A hub within a biocultural mesh: Climate change in the Betsileo perception (Madagascar)

The Betsileo are an ethnic group of rice growers and livestock keepers occupying the south of the highlands of Madagascar. Rice and zebu, Betsileo main staple foods and important gifts for the ancestors, are deeply affected by climate change. Interestingly, from the Betsileo perspective, climate change is not only the result of a bioclimatic process but also the consequence of people’s failure to comply with traditional rules and taboos.

Fig.1 Map of the study area, Namoly valley (Madagascar)

From December 2019, LICCI core team member Vincent Porcher has been conducting research among the Betsileo, an ethnic group occupying the southern part of central Madagascar. Vincent’s research aims to understand the role of wild edible plants collected by children and adults play in Betsileo subsistence food system in a context of climate change. Vincent is conducting research in the Namoly valley, located in the southern part of the Betsileo territory, at the foot of the Andringitra massif at an altitude of 1500m (fig.1). The relief and altitude of this area confer a unique microclimate in Madagascar with a cyclonic tropical season followed by a cold and dry winter (10-14 ° C) then a short off-season. Despite abundant rainfall, frost conditions allow only one rice harvest per year in the region, versus two in the rest of the country. This particularity makes the production of their staple food particularly vulnerable to sudden climate change with greater risks during the lean season.

Data collected during these first months of fieldwork show that the Betsileos perceive many climate-related changes, most often embedded in long chains of complex physical and ecological processes also involving spiritual entities. Among the many observations, the Betsileo systematically mention the drop in rainfall in the wet season, which is their main concern. According to the Betsileo, the decrease in the number of cyclones per year over the past 15 years is the cause of the irrigation problems in the rice fields, as cyclones bring rain. Decreases in rain are accompanied by a shift in the seasons, which profoundly disrupts the agricultural calendar. Delays in rice transplanting due to the lack of water drastically reduces the rice-growing window before the arrival of frosts, which destroy production. The direct consequences are the spread of the lean season and the decrease in annual income.

Fig.2 Simplified scheme of Betsileo perceptions of the drivers of climate change.

the Betsileo explain these changes in the climate system as the result of local bioclimatic or ecological processes that feed on each other cyclically (fig.2). For example, deforestation is driven by population increase. But, in turn, deforestation reduces cloud formation, and therefore results in less rains. At the same time, the drier weather limits Betsileo ability to control pasture fires, which destroy the forest.

However, for the Betsileo, this complex system of multiple drivers of climate change is also intertwined with magico-religious processes influencing the climate. The social system of Betsileos is maintained and regulated by many rules and taboos called fady directly connecting to spiritual entities and ancestors. The non-compliance of these taboos has direct consequences which include sudden changes in climate (e.g. hail, lightning and heavy rain). Thus, the Betsileo interpret recent changes in the climate system as the synergy of independent bioclimatic processes and the decadence of their society linked to the loss of ancestral customs.

Understanding Betsileo perceptions of the drivers of climate change is important because this perception affect their adaptation system. Adaptation strategies adopted by Betsileo are often mixed involving technical (i.e. modification of the irrigation system, abandonment of landrace) as well as magico-religious responses (i.e., increase in the number of requests to ancestors, use of specific magic ritual, solicitation of traditional healers-diviners (Ombiasa)).

Thus, for the Betsileos, climate change is a hub in a more complex biocultural mesh.

Betsileo family in front of their traditional house during an interview. (Amabalamarina village, Namoly) picture: Ludovic Iribarne
Rice paddy landscape in the valley. (Ambalamanandray village, Namoly) picture: Vincent Porcher

The new LICCI citizen science platform will soon be available for everyone!

We are creating a new platform called OpenTEK that will allow the general public to report and describe perceived local indicators of climate change impacts from any place in the world in an easy way.

If you want to help us test and improve the tool, we’ll hold a webinar on  April 21st from 3 pm to 4:30 pm (CEST) where we will introduce and test the platform features.

To join, you just need to register via this link before April 15th and we’ll get back to you with more information!

Upcoming workshops

We are currently seeking to establish more collaborations with researchers and practitioners based in Europe, Latin America, Oceania and Asia whose work involves climate change and local communities, and who are willing to contribute to the goals of the LICCI project. With that purpose, and if the current COVID-19 crisis allows, several regional training workshops will be held. If you are interested, keep track of the news on our website.

