Community Resilience: a new form of Community Governance to deal with Climate Change

Abstract from a talk by Vandana Shiva and Jacqueline McGlade at the Gaia Foundation in June 2009. Written by Stephen Frank.

Dr Vandana Shiva is a world-renowned scientist and environmentalist. She is Direc­tor of Navdanya, India, which is dedicated to the rejuvenation of indigenous knowledge and culture. As part of its fight against bio-piracy, Navdanya has founded forty six seed banks across the country. It supports people's food rights in the face of globalisation and helps maintain awareness of the hazards of genetic engineering. Vandana Shiva has received many awards including the Right Livelihood Award in 1993. Her many books and publications include Staying Alive, Eco-Feminism, Protect or Plunder, Food versus Fuel and Soil not Oil.

In the Himalayas, the snow is turning to rain because of global warming. Vandana Shiva has just returned from a field trip during which she visited five villages there that have been washed away by floods from the glaciers melting. Each village is settled just below a glacier with a trickle of melting ice providing its drinking water and its irrigation needs. The villages have been situated next to the solid glaciers for hundreds of years, but now with global warming, the rains are bringing the mountains down. The meteorological department in Delhi claims there is no difference in the amount of precipitation. This is, we are told, because they only look at averages. The Indian government claims it does not really know what is happening and needs to set up scientific teams to do more research into the glaciers. But the villagers do know what is happening. They know that the Ganges glacier, the source of the Ganges, is retreating at the rate of about thirteen meters a year. Entire stretches of the Ganges and its tributaries have already gone dry. And, it seems to Vandana, that the government does know, because it is limiting or forbidding pilgrims to that area.

Flowers that used to herald Spring in March or April are now blossoming in January. Forests that once had moisture dripping through the air are now dried out. On the one hand there is too much water from the glaciers melting, on the other there is too little water in the forests. One consequence of these climatic changes is that entire crop systems have to be changed.

While climate change continues to create these vulnerabilities, dam-building as well as hydro-power generating activities have accelerated. This is because, since Kyoto, anything related to a dam or hydro-power is now treated as part of the Kyoto 'clean energy mechanism." Blasting is taking place inside these already fragile mountains. Official assessments claim there will be no impact on the rivers whereas locals judge that if dam building and tunnelling carry on, the waters in these rivers will dry up. If your river disappears your agriculture disappears. This is why the women in every valley are organising to fight.

Amidst the obvious, considerable difficulties and misrepresentation of the situation, Vandana and her colleagues have set up community initiatives to work at monitoring what is actually happening. This way they get direct reports from the ground and are able to monitor the real impact on communities. Many community leaders are now collecting data and voicing their findings. Communities discuss how to adapt to and mitigate the situation and how to prepare for further potential disasters. They do this for themselves, but they also direct their ideas to the government and nationally.

Communities are the custodians. They are the ones who care and who watch and see, for example, which varieties of plants thrive during a period of drought or which varieties do well when there is more salt in the water, as was the case after the tsunami. This intense attention to changing conditions happens first and foremost at local levels because people's ability to survive depends on being their capacity to adapt to shifting circumstances. Genetic engineering - in spite of all its propaganda and claims that only through genetic engineering can we deal with climate change - lags behind here as it tries to catch up with what farmers have already done. A big issue is to save diversity and to have it patent free in order to facilitate free exchanges between communities. Fortunately, on the last day of the Bonn negotiations, a number of the G77 group said that all climate friendly technology should be patent free. Vandana Shiva sees this is as a very important community response.

At the local level, communities with indigenous knowledge are in real contact with what is happening. They therefore possess a measurable advantage in their ability to adapt to a totally unpredictable and chaotic climate. Vandana sees the difficulties that surround so many communities as an opportunity to build citizen and community participation. She is hopeful that all of the community based solutions that have developed during the last few decades as a result of the climate threat, can evolve into a joined-up and integrated commitment at a planetary level.

