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The twin volcanoes of Ometepe Credit: Helen Schneider/FFI

Chilli chocolate, cool capuchins and a changing climate

Posted on: 06.01.12 (Last edited) 11 January 2012

Helen Schneider, FFI’s Programme Director, Conservation, Livelihoods and Governance, takes a journey to Central America to explore how we can work in a changing climate.

The early loss of my woolly jumper didn’t exactly bode well for dealing with the varying temperatures of an air-conditioned journey from an English winter to the tropical climates of Central America. Luckily, I always have an emergency pashmina to hand: a happy product of previous work with some lovely Nepalese. Strangely, the Nepal connection was one of many threads of stories that wove their way through the weeks ahead. The Nepalese Gurkha soldiers of the British Army spent many years in my final destination, Belize. According to local tales they adapted exceedingly well to their new environment, living in the forest, eating the traditional foods and adding to the diversity of the human gene pool.

Sunrise over the Golden Stream corridor, Belize – a long way away at this point but we got there eventually. Credit- Helen Schneider/FFI

Sunrise over the Golden Stream corridor, Belize – a long way away at this point but we got there eventually. Credit: Helen Schneider/FFI

Adaptation and diversity were key themes on this trip. With FFI and partner staff on Ometepe in Nicaragua and in the Maya Golden Landscape in Belize, we explored the interactions between biodiversity and sustainable livelihoods in the context of ‘a changing climate’. I use the latter phrase advisedly. Both people and wildlife are facing a wide range of changes in their economic, socio-cultural and biophysical contexts, of which the largely uncertain impacts of climate change are just one set of factors. So our approach was to examine how we can better understand social and natural vulnerability to change, and how to build the capacity of people and the environment to adapt to such changes: known in the jargon as ‘adaptive capacity’.

Happily, it emerged that much of what we are currently doing in both places, with local communities and with natural habitats, can contribute to adaptive capacity and build resilience to climate change. Examples include support to farm management planning and agro-forestry systems that enable people to conserve soil and water while diversifying the range of crops they can grow for both household use and sale. This is complemented by promoting conservation and rehabilitation of riparian strips and forest lands to improve water supply and provide wildlife corridors and refuges. This combination of activities aims to give flora and fauna, and women and men, more options when it comes to adapting to change.

Kenny Cal, a staff member of Ya’axché, our local partner in Belize, supports local communities to adopt agro-forestry techniques. Credit: Helen Schneider/FFI

Kenny Cal, a staff member of Ya’axché, our local partner in Belize, supports local communities to adopt agro-forestry techniques. Credit: Helen Schneider/FFI

For me, one of the best things about this trip was the opportunity to engage with the wonderful people with whom FFI works – our local staff, our partners and community members, all in their natural habitat. I was impressed, as always, with the power of storytelling for communicating and exploring issues, reflecting on lessons learnt and analysing how to address challenges. We heard hilarious tales from an ageing farmer getting to grips with new concepts and language, and from a FFI staff member trying to convince incredulous conservationist colleagues to find funds for growing tomatoes. We listened to stories of an elderly couple committed to passing a legacy of sustainable, organic cacao production through their son and daughter-in-law and on to their grandchildren. We were treated to anecdotes of how white-lipped peccaries (which I confused with cassowaries!) were now to be found in areas from which they’d previously been absent.

No, not an alien – this is what organic cacao beans look like in the pod. Credit: Helen Schneider/FFI

No, not an alien – this is what organic cacao beans look like in the pod. Credit: Helen Schneider/FFI

I left with many new stories of my own: of seeing capuchins, howler monkeys and yellow-naped parrots; of sharing the delight of a colleague catching her first glimpses of hummingbirds; of witnessing a farmer with whom we’ve been working putting his new skills and knowledge into practice. And then there’s the one about the marine biologist, the rental car and the ‘invisible’ hole in the road. Should I share that experience here? No way, José! That’s a tale for another day…..

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Dr Helen Schneider

Dr Helen Schneider joined FFI in 2009 from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, where she managed the Livelihoods Connect programme. Helen's PhD is in Tropical Watershed Management and she also has postgraduate qualifications in Web Design & Development and Environmental Technology, following her first degree in Rural Environment Studies from the University of London. Helen is a sustainable livelihoods and natural resource management professional with particular interests in issues of participation and environmental governance, and individual and organisational learning. She has 20 years experience in international development, mostly based in developing countries, working with a range of stakeholders, including government bodies, donor agencies, non-governmental organisations, researchers and local communities. From her time in Indonesia, Helen speaks Bahasa but she also describes Kiswahili, Spanish, French and German as "rusty but revivable".

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