Beyond the local: The geographical spread of climate change impacts in the Bassari landscape (Senegal)

The Bassari are a group of agriculturalists who live in the South West of Senegal, in the Kédougou region. Hunter-gatherers until the last century, the Bassari nowadays practice extensive agriculture, alternating crops with fallow areas. Among the many threats to Bassari traditional agricultural system, we recorded one that goes beyond the local: the arrival of transhumance herders coming from the North of Senegal, where demographic increase and the decrease in rain has affected pasture availability.

Khaya senegalensis -“atyes” in Bassari language, pruned by transhumant pastoralists to obtain fodder

From October 2019, LICCI core team member Anna Porcuna and her partner, Benjamin Klappoth, have been conducting research among the Bassari, an ethnic group of about 22.000 people found in Senegal and Guinea. Anna’s research aims to understand how the agricultural system of the Bassari from the village of Ethiolo, Senegal, is impacted by climate change.  The village of Ethiolo, in the region of Kédougou, is situated in a hilly region characterized by a tropical dry or savannah climate type. The Bassari of Ethiolo practice subsistence farming and their agriculture is rain-fed and mostly cereal-based, with some cultivation of vegetables and legumes. Climatological research in the area shows clear climate change trends, including an increase in temperature and changes in precipitation. The Bassari, themselves, also perceive many local impacts of climate change, including a shorter rainy season and the earlier dry out of seasonal rivers. 

However, the Bassari also mentioned other threats to their livelihood, and particularly the encroachment of their lands by transhumant pastoralists coming from the North of Senegal. According to the Bassari, in the last 10 years, transhumant pastoralists have started to bring their livestock to pasture in Bassari fallow fields and forests. Respondents reported that the arrival of transhumant pastoralists has resulted in a deforestation increase, an increase in the frequency and intensity of wild fires, and an intensification of livestock illnesses.  

While the Bassari do not link the arrival of the pastoralists to changes in the local climatic system, far away from Bassari land, in the North of Senegal, demographic increase and precipitation decrease have affected the availability of pasture, leading to a shift of pasture mobility patterns. Notably, transhumant herders are nowadays moving more and more to the South to find fresh fodder for their sheep. Not familiar with the functioning of the local ecosystem inhabited by the Bassari and reticent to change their management practices, the transhumant pastoralists use of Bassari landscape seems to be having many negative impacts. The Bassari complain that transhumant pastoralists do not follow traditional forest-management techniques that have for long time helped them preserve the forest. For example, to feed their herds, pastoralists from the Nord extensively cut big branches from the tree, thus damaging the tree. Moreover, they do not separate the cut branches from the tree trunks, thus increasing changes of tree burning during wild fire season.

The example shows how climate change impacts that might be perceived locally (i.e., drought in the Northern regions) can have an impact that goes far beyond the local (in this case through the increased mobility of transhumance herders), affecting the intensity of climate change impacts in a different geographical area (i.e., the Bassari landscape). 

Picture above: Focus Group Discussion about crop and landrace traits. Picture on the left: the LICCI team working with the Bassari. From left to right: Susanne, Pascal, Viki, Anna and Benjamin.

Call for Applications

LICCI Project European Regional Workshop – March 27th, ICTA – Autonomous University of Barcelona

The LICCI (Local Indicators of Climate Change Impacts: The Contribution of Local Knowledge to Climate Change Research) project is a European Research Council (ERC) funded project aiming to improve our understanding of how climate change affects physical, biological, and socioeconomic systems. Using a mix-method approach, the project will document and analyze local indicators of climate change impacts through the lens of local knowledge across climate types and among several Indigenous Peoples and local communities (visit www.licci.eu for more info about the project).

To achieve this goal, we have trained 42 partners, who will collect data in different field sites across the world. We are currently seeking to establish more collaborations with researchers and practitioners based in Europe, whose work involves climate change and local communities, and who are willing to contribute to the goals of the LICCI project.

With that purpose, a training workshop will be held on March 27th 2020 in ICTA-UAB (Barcelona, Spain). Core team members of LICCI will train collaborators who are interested in the LICCI protocol with background information of the project and data collection methods.

By collaborating with the LICCI project, collaborators will be considered as potential co-authors in the articles that use their data, and gain access to and training on how to use the LICCI app (www.licci.eu/app).

