Rebuilding livelihoods is never simple, but projects supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) have contributed to resilience and rebuilding of communities and their production systems in the face of sudden shocks, whether it be natural disasters, civil unrest, economic downturns or a pandemic.
After the deadliest earthquake in 81 years struck Nepal in 2015, followed by hundreds of aftershocks and another severe earthquake days later, an ACIAR-funded forestry project led by the University of Adelaide was instrumental for recovery in some communities. The project, ‘Enhancing livelihoods and food security from agroforestry and community forestry in Nepal’, which had started in 2011, had already imparted knowledge and skills so that local agencies and landholders were able to work quickly to stabilise soil erosion and use timber grown by the project to build temporary housing for displaced people.
Smallholder cattle farmers in Lombok, Indonesia, an area devastated by earthquakes in 2018, were able to recover more quickly because ACIAR-funded projects under the IndoBeef program had facilitated a profitable shift from traditional household-based farming to collective farm management, a model that imparted more resilience to affected communities.
ACIAR-brokered projects have also helped farmers and communities recover from challenging circumstances as a result of civil unrest. For example, after ethnic conflict in Solomon Islands in 1998, ACIAR and other international agencies supported the WorldFish Center to develop small-scale aquatic enterprises to help coastal communities lift themselves from poverty. From 2012, ACIAR supported a 5-year project in Afghanistan, led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) to restart wheat farming and local seed production.
A niche disaster recovery response
In 40 years of supporting agricultural development, ACIAR has been involved in the rebuilding phase of many communities after major catastrophes. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. It caused a series of massive ocean waves up to 30 metres high to flood inland, killing an estimated 228,000 people in 14 countries.
Worst hit was the Indonesian province of Banda Aceh, where ACIAR and Indonesian researchers had been working to establish and improve the quality of aquaculture in coastal ponds around reclaimed mangroves since the early 1990s.
Mr Barney Smith, inaugural ACIAR Fisheries Research Program Manager (1991–2009), remembered this time.
‘By 2004 ACIAR had a long history of working in partnership with Indonesian fisheries and research institutions and we could provide relevant advice to help them to rebuild. ACIAR looked at ways for the local people to reclaim their livelihoods and develop opportunities for income and food production.’
With the help of Indonesian ministries and agencies, the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and ACIAR put in place a portfolio of projects to underpin the long-term reconstruction of agriculture and fisheries in Aceh.
An intensifying imperative within the ACIAR operating region is addressing challenges that don’t adhere to borders, such as a changing climate and increasingly variable weather conditions.
Over 2.5 billion people worldwide rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Climate change and extreme weather events already have a devastating impact on agricultural production, and the number of extreme weather events is predicted to increase due to climate change. Agriculture also has a major role to play in slowing climate change, as agriculture contributes a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
For more than a decade, projects across the entire ACIAR research portfolio have included aspects of managing the impacts and adapting to climate change. The ACIAR Climate Change Program was formed in 2020 to intensify the focus on the science and practice of how to transform food systems and livelihoods that are under the most pressure to adapt or to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Demonstrating its growing expertise and capacity in this area, ACIAR is a founding member of the Adaptation Research Alliance (ARA), a global organisation that facilitates researchers working with farmers and being guided by their needs. ACIAR also participated in forums at the United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP), in 2022, as part of the official Australian Government delegation to the conference.
Technology aids emergency response
Following a massive volcano eruption and tsunami in 2022, Tonga began the recovery of its agriculture-based economy. In order to provide the most effective and efficient assistance, Tonga needed information about the agricultural landscape as it existed before the devastation occurred. This information was already available, in an open-source application that was developed as part of an ACIAR-supported project that started in 2018.
Working closely with partners in Tonga’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Forests and Fisheries and Fiji’s Ministry of Agriculture, a project co-led by geographers at the University of Sydney and the University of Western Australia had been developing tools to automate and streamline data collection. The initial data collection initiative had mapped the entire country’s crop holdings and this information was used to generate valuable insights following the disaster.
The platform enables an almost-immediate analysis of patterns and trends in Tonga’s cropping systems, so the ministry was able to calculate the number and types of crops impacted by ash or destroyed by the tsunami. This provided information about what food crops were affected and enabled accurate assessments of shortfalls in food stuffs to guide targeted aid.
The 2022 disaster was not the first time the platform had come to the aid of Tonga. It had already been used to help identify and address food security challenges during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. More specifically, the data collected was used to calculate fuel subsidies needed to encourage the conversion of fallow land into active production to support communities during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Ultimately, the project is aiming to develop a collaborative geospatial platform that will identify responses to climate-smart landscape adaptation in the Pacific region. But in the meantime, it has proved invaluable in supporting government planning in the face of a pandemic and natural disasters.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted existing vulnerabilities in food systems and amplified these vulnerabilities since the start of 2020.
Women and children were some of the hardest-hit groups through loss of employment, income and food stocks. Import dependence for food staples and seed supplies increased across many countries in the Indo-Pacific region, and value chains became fragmented. For example, where communities previously may have been able to purchase local improved seed for planting, they became dependent on outside supply of seeds. Similarly, the breakdown of supply chains meant that fertiliser wasn’t available for farmers at critical times in their crop cycles.
The COVID-19 pandemic marked a new level of cooperation and transition where in-country partners were supported remotely by ACIAR and empowered to act in new ways. ACIAR supported a rapid assessment of food system security, resilience and emerging risks in the Indo-Pacific region in the context of COVID-19. This assessment identified possible actions that could be taken by governments and other food systems stakeholders to boost food systems resilience in the face of future shocks.
The pandemic that shut down the world
With travel between and within countries severely restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital communication via text and tablets was the solution for coordinating research remotely in Samoa and Kiribati for Dr Libby Swanepoel from the University of the Sunshine Coast.
For Dr Swanepoel, who was leading her first ACIAR-funded project to develop gender-inclusive seaweed production for long-term health, income and wellbeing in coastal communities, the relationships developed between ACIAR and in-country researchers were critical.
‘A lot of the work we do is participatory – working with communities from the bottom up – which is more difficult remotely, so we relied on the in-country teams a lot.
‘We looked at the project’s original aim and method, then worked together to adapt the project and co-create solutions. We developed interactive online training modules that could be applied to other research projects. We’ve been able to train more people, because when you’re teaching online, numbers are less of an issue.’
Tablets sent from Australia proved invaluable in collecting data on local diets. Samoan researchers responded to the technology enthusiastically, by learning online how to do surveys and interviews in communities and collecting data from 200 households rather than the original 100 target.
‘We created an online app for the in-country teams with intuitive prompts to guide them through the interview and survey process. We synced the app with the Pacific island food composition tables and we workshopped to determine the foods commonly eaten in Samoa and Kiribati to help collect accurate dietary intake data.’
The success in Samoa unfortunately was not repeated in Kiribati where remoteness and poor internet services made the adaptation to digital tools very difficult.