How small farmers are adapting to water scarcity

A collective intelligence approach to climate change adaptation

3 de Mayo de 2023

Farmer’s plots in located in Santa María de Jesús.

Photo: UNDP Accelerator Labs Guatemala / Paola Constantino

The climatic variations are increasing, we experience storms more frequently that saturate the absorption capacity of the soil, generating floods, but we observe how water is increasingly scarce. This scarcity is not only about the availability of water that comes from the groundwater table, surface sources (95% of rivers these are contaminated), but also the variation in the rainy season which is already reduced. Therefore,  how can we adapt to these conditions and especially when it involves communities of small farmers to overcome these conditions and generate livelihoods?

From the Accelerator Labs we are exploring the opportunities generated by Collective Intelligence through the Design Studio with Nesta for climate change adaptation and in the case of Guatemala, how can we find and/or adapt solutions in water management, to increase the capacities of small farmers to face water scarcity and improve their productivity.

Conducting collective intelligence workshop with small farmers from Santa María de Jesús.

Photo: UNDP Accelerator Labs Guatemala / Paola Constantino

This is the case of the communities of small producers in Santa María de Jesús, a small town that was known for the production of snow peas, and that today faces a serious scarcity of water. In this blog, we will learn how these communities are adapting to water scarcity and the practices they are carrying out to be resilient to climate change, maintaining their livelihoods.

These small producers are currently being part of the implementation of good practices, focused on strengthening value chains and promoting sustainability in the territories around the volcanoes. This program is part of a national-scale Project promoted by UNDP Guatemala, Energy and Environment Portfolio, (Promoting Sustainable and Resilient Territories in Productive Landscapes of the Central Volcanic Chain of Guatemala), together with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.

Learning to climate crisis adaptation, from snow pea local producers

The granular work is carried out through civil organizations, which in this case has been TIKONEL, who have experience in value chains. Currently they are also working with these 2 communities of small producers in Santa María de Jesús, a Cakchiquel population, with around 22,000 people.

To open a process of collective intelligence, we began by approaching the territory to find out the conditions, as well as both indigenous producer communities VEGEXSA and CICODUMA, which includes 165 people: 75 women (46%) and 90 men (54%).

The productive areas are located 3-4 kilometers from the urban area, which currently continues to grow without recognizing the risks presented by the change in land use. Potable water does not reach these territories since there is no municipal supply infrastructure. With the support of the Japanese Cooperation(JICA), a water well was built, however, the distribution infrastructure is expensive to implement and provide piped water to these plots.

Both cooperatives have dealt with scarcity through manual water hauling in three ways:

  1. Loaded on their backs, which implies carrying approximately 105 pounds of weight for more than 3 kilometers in irregular topography.

  2.  Carried by horse, which implies rental or maintenance costs of these animals.

  3. Carried by vehicle, which not everyone has access to, so it implies additional rental or maintenance costs (not to mention gas costs).

Both communities have carried out processes to strengthen value chains for snow peas, which have included:

a. Production based on GAP good agricultural practices (individual by product)

b. Product transformation under cooperative models (towards compliance with certification levels).

c. Marketing to international markets, brand development, and “denomination of origin” promotion. 

VEGEXSA small producers.

Photo: UNDP Accelerator Labs Guatemala / Paola Constantino

Deep listening to begin a collective intelligence approach

For production, the need to address the challenge of water scarcity was identified, and for this, 3 rainwater harvesting solutions were presented, including:

  1. Open storage in a pile dug into the ground for collection and waterproofed with geogrid for storage.

  2. Collection through channels (cisterns) waterproofed with geogrid towards excavated reservoir and waterproofed with geogrid

  3. Capture through light roof structures, and storage in a plastic tank.

Both organizations chose the roof collection solution (built by themselves) and tank storage for manual irrigation and clarifying that they do not have an irrigation system in the plots.

Insights from CICODUMA experiences: 

  • “Dulce Nombre de María” Integral Marketing Cooperative opened as a cooperative 13 years ago, and its headquarters are located in the urban area, where we had the opportunity to meet the board members, including the women members of the cooperative.

  • Their plots are located on the slopes of the volcano, which means that the land still receives moisture from the water collected by "condensation" and by the slope of the land.

  • The installation of the solutions has been more complex than in flat territory.

  • There is more risk of stolen water storage containers.

  • CICODUMA seeks stability, that is, that their operations are based on fixed prices, which leads to the question of whether they are aware of the risks of international markets.

  • It is clear that they are interested in new approaches and open innovation, looking to stay updated, for the good and well-being of their Cooperative in the long term.

Insights from VEGEXSA experiences:

  • The Exotic Vegetable Association was founded 3 years ago and is made up of very young producers who have also sought to study and practice professionally to have other livelihoods.

  • Regarding the adaptability in good practices and the rainwater harvesting operation, it has allowed them to improve the quality of the product. Today they fertilize 3 times a week instead of once, depending on the applications necessary to comply with laboratory analyzes and product quality requirements.

  • VEGEXSA operates in a small valley, in which soil moisture has been reduced. 

  • With the improvement in the practices that have been carried out, VEGEXSA has focused on exporting its product to the European market, which is well paid, compared to the US market. The product that does not pass the quality requirements is sold locally as a secondary product.

