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By: Liam Harrap

Degraded landscapes, lower soil fertility, drought, erosion, and flooding caused by climate change will be felt most acutely in developing countries, in part because of their dependence on agriculture for food and income. Increasing climate variability and change are expected to drastically reduce the harvests of key staple and commercial crops in Central America and are among the main threats affecting family farming livelihoods.

Climate-smart agriculture is an approach that aims to increase farmers’ resilience to climate change while improving food security and sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes. There is no universal application of climate-smart agriculture, rather it involves various elements embedded in local contexts, including actions on and off the farm, using new technologies, and incorporating policies. However, if climate smart projects are to succeed, “women will need to be promoted as agents of change,” says Sophia Huyer, the gender and social inclusion leader of CGIAR’s Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security Program (CCAFS).

Curt Carnemark / World Bank

Although women in many developing countries play a critical role in farming, they don’t enjoy the same privileges and rights as men. For example, men typically rear the most profitable animals and grow the most valued crops, while women face many obstacles to own land and have the added responsibility of managing the household. In addition, women in developing countries have very little access to credit and loans, making it more difficult for them to buy fertilizer or improved seeds. They also tend to be more vulnerable than men to the effects of climate change because of their low incomes and limited access to education and technology.

An IDRC-supported CCAFS project is trying to encourage policy in developing countries that will recognize women as a valuable part of implementing climate-smart agriculture. To do so, the project is gathering evidence of how gender dynamics influence household priorities, capacities, and needs.

The project, which takes place in Guatemala and Nicaragua, includes a system-wide gender strategy to promote and strengthen women’s role in agriculture. “There needs to be attention paid to the fact that women are farmers in their own right,” says Huyer. Balancing the workloads and roles of women and men in agriculture is one issue that needs to be addressed, but so too are outdated agricultural technologies, such as handheld hoes, that tend to be used exclusively by women.

IDRC / Brian Sokol

Huyer says there are still many challenges in promoting women in agriculture in developing countries and it can be difficult for women in some areas to break through social norms. In many cases, she says, if women’s farming practices are generating increased income, the men will take them over. Thus, it can be difficult to empower women without alienating other people in the community. “My approach is that you work with communities, not individuals,” says Huyer.

Building on an ongoing CGIAR research program on climate change, agriculture, and food security in Guatemala and Nicaragua, the project will identify which of the gender-sensitive climate smart agricultural options are being adopted, and why. It will also increase individual and organization-level capacities to plan for, access, and implement gender-sensitive climate smart agricultural interventions to increase climate and livelihood resilience.

Recommendations on social and gender-transformative climate smart agricultural strategies and mechanisms to empower women will also be produced for policy dialogue at both the regional and national levels. It is hoped that the evidence gathered in this project will later be expanded and applied elsewhere to empower women and increase agricultural output to fight climate change, poverty, and hunger.

Listen to Sophia Huyer's interview on Climate Change Talks.




Country Profile

Working with small farmers in the highlands, IDRC-funded researchers developed early maturing frost-tolerant potatoes. In Lima and other Latin American cities, research helped to integrate urban agriculture into municipal development plans, boosting food security.

Our support has also focused on the link between agriculture and health. Tests in rice paddies in Northern Peru have shown that intermittent irrigation reduces the number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Not only did the number of mosquito larvae decrease by 80–85%, farmers also conserved water and increased rice yields by up to 25%.

Following this success, we funded research on how to spread this safer and more profitable farming technique. In July 2014, the Government of Peru endorsed the project’s broader implementation through a presidential decree.

Evidence-based policy

Peruvians are reaping the benefits of IDRC support to the Economic and Social Research Consortium, including improved labour laws and unemployment insurance, and stronger consumer protection. Peru’s leaders rely on the Consortium’s expert advice when setting policy to promote micro and small business development, to manage natural resources, and to keep citizens safe.

The Consortium has grown from a handful of institutes in Lima to astrong national network of 48 members, including Peru’s most prestigious universities. IDRC and Global Affairs Canada have supported many of their research activities.

Protecting indigenous knowledge

IDRC-supported research has also focused on the Amazon rainforest, which covers half of Peru. For example, researchers addressed the need to protect indigenous knowledge from unlawful use, and ensure continued access to useful plants. The group worked with the patent office to establish procedures that biotech companies follow to patent genetic material found in plants and crops, and related traditional knowledge.

Total IDRC Support

329 activities worth CAD $83.2 million since 1974

A farmer holds up chiles.

Our support is helping to: 

  • give vulnerable women and youth access to financial institutions
  • address the lack of public health services
  • establish local scientific research capabilities for development
  • promote innovative irrigation techniques to limit malaria outbreaks


Explore research projects we support in this region.

Country Profile

Our early work in Guatemala targeted farming efficiency, access to water, sanitation, and health care. One study found that basic health education could help avert diarrhea epidemics in children under age five. Researchers also developed a low-cost coffee drying machine powered by coffee waste instead of diesel.

In 1996, IDRC-funded peace and reconciliation initiatives contributed to the Guatemalan peace accords, which ended 36 years of civil war. Since prejudice against indigenous people was a root cause of the war, we continue to support initiatives like the National Campaign for Inter-ethnic Dialogue, a public education campaign that reached about 120,000 Guatemalans between 2004 and 2006.

Fighting Chagas disease

Chagas disease, transmitted by insects, affects between 10 and 15 million people in Latin America — a greater burden of illness than all other tropical diseases combined. Left untreated, the disease produces irreversible organ damage and even death. Insecticide spraying, the traditional control strategy, must be repeated several times per year to be effective.

In 2004, IDRC-funded researchers pioneered an “ecohealth” approach to Chagas prevention that focused on the environment and its link to human health. Researchers garnered community support for improved hygiene and housekeeping practices — encouraging people to cover their mud walls with plaster, for example, to eliminate a common insect hideout. The results were dramatic: the average intervention eliminated infected insects for five years. Policymakers in Guatemala and six other Latin American countries have committed to use this approach.

Fairer taxes and benefits

Despite the fiscal reforms introduced by Latin American governments since the 1980s, a large gap remains between rich and poor. Together with the United Nations Development Programme, Guatemalan researchers have been coordinating studies on tax and benefit plans in Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay. Emerging results of this research continue to inform policy discussions in the region, including those between the governments of Guatemala and Canada.

Total IDRC Support

137 activities worth CAD $23.1 million since 1975

Guatemala produce market.
World Bank / M.Fleischmann

Our support is helping

  • ensure enough drinkable water to offset climate change
  • reduce premature death and disability in Latin America
  • protect migrant women from gender violence
  • encourage students to drink healthier beverages
  • strengthen high-quality, influential policy research in Guatemala
  • eliminate Chagas disease, the most significant vector-borne disease in Latin America


Explore research projects we support in this region.



Photo: IDRC / Atul Loke