficient.
Kiribati has received significant media attention as a “modern-day Atlantis,” or the first entire country facing potential displacement as a result of climate change. For most I-Kiribati, whose ancestors have survived on these infertile, isolated islands for centuries, leaving is a last resort. It’s unlikely that Kiribati will be completely submerged in the immediate future, but by the end of the century, the global sea level is expected to rise by as much as one meter, which could make life on the islands extremely difficult.
The sea level has risen steadily over the last century, but in the last few decades, the rate at which it’s rising has nearly doubled, largely due to the influence of climate change. Greenhouse gasses trap heat within our atmosphere, contributing to the melting of land- based glaciers and the thermal expansion of ocean water, both of which lead to rising ocean levels. Until 1993, the global sea level was rising at a rate of 1.7 millimeters per year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Right now, the sea level rises an average of 3.1 millimeters per year, and this rate is expected to increase as global warming continues. Many scientists are concerned that the ice sheets over Greenland and Antarctica might melt even more quickly than expected and contribute to sudden, rapid increases in sea-level rise.
In Kiribati, these changes are most visible during king tides, the twice-yearly high tides that are exaggerated by the gravitational pulls of the sun and moon. These destructive tides have washed away residents’ thatched homes, food-producing trees, and community gardens, and damaged the single road that connects the villages on South Tarawa, Kiribati’s capital. In 2015, a record king tide flooded the maternity ward of one of the island’s two hospitals.
But the I-Kiribati do not want to leave their homeland, so they’ve developed innovative solutions—like Kateibwi’s hydroponic boxes—in order to adapt to their changing environment.
Kateibwi, a positive, energetic 29-year-old entrepreneur, wanted to address some of the issues affecting his community. One of the main problems he saw was an increasing reliance on expensive, imported rice and flour, caused in part by the destructive force of sea-level rise combined with commercialization and the lingering effects of colonialism. Obesity and diabetes rates have soared in the last 20 years—22 percent of the population have diabetes and 72 percent of the population are overweight, according to a 2016 report from the World Health Organization.
“Basically, we’re dependent on imported, processed food. That’s really been happening in the past decade and [the dependence] is growing so big,” Kateibwi says.
Kateibwi saw his first hydroponic system while studying business and finance at Brigham Young University in Hawaii and immediately thought of its potential for I-Kiribati families. Since 2016, he has been teaching his community to grow fruits and vegetables in hydroponic systems that he adapted to work in Kiribati’s climate. With this method, families can grow vegetables in raised plastic boxes without soil, protecting the crops from harmful high tides and avoiding the challenges of growing on Kiribati’s sandy, salty, and infertile land.
“With the hydroponics we have, we are able to grow just about any fruit or vegetable. People who regularly have places that are flooded or have bad soil because of the ocean, the breeze, or even crabs, have the chance to grow more than what they can grow right now,” Kateibwi explains. “For one of the families we’re working with, we set up their hydroponics right next to the lagoon. We literally put a table almost on top of the lagoon.”
The I-Kiribati practice a primarily subsistence-based fishing and harvesting lifestyle, supplementing the catch of the day with coconut, breadfruit, and taro, a starchy root crop. Kateibwi’s hydroponic boxes haven’t replaced these staple crops, but the program has introduced a new way for his community to remain self-sufficient and created a healthier and more affordable food source.
Some of Kateibwi’s neighbors saw the success of his hydroponic boxes and recreated them using found materials like plastic soda bottles. Other Islanders have developed their own solutions aimed at meeting their communities’ basic needs, including community garden projects, rainwater harvesting tanks, and sea walls handmade from shells, coconut fibers, and sand.
Ahling Onorio, a former schoolteacher, started an organic coconut sugar and coconut oil cooperative on Abaiang Island, one of Kiribati’s islands, that’s teaching families some of the skills needed to adapt to the influences of climate change and increased commercialization. She started the Kiribati Organic Producers in 2011 to help families on the outer islands generate income while retaining elements of their culture, she explains.
A group of four couples work together to collect the coconut flower’s sap, known as toddy, then cook the sap over an open fire until it caramelizes into sugar. The group has revived a traditional practice, called te karekare, to divide the work. The couples take turns stirring the sap for hours while sitting inside a thatched, open-air kitchen, an intensive process that requires constant monitoring to avoid burning the sugar.
“When it’s your turn to make the sugar, you get to make all of it and keep all of the money. This makes it less tiring and breaks up the work,” said Tiitika Iita, one of the sugar producers.
Onorio collects the sugar and sells it in village shops on Tarawa Island. The profits go directly back to the families or into the “Sugar Scheme,” a fund Onorio created to ensure the workers’ children receive education.
Most of the families are only able to earn between $30 and $60 a month, but that has been enough to help them remain on the outer islands instead of migrating to Tarawa atoll’s overpopulated villages in search of work. Although the sea will eventually make the islands uninhabitable, these grassroots efforts are allowing the I-Kiribati to avoid mass migration, retain elements of their culture, and remain on their homeland.