  • According to our conversation with VEGEXSA, it has allowed women to generate more income, going from Q0.25 per pound of pointed peas (maquila) to Q.0.40 or even Q0.50.

  • VEGEXSA is clear about the behavior of the market and what they need to remain modern and competitive, also studying what is happening with the minimum requirements to remain active in European markets, and studying cases such as Brazil, which has limitations to export.

VEGEXSA on one of the farmer’s plots.

Photo: UNDP Accelerator Labs Guatemala / Paola Constantino

Collective intelligence opportunities

a. DIY Experiences in the construction of collection water structures:

Both organizations have been beneficiaries of the productivity improvement program through the provision of water tanks. In the case of CICODUMA, they accepted the 750-liter container. VEGEXSA analyzed the opportunities to invest in a tank larger than 2,500 liters that they have installed on their plots. Each of the members was given the materials to build the structure with a roof for water collection and gravity storage.

During our conversation it emerged how the experiences were, calling other local artisans to help them in the construction. For example, in assembling the roofs, they called in the local blacksmith to help fit the plastic gutters by heating and expanding them to fit the structure. They shared how they also managed to transport the containers to the site, trying different ways and finding that through building a “wooden bed” (procession), they were able to load the container more safely and move it between them. 

This demonstrates not only interest but also a problem-solving capacity that is key in collective intelligence processes. It is clear that everyone is interested in and open to new co-creative processes, recognizing that they already have the resources to adapt to find solutions collectively.

b.Openness to experience product diversification

Being aware of the risks of having monocultures, in the event of unforeseen price drops or the closure of borders in the commercialization of products, both organizations are open to new low-cost experiments (prototypes) in tomato, sunflower and herb cultivation.

However, the challenges of water scarcity remain, since the tomato, for example, requires a greater consumption of water.

c. Openness to learning and complying with vegetable production certification standards

It was surprising to learn that both communities are targeting international marketing, particularly as an opportunity to earn better income for their families and communities. For this reason and with the support of the Volcanic Chain Project, that they are completing the GlobalG.A.P certification processes, international recognized entity for agricultural production certification, under the guidance of Aliar Guatemala.

The certification covers:

• Food safety and traceability

• Environment (including biodiversity)

• Health, safety, and well-being of workers

• Animal welfare

• Includes Integrated Crop Management (ICM), Integrated Pest Control (IPC),

• Quality Management System (QMS) and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP).

d. Increasing capacities through access to knowledge about water management

Both organizations are interested in increasing their knowledge and being able to improve growth opportunities, either a) improving the options (solutions) for water collection in the face of its scarcity; b) expanding knowledge and solutions for efficient water management; and/or c) increasing productivity under good agricultural practices (GAP).

In the case of expanding knowledge and solutions for efficient management, we identified the opportunity to guide the process of collective intelligence, in the use of data. From the previous research process to the "testing of the value proposition", information and granular data on the territory were investigated in climatic entities and those linked to the environment and agriculture. However, the little open information available is only provided at the national level, without recognizing the variations in smaller territories, whether linked to volcanic territory or sub-basins.

This is how the need to understand:

  • Soil absorption capacities and humidity levels, which are what sustain the nourished growth of plants.

  • Ability to capture more rainwater.

  • Participate in the agroclimatic discussions led by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAGA)

  • Investigate more in the changes of climatic patterns beyond the INSIVUMEH information available.

  • Use georeferenced information to analyze the physiographic variation in the territory and considering that there are producers on the slopes of the volcano and the valley itself.

Packaging snow pea for international markets on Aliar Guatemala

Photo: UNDP Accelerator Labs Guatemala / Paola Constantino
Next steps from a collective intelligence approach 

Within the (systemic) challenges around water scarcity, in the face of climate change adversities, we mappedmore than 50 solutions, however these solutions should be focused on the importance and urgency to address  these other systemic challenges:

  • Surprisingly, the water is NOT USED for irrigation or within irrigation systems, it is only used in applications with a mobile, hand pump.

  • Water demand for irrigation and maintenance of soil moisture.

  • Demand for water to grow other products and reduce the risk of unforeseen events in monoculture.

  • Water quality by collection with aluminum sheets and its useful life (rust)

  • and. Improvements to the current system

  • Use of organic fertilizer practices instead of chemical ones due to the scarcity of water.

  • Adequate removal of plastics used in agricultural practices

  • Water for domestic use in urban areas

  • Water scarcity accentuated by urban growth and use of the same old infrastructure, already limited

  • Absence of rule of law over water resources

Based on the deepening of the understanding of the local challenges and the opportunities that Collective Intelligence offers with co-creation, we undertook a workshop (based on the Design Thinking stages) with both communities that allowed us to:

  1. Listen to the voices of each one of the members, understanding for them what water scarcity represents.

  2. Collectively discover that collaboration allows us to open up to new solutions

  3. Rethinking the solutions and considering the value of the data generated by both communities.

We will share the results of this workshop in the following blog, as well as the lessons learned to guide the process of testing this value proposition on "increasing capacities through access to knowledge about water management".



Blog written by:

Paola Constantino - Head of Solutions Mapping, Accelerator Labs Guatemala.

Mural painted on local community center in Santa María de Jesús.

Photo: UNDP Accelerator Labs Guatemala / Paola Constantino