The workshop will take place from 8:30am to 5:30pm, the detailed schedule is:
8:30-10:30 Introduction: Description of the project goals and terminology.
10:45-12:30 Contextual data: Description of the methods and questions to collect contextual data, including weather and GPS data for the study sites and villages.
12:30-1:30 Lunch break (light food and beverages will be provided by the project).
1:30-3:30 Qualitative data: Description of the methods to collect qualitative data on Local Indicators of Climate Change Impacts (LICCI), and Local Adaptations to Climate Change Impacts (LACCI).
3:45-5:30 Data collection tools: Description of the data collection tools, including data collection software (app).

If you wish to attend in person, please register via this link. Registration will be open until 11:59pm of February 28th 2020 (Central European Time) with an attendance cap of 20 people. If more than 20 people register, we will apply a first come, first served criteria for selection. This workshop (except for the part on data collection tools) will also be streamed online here, for those who are interested but not be able to come in person.

Interns blog!

A mandatory part of every MSc at the Wageningen University & Research (The Netherlands) is to carry out a full-time internship. Coming from environmental policy (Francesca) and climate change studies (Marzia), we wanted our internship to focus on climate change impacts and how people perceive them. So, we started looking for internships and we came across the LICCI project (LASEG Research group).

After a Skype meeting with Viki, in September 2019 we joined the LICCI team for six months.  

At LICCI we carried out several tasks aimed to improve the project. For instance we helped the LICCI core team to revise the LICCI protocol, to test the LICCI app, as well as we facilitated the organization of two out of three LICCI workshops (in September and November 2019). Moreover, we were in charge of the dissemination part by taking care and updating the LICCI website. 

However, we also had our researches to focus on: Francesca investigated how climate change impacts wild edible plants and how it is locally perceived, while Marzia looked into water-related indicators of climate change, their perception in local communities and the struggles to access water in some areas of the world.

Considering these past months spent at LICCI, we have really positive feelings about this internship. Not only we learnt a lot about the contribution of local knowledge to climate change research, but also we understood how such a big project works, with all its parts, phases, challenges, and how the skillful LICCI researchers manage it all!

The LICCI’s inclusive and friendly environment encouraged us to be active members of the team and to boost our curiosity, so, if you are interested in doing an internship at LICCI, just go for it! 

Don’t you wish to do your internship in a friendly, dynamic and international environment?

Francesca & Marzia, interns at LICCI

Victoria Reyes-García receives an ERC Proof of Concept grant linked to the LICCI project



Victoria Reyes-García ICREA Research Professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) is one of the 76 top researchers that will receive ERC Proof of Concept grants. This top-up funding is awarded to ERC grantees to explore the innovation potential of their scientific discoveries and bring the results of their frontier research closer to market or society. This final injection of €11.4 million pushes the total number of ERC Proof of Concept funded projects during 2019 to 200. With the additional money researchers can, for example, investigate business opportunities, establish intellectual property rights, conduct technical validation, or explore the social benefits of their frontier research findings.

The new grant will help the LICCI team, led by Victoria Reyes-García, to create an Indigenous Climate Change Impacts Observation Network (ICCION) oriented to bring Indigenous knowledge and perspectives to climate change policy fora.

The ERC project Local Indicators of Climate Change Impacts (LICCI) explores the potential of Indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) to contribute to climate research, but only tangentially addresses the marginalized position faced by Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLC) to bring their knowledge and perspectives to climate change research and policy fora. This new project will contribute to bring IPLC’s knowledge and perspectives to climate change policy fora 1) by engaging with IPLC on the co-design of a digital Indigenous Climate Change Impacts Observation Network (ICCION) and 2) by engaging with the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which has the mandate to strengthen the role played by IPLC in addressing and responding to climate change.

The Proof of Concept grant amounts to a total of €150,000 for an 18-month period, which in this case will go towards the creation of an Indigenous Climate Change Impacts Observation Network.

ICCION is an innovative response to the IPCC call for more ground level data as it will expand the geographical and temporal coverage of data collection on local indicators of climate change impacts. Moreover, partnering with IPLC and international organizations constitutes an important social innovation, as these alliances might facilitate IPLC effective participation in climate change science-policy fora. Finally, ICCION innovates in developing technological solutions to address technical (i.e., low internet access) and social concerns (i.e., Indigenous data sovereignty) that are of particular relevance for IPLC, but which have often been neglected in other technological developments.

The long-term establishment of the observation network proposed here will contribute to give IPLC a more relevant voice in global climate policy fora, not only by informing climate change impact research, but also making it more socially acceptable.