Photographs by Rishabh Malik
Thousands of small farmers in India have committed suicide in the last four years, largely because of crippling debt, fluctuations in crop and input prices, and back-to-back extreme droughts. Since 2014, more than 3,000 farmers committed suicide in the south-central Indian state of Telangana alone. While droughts have always occurred, scientists predict that climate change will make droughts longer and more intense and that rainfall patterns will be less predictable as warming continues.
Until recently, much of Appala Venkatesh’s income depended on growing rice in rural, drought-prone Laxmapur Village, Telangana. Rice is a water and labor-intensive crop that is contingent on seasonal rainfall and typically only produces a harvest every six months. To have more income, Venkatesh and his family started growing vegetables like tomatoes and okra, which have shorter growing seasons. But the intensifying droughts that hit Telangana over the last few years have threatened the harvest that Venkatesh and his family rely on.
In 2017, he joined a group of small farmers who are using low-cost, innovative greenhouses to adapt to the changing climate. Unlike typical greenhouses that trap sunlight, these are covered with breathable, aluminum-coated or black shade netting that reflects light, lowering the temperature inside the greenhouse. In addition to blocking some of the sunlight, the shade nets also keep most pests out and they’re fitted with drip irrigation systems that have allowed farmers to use, on average, 90 percent less water than outside the greenhouse.
Venkatesh was one of the first farmers in his village to sign up for a greenhouse with Kheyti, the Indian nonprofit distributing the greenhouses. On even the hottest, driest days, when temperatures can reach up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, Venkatesh’s greenhouse is filled with thriving, colorful bell peppers and cucumbers, forming a stark contrast to the dry, dusty landscape outside.
“Inside the greenhouse, there is no infestation, no pests get through, and we use less water,” Venkatesh says. “We definitely want one more greenhouse.”
In addition to providing the greenhouses, Kheyti has trained farmers how to cultivate climate-resilient vegetables that grow within a few months, creating a more diversified, consistent harvest—and income stream—that requires less water.
Part of what makes the greenhouses work for small farmers in India is their reduced size— Kheyti’s greenhouses range from 258 to 553 square yards—making them more affordable than commercial-scale greenhouses. The greenhouse takes up only two to five percent of a typical small farmer’s total land, making it a safe investment, as they can continue growing other crops on the rest of their land.
But production within the greenhouses has proven to be much more fruitful. Farmers growing within the greenhouse have been able to cultivate, on average, five to eight times what they could outside. During his first growing season, Venkatesh harvested about two tons of cucumbers—the most out of the first 15 farmers using the greenhouses. He even won an award from the Telangana government for his productive harvest.
“The crops we’re able to grow inside the greenhouse [258 square yards], we used to grow on a full acre of land [4,840 square yards],” Venkatesh says. And growing inside the greenhouse is less work. “We don’t use hired laborers inside. Just my wife and I spend one hour in the morning,” he explains. “During harvest, we just cut the vegetables.”
Kheyti helped facilitate a loan with a local bank that allowed Venkatesh to purchase the $2,500 greenhouse. When he joined Kheyti, he also became part of a collective that allows him to sell produce together with other Kheyti farmers. Kheyti collects the produce, transports, and distributes it to buyers that supply most of the grocery stores in Hyderabad, then the group divides the profits amongst the farmers based on how much they produced. Venkatesh puts part of his earnings toward paying off the loan after each three- to four- month growing period. In his first growing season, Venkatesh earned 23,000 rupees ($319) and paid 10,000 ($145) on the loan. He kept the remaining 13,000 rupees ($180) for his family.
“We got a lot of benefit from this because 13,000 rupees is very useful and we earned it using less land,” Venkatesh says.
The greenhouse project has inspired a shift in village culture as well: Farmers growing with Kheyti meet weekly to discuss crops, growing strategies, and challenges they’re facing. Many farmers said these meetings have created a new space for knowledge-sharing and healthy competition within the community.
“[Kheyti’s trainings and weekly meetings] got our farmers to take up greenhouse farming and created awareness about the innovation in the community,” said Kheyti cofounder Saumya (she doesn’t use a second name). “Many of the farmers in our third batch took up greenhouse farming after seeing the success of farmers in the first batch.”
Kheyti’s first 15 farmers have been growing bell peppers and cucumbers within the greenhouses for over a year. After watching their achievements, 35 neighboring farmers signed up for greenhouses. And the movement is expanding—Kheyti has partnered with the Society for the Elimination of Rural Poverty to take on board 1,000 low-income women farmers in Andhra Pradesh, a neighboring state. The first 50 farmers within this program started trainings last year.
Like Eritai Kateibwi’s hydroponic project, these greenhouses aren’t creating a new way to grow staple crops—and the crops within the greenhouse aren’t entirely shielded from unusually long and hot heat waves—but they have created a way for farmers to continue growing even in severe droughts, making the community more resilient.