Professor Jacqueline McGlade is currently the executive director of the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen. The members of the agency stretch from Greenland to Turkey, encompassing roughly one billion people. There is a discrepancy between what people experience locally and the information they receive from the media. The agency is trying to give people at local levels, in communities, a connection and a sense of belonging to something bigger than just what is happening in their back yard. Professor McGlade is author of nu­merous research papers and has presented many radio and TV programmes including her own BBC series The Ocean Planet and Our Arctic Challenge.

Against the background of climate change, species extinction, financial meltdown and com­munity fragmentation, Jacqueline McGlade gave some examples of European community resilience. But first she pointed out that many of the scientific models used by the institutions like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are just that - models - often lacking in real on-the-ground data. Real observations of the effects of climate change often do not come from science but from people going about their normal business and noticing changes. For instance, it was fishermen who first found the disintegrated shells of calcareous plankton that are losing them due to the changing acidity of the oceans.

With this in mind the European Environment Agency, of which Jacqueline McGlade is executive director, launched The Global Citizen Environment Observatory in order to start listening directly to people. Going back in time, quite often very small warning signals were registered, but they often came from communities that were not necessarily connected to the mainstream. For instance, CFCs were talked about for quite a long time by the people involved in producing them. And fortunately there was one dogged scientist who was absolutely convinced that the ozone hole in the Arctic was real.

The European Environment Agency has also launched the website, Water Watch, to encourage people to inform what is happening on the ground as opposed to what governments say is happening. During the first hour of its launch, 60,000 people gave the Agency information about what was happening on their local beaches.

There are now many communities in Europe moving towards self-sufficiency and self-determination. As of this year, every single Danish citizen is entitled to generate his or her own energy and export any excess to the national grid. They have an entitlement - they don't have to ask anybody. This has unleashed a great deal of individual creativity - a Heath-Robinson patchwork of alternative energy production is beginning to grow.

Communities too are beginning to determine their own sustainability and resilience patterns. Thisted was a desolate town on the edge of Denmark. Nobody wanted to live there anymore - most of the young people were leaving. Fifteen years ago a young man in the planning office decided to give every household a licence to put up their own wind turbine. Now nearly every house has its turbine and the commune owns one too. This energy producing scheme worked so well that they then turned their attention to bio-mass: the fish processing plant - the largest one on that side of the North Sea - now creates all of its own energy from recycling its waste. The community now manufactures so much energy that it is able to export the excess to Germany every evening. From this they have earned enough money to build a new school, a new hospital and they now have inward migration - the population has doubled.

More than most countries, the Netherlands is especially aware of rising sea levels. In the only example McGlade could find of a national attempt to engage communities, the Netherlands is already working on a project that will create room for a river as it swells in size due to rising sea levels. Based on the realisation that there is not going to be enough room for the people presently living in the vicinity of the river, a social contract was taken out with the population, the government and local authorities whereby people will move en masse - cities will be moved, housing sites will be moved - to give the river the space it is going to need as it swells in size. At present, 60,000 houses are being built employing new kinds of architecture, adapted to the situation. Instead of trying to avoid the river, people are living with it.

The Netherlands plan notwithstanding, McGlade believes that in many ways, national governments are almost redundant at this moment. She believes that the way ahead is through local self-determination and the serious re-structuring of governance. If you empower people locally, they can begin to create solutions that work. With resilient communities there will be a future. Governments won't provide it, scientists can't provide it. Communities working together offer the best chance of a resilient future.

Jacqueline McGlade reminds us that Nature will always win. We just have to realise this. She has great faith in the way many indigenous peoples have held on to the idea of community and resilience within communities and are passing on their traditional knowledge. Working with shamans and community leaders and the communities themselves, it becomes evident that they are amongst those who are best adapting to nature in this time when things are beginning to change more quickly. More than most, they offer a beacon of hope.