News from the field: insights from the Serer

We arrived in the field by the end of April. The landscape was drab brown and dry, scattered with bushes, acacia trees and baobabs. In the past, the rainy season used to start earlier, we were told; by this time, the first millet seeds would have begun germinating across the fields. But nowadays the duration of the rainy season has shortened from five months to roughly four months, and the dry-spells have become more frequent and less predictable. Farmers tend to wait until the second or even the third rain to seed, fearing that an unexpected dry-spell would harm the seedlings. As a way of mitigating climate change effects, farmers also have started to rely more on shorter cycle crop varieties, since the shorter maturation period is better suited to the higher uncertainty and to the later onset and shorter duration of the rains. 

We pre-tested the LICCI methods among the Serer ethnic group, in Niakhar District (west of the Groundnut Basin, Senegal). The majority of the Serer population are farmers, who practice rain-fed shifting agriculture. Interestingly, and in contrary to the trends observed in other semi-arid regions in the world, farmers mentioned an increase in the rainfall during the last decades. During the testing, we constructed the community timeline with the locals, and learned that after a 30-year period of drought and a severe drought event in the 70s, starting from the early 2000s the rain has become more abundant and frequent but also more patchy and unpredictable. With the return of the rain, some crops varieties abandoned in the past due to the lack of water are also coming back.

We collected a long list of local indicators of climate change impacts. The list covers a wide range of local observations, including: higher water salinity; less foggy and cloudy days; higher frequency of patchy rains; higher temperatures; decrease of the duration of seasonal rivers and ponds; disappearance of terrestrial animal species; changes in soil humidity; decrease in pasture availability and composition; increase in livestock illnesses etc. This indicates that the environment is changing and that local people not only perceive it, but are also concerned about it. However, it is not only the climate that is changing and local peoples’ perception of the changes taking place in the region were extremely interconnected with many other drivers of change. In most of our conversations, deforestation, increase in population pressure, youth exodus, availability of off-farm work, and development and state interventions came up together with climate change to explain the fundamental transformations taking place in the region.

The time we spent in Niakhar has enriched our insights, which would not only help us refine the data collection protocols, but also allow us appreciate multiple ways of knowing and strengthens our conviction that knowledge systems from more traditional, resource-dependent societies can make invaluable contributions to climate change research. Our most sincere gratitude to the Serer, that so generously shared their time and stories with us. We take their voices with great responsibility. Djokonjal a paax!

Vanesse Labeyrie, Anna Porcuna Ferrer