Anthropologies #21: Agricultural Adaptations and their Socio-Political Parameters: Social Responses to Climate Change in Ghana and South Sudan

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

The next installment for the anthropologies issue on climate change comes from Douglas La Rose. La Rose is the regional coordinator for the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), a humanitarian organization operating in Northern Bahr al Gazal, Western Bahr al Gazal, and Warrap States in South Sudan. He has previously worked on food security and livelihoods interventions and research projects in Ghana, the Solomon Islands, and Ethiopia. He has a Master’s Degree in Applied Anthropology and lives with his wife and two children on their family farm in the Volta Region of Ghana, West Africa.


Climate change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable people in the world. In the sprawling global region where I have been working over the past decade, Western and Eastern Africa, it is even more biased against the fortunes of people struggling against parching droughts and sweeping floods. The ways that communities respond to these climate extremes are disparate and not established, but certain variables such as conflict and strong political social institutions have a profound influence on the suite within which communities can situate their responses. Communities that live in conflict zones often don’t have the ability to adapt to climate extremes, while communities facing similar problems in relatively peaceful areas with stability and stronger social and political institutions can take certain risks that increase their resilience and adaptability.

I began my research on climate change adaptations in 2009 in Ghana. I found farmers in the forest-savannah transition area of the Volta Region redundantly planting cassava and adopting agricultural practices from their northern neighbors in the savannah to adapt to an environment transitioning from lush rainforest to a grassland Sahelian environment characterized by fluctuations between desiccation and oversaturation (La Rose 2011). From there, I began working with farmers in South Sudan in facilitating and supporting their own adaptations to climate change. In both instances, the weather fluctuations and unpredictable transitions into the rainy season that I had come to learn so much about in Ghana surfaced to challenge farmers.

In both countries, a similar cycle of agricultural uncertainty prevailed: timely land preparation, early light showers, optimistic and appropriate planting, and then a cruel wait for the rainy season followed by the death of seeds and need for replanting. Though the narratives were couched in different interpretations and embedded worldviews, the overall hydrological pattern was the same. Social institutions and embedded worldviews were metamorphosed by the cracking clay of the dry season stretching endlessly into sudden temperamental rainy seasons of battering storms and engulfing floods. Environmental perturbations were challenging, refining, and broadening agricultural practices. Resilient crops and mixed agricultural practices buffered against the vulnerability that intensive cultivation of cereals created. In Ghana, I found farmers trading the economics of mono-cropped cereals for the security of crop diversification and the intensification of food and drought tolerant crops like cassava, sweet potatoes, and other less marketable crops.

In South Sudan, the negative impacts of climate change are exacerbated by other social upheavals. These social upheavals are often the result of climate change or other social and cultural tensions piggy-backing onto the historical currents which define nations’ and ethnic groups’ current anxieties. In areas consumed by conflict, climate change deepens the hunger of displaced peoples and routs the attempts by rural, sedentary farmers to produce enough food to buttress some form of local or domestic food security. In these contexts, the option to adapt to climate extremes is replaced by the need for external assistance, displacement, or a combination of the two.

In the following, I will discuss the ways climate change is impacting dissimilar ecological, social, and cultural contexts and the way people are or aren’t adapting to the challenges that it presents. In the case of Ghana, I argue that the relative peace and prosperity of the country and a supportive political and economic system allow farmers to adapt to environmental changes using local, imported, and hybridized environmental knowledge. In South Sudan, the civil war that has engulfed the country since 2013 has limited the options of agriculturalists and pastoralists and plunged both rural and urban households into deep food insecurity. Working in South Sudan from December 2014 to the present, my experiences with farmers have transformed my understandings of the resilience that rural farmers have towards adapting to climate change. Even communities who have adapted to climate extremes and disasters through the deployment of traditional and hybridized knowledges are unable to deal with environmental fluctuations when there are no social and economic support systems or military or non-military organizations to protect them from violence. In fact, conflict fuels and is fueled by climate change in South Sudan. People who can’t cultivate their land or secure their livestock become internally displaced and a) face hunger from being divorced from food production and b) indirectly cause hunger by not generating food within the local economy.


Ghana is one of the most iconic nation states in sub-Saharan Africa. Africans all across the continent gaze towards Ghana as an example for their own political and economic development. It is reputable for having a robust liberal democracy characterized by free and fair elections, an economy that has mostly seen consistent growth for three decades, and a highly skilled population that is transforming the country and the continent to meet locally identified needs with African solutions. In the 1960s, Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah led an ambitious newly-independent country with his ideology of pan-Africanism – the desire for a self-reliant African continent that looked inward for solutions and shook off colonial ties and economic exploitation by Western powers.

This ideology predicted and promoted a “United States of Africa” which would take the form of an African federation of states. Elements of isolationism within pan-Africanist ideology eventually ceded to a more globalized perspective wherein African nation-states held on to sovereignty and the politics of patronage within fragmented political institutions, ethnic loyalties, and nationalisms. Both ideological systems were undercut when the Cold War kicked-off proxy wars throughout the continent, including the deposition of Kwame Nkrumah himself in a CIA-backed coup following his warming to the Soviet Union. After decades of coups and countercoups, Ghana emerged from the ashes in the mid-1990s with a liberal democracy that led the country on an exponential growth curve from economic deterioration to applauded heights. The economic recession over the past decade has hit Ghana hard, spurring inflation and setbacks in the struggle against poverty. However, Ghana has maintained its robust political system and is undoubtedly still the beacon of liberal democracy in sub-Saharan Africa.

The less told story is the one of climate change and agricultural transformation in rural Ghana. Taking all variables into account, the fact that Ghana has become less agriculturally productive over the past decade is a testament to the country’s struggle against climate change (FAO 2015). This can be seen in macro level analyses of the agricultural economy as well as embedded anthropological perspectives at the community level. There have been valiant efforts by the government of Ghana and international organizations to reverse this trend, but these efforts have, at best, stalled the deterioration of agricultural production. An increased focus on chemical fertilizers has not led to a marked improvement in the yields of cereal crops.

The research I undertook between 2009 and 2011 in a rural farming community in the Volta Region of Ghana demonstrated that farmers are embracing crop diversification, agricultural strategies from their northern neighbors in the savanna, and the redundancy of crops such as cassava and plantains in place of more valuable cereal crops as a means of adapting to climate change (La Rose 2011). Cassava in particular emerged prominently among farmers’ narratives about climate change and their adaptability strategies. Farmers talked of their increased reliance on cassava as, according to them, the last crop available once all of the other crops had withered away. As Vivian Kesee, a peasant farmer in her late 40s who had increased her cassava production as a result of lower maize yields and closer brushes with hunger explained to me, “I plant a lot of cassava because it will not fail me, it will not deceive me” (Kesee, Personal interview, August 15, 2010). Plantains and bananas also figured prominently in their narratives about climate change adaptation. According to the data I collected, 88% of farmers grew cassava in 2010 compared to 30% in the 1990s. While most farmers still maintained plots of maize for income-generation, they had reduced the amount of land they grew maize on by 70% over the past twenty years, and they had almost completely abandoned mono-cultural systems of maize production. Only wealthy farmers and people who had secondary agricultural investments practiced intensive maize cultivation and were secured by access to chemical fertilizers.

Innovative farmers and early adopters in the community had started implementing agricultural practices more common in northern Ghana, particularly on marginal lands. Whereas the methods of intensive cereal cultivation and agroforestry had begun to shrink their yields, farmers picked up hoes and tilling tools and started to cultivate the land in rows and ridges. They planted more beans and yams – crops that weren’t cultivated in the area until recently – and started building live fences out of cassava and maintaining small “reserve plots” with scattered crops consisting mostly of cassava and plantains. Gone were the multi-story farms crowned by tropical hardwoods and cocoa trees. They were replaced by low-lying meticulously intercropped pulses, cereals, and tubers that were fenced in by live fences.

Even on satellite photographs, one can see the chess-board pattern which is emerging along the forest-savanna transition zone. One element of the pattern demonstrates farmers sticking with more traditional cultivation practices and the other shows farmers who are adopting new strategies in response to climate change. These practices aren’t just being deployed by farmers at the local level, they are also producing a feedback mechanism which is inspiring the government to support this transition. Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA) extension workers travel to communities throughout the district supporting farmers that shift to these methods with technical expertise and government incentives.

South Sudan

The immediate impacts of climate change look far different for farmers in Ghana than South Sudan. Since December 2013, South Sudan has been mired in a violent civil war that has split the country into multiple factions. The government of South Sudan has focused its energy on defeating the opposition rebel group, and thus neglecting services for farmers and other actors in the broader local economy. While NGOs and donors try to fill in the gap, the lack of a political solution often undermines their efforts to aid farmers and pastoralists throughout the country. The food production system is thus undermined by both insecurity as well as unprecedented droughts and floods. Where in Ghana the government might work with international organizations to find solutions to changing environments and fluctuating food production, in South Sudan farmers are essentially left on their own to battle climate change with no safety nets. As a result, more than 5 million people face hunger and starvation. In addition, the 2.5 million people who have been internally displaced as of July 2015 are thus a mosaic of peoples displaced by civil war and agriculturalists and pastoralists displaced by their politically induced inability to adapt to an unpredictable environment.

Farmers in South Sudan are eager to take up agricultural adaptability strategies. In communities I have worked with in Warrap State in northern South Sudan, farmers are cultivating vegetable plots along extensive snaking rivers and using treadle pumps to irrigate them. Farmers are learning the merits of tilling their land and row planting sorghum and groundnuts, shifting the crops each season to maintain soil fertility. They are embracing principles of natural resource management that focus on keeping livestock out of plots through natural fencing strategies, soil and water conservation through mulching and buffer strips, and the importance of trees in land management. Farmers are using compost and other means of managing soil fertility to increase their crop yields. This eagerness to adapt to climate change through tailored agricultural practices, however, is being sapped by the presence and/or prospect of violence. Farmers in South Sudan can only be as eager as the situation permits.

Talking about climate change with farmers in South Sudan is often a very sobering experience. It is also the touch point where their agricultural adaptation strategies quickly divert course with the strategies explained by rural Ghanaian farmers. As one farmer in Warrap state explained to me,

I used to have a lot of cows, and I had to destock [cull] them as grazing lands became less healthy due to the weather problem. Now I am indeed cultivating more and more crops, and there is an unlimited amount