Member Highlight - Arctic and Mountain Regions Development Institute

Monday, April 3, 2017
Matthew Klick

As an organization dedicated to researching climate change vulnerability and rural community development, what are some of the high-level lessons you’ve learned on how rural areas can remain strong and resilient in the face of climate change?

To be honest, our recommendations are not obviously climate relevant, but we nevertheless see them as foundational for progressing with climate resilience and adaptation. Our argument, backed up by research and evidence, is that if communities are already on the back foot with respect to poverty, housing, and especially public health challenges, then climate resilience is less likely, and adaptation strategies are poorly implemented. The challenge then is that there is no silver bullet, and that all these things are very much interlinked. Community development in all its forms becomes climate resilience. 

However, if there is a high level lesson that we've gleaned, whether from Colorado or the Guatemalan Highlands, it's that the better that local citizens (whether through informal groups or more formal watershed associations, etc.) can liaise with state and national leadership, the better the outcomes with respect to either climate observations or building resilience. Too often, well-intentioned programs miss key local considerations, and are not communicated well to those most impacted. At the same time, quite savvy observations, and ideas, grounded in local knowledge, lack an outlet for expression. We hope to actively bridge this gap more as we grow, however we can, if simply by allowing for the forum where all stakeholders can meaningfully debate. 


How are Arctic and mountainous regions especially impacted by climate change? What made those regions the focus of AMRDI?

This is at the core of our focus, and why AMRDI is AMRDI. Physical and earth scientists have increasingly demonstrated that climate change is accelerated at both higher latitudes (the Arctic), and higher altitudes (mountains). Add to that the fact that both areas contend with some of the same challenges listed above -- poverty, housing, and public health -- and the ability of communities to adequately adapt is hamstrung. Moreover, these are rural, even remote, regions, where subsistence, or a dependency on a natural resource (whether coffee or fish), is fundamental to the household economy, and thus survival. Climate change directly impacts this relationship, and is straining households in these regions in fundamental ways. 

The list goes on: Arctic and mountain regions, in an international development context, are home to minority populations most often -- whether indigenous groups, ethnic minorities who do not speak the elite language, or lower castes. These are people that have either been ignored by state actors, or in some cases purposefully denied essential services. Finally, with respect to mountains especially, these are the "world's water towers," providing freshwater to billions of downstream people. In glaciated areas, as in the Himalaya or the Andes, water security is already under threat because of glacier recession, and mountain people are abandoning villages or traditional grazing areas as they dry. 

Closer to home we are also contending with streams drying early, and pest infestations in forests. Both threaten massive tourist-based economies centered on public land use. AMRDI is currently researching, and attempting to model, the relationship between predicted ski area openings under different scenarios (they are predicted to open later and later), and food security. What we already know is that low wage service workers and their families are visiting food banks at record numbers in the fall, and later openings make the calculation to stay, or migrate for less seasonal work, harder and harder. This threatens one of the pillars of our state's economy, even as low-wage employment in ski regions goes largely unnoticed.


You are currently writing these member highlight answers from Nicaragua, where you’re working on your “Coffee Lives” project. Can you tell us about that endeavor, and any lessons that could be applied to rural communities in the United States?

Yes! Coffee doesn't immediately jump out when people read our name, and assume (understandably) that we are focused on exclusively cold places, but coffee is a great example of everything we are talking about. First, all arabica coffee is grown in the mountains! They may not be the highest, but even in Central America, they can get cold, and are frequently quite remote. Government services are anemic. Coffee is the heartbeat of the economy, but is hugely susceptible to climate variations. We are currently in a research phase (true to our method of rigorously gathering evidence before putting forth either recommendations or committing to an action phase). We are conducting a combination of very intentional surveys and structured interviews to better understand why poverty persists in coffee regions and what the barriers are to more robust development. We are also asking what climate adaptation looks like currently, and what are positive innovations already underway. 

This means going to some quite off-the-grid places, rather than just coffee company offices. We are visiting with very small landholders, some without title to their land, or with no land at all and who are just employed by picking coffee cherries during the harvest. These people are truly on the front lines of climate and development. We are still gathering surveys, and results will appear as briefs, peer-reviewed papers, and a more grand coffee report later this summer, but early results are interesting: There is widespread acknowledgment of climate change, even among the most poor. Yields have varied and Coffee Leaf Rust (la roya) has been a persistent problem in recent years. But there is virtually no sense of an adaptation strategy yet. Circling back to my first answer, economic situations are tenuous enough that farmers feel forced to grow varieties that earn them higher pries, even if they are more challenging to grow under changing conditions. The landless pickers, meanwhile, have no proper forum to share their observations, and otherwise find it 'not their place' to raise alarm bells. Alas, as I think I said before, community development is climate resilience, whether in Nicaragua, or in the U.S!