Photographs by Ryan Shorosky
Melina Laboucan-Massimo grew up watching oversize machines uproot trees and dig up soil as tar sands mining expanded around Little Buffalo, her community in northeastern Alberta, Canada. Gradually, native species started dying out as their habitats were destroyed. For Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree Nation, watching this destruction unfold was a direct attack on her culture and way of life.
“There are impacts not only to our physical land but also to our culture, languages, and spirituality. For us, as indigenous peoples, the land is where we pray, it is our church. So, when you are destroying our homeland, you are essentially destroying our places of prayer,” says Laboucan-Massimo.
Producing usable fuels from tar sands is incredibly energy intensive—companies clear swaths of boreal forest to dig open-pit mines, extract the soil, then use several barrels of heated water and other chemicals to produce just one barrel of oil. And there are over 2.4 million barrels produced each day. Furthermore, this crude bitumen oil is more corrosive than other types of oil, increasing the risk of spills. Laboucan-Massimo started speaking out about the impacts of tar sands mining after a massive, million-gallon spill occurred near her community in 2011.
“It was devastating, traumatizing, and hard to witness your family being poisoned, the inability of your family to breathe, the school being shut down for a week and a half. The community wasn’t informed of the immensity of the spill until five days later. It’s these types of things that people are living through, where 4.5 million liters [about 1.2 million gallons] spill in our homeland.”
Frustrated with the few concrete changes she saw after years of outreach, she decided to implement her own solution: a solar project in the heart of the destruction.
“For me, being from the tar sands, seeing the impacts and not necessarily seeing any of the change that we wanted, it felt important to implement renewable energy systems and systems that aren’t going to be as devastating to our homeland,” she says.
Laboucan-Massimo began organizing and fundraising for her nonprofit, the Pîtâpan Solar Project, or Lubicon Solar, while completing a master’s degree in environmental studies at the University of Victoria. The group first installed 80 panels on the Little Buffalo community health center.
“I wanted to see what we can do to utilize renewable energy and systems that are a lot more regenerative, as opposed to extractive, because, for us as indigenous people, we have more of a reciprocity with the land, with Mother Earth. Utilizing and tapping into renewable energy from the sun, that is something that is more aligned with the give and take of how we interact with the world around us.”
More recently, Laboucan-Massimo has been partnering with indigenous communities across Canada to resist the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which would nearly triple the amount of oil transported from Alberta to Vancouver and cut through hundreds of miles of unceded indigenous land. Lubicon Solar is working with the Tiny House Warriors, a group led primarily by women in the Secwepemc Nation in British Columbia who are building tiny houses along the pipeline route to block construction and reclaim native land.
The tiny houses are on wheels, fitted with solar panels, wood-burning stoves, and composting toilets, and covered in murals that represent issues affecting indigenous communities. And because the houses are on wheels, they’re reviving elements of the Secwepemc’s traditional nomadic culture, said the group’s founder, Kanahus Manuel.
“We were always tiny-house people. We lived in traditional underground pit houses and cedar bark lodges. It’s nothing new for us,” Manuel said.
In the summer of 2018, the Tiny House Warriors deployed three of the houses to Blue River, British Columbia, to take a stand against “man-camps,” temporary housing camps for transient pipeline workers. These isolated camps are filled with mostly men who are either single or leave their families to work on the pipeline. This has led to a documented increase in violence against indigenous women and girls in British Columbia.
The group has seven more houses under construction that will be placed strategically along the proposed pipeline route and will provide an affordable way for the Secwepemc to live minimally, downsize, and exist sustainably on their land. The project has created alternative housing for a community that has been forced to live on reserves in houses that are typically expensive and unsafe. As Manuel explains, reserve homes are often filled with toxic chemicals, like asbestos and formaldehyde, and came with 50-year mortgages that were difficult to pay off.
In late May, the Canadian government bought the Trans Mountain Pipeline from Kinder Morgan to ensure it gets built, but creative resistance efforts from indigenous communities have not let up. And their efforts paid off: On August 30, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal revoked the government’s approval of the pipeline expansion and froze construction because the government failed to receive adequate support and informed consent from First Nations communities. Still, the fight is far from over.
Laboucan-Massimo believes that indigenous communities and those most affected by the impacts of climate change should be included in any global discussions addressing it. There is talk of a “Just Transition,” a global shift to a sustainable economy that keeps workers’ rights in mind, she says. “That term is used a lot in terms of workers, but what does that mean in terms of communities that are taking the brunt of environmental degradation and climate change?”
Like many in climate-vulnerable communities, she’s not waiting for global action. She’s implementing the change she wants to see in the world and demonstrating that it is possible to live sustainably off the land. “I can talk about why resource extraction is so bad until I’m blue in my face,” she says. “But I wanted to see that change and create that change by building these types of [sustainable] systems into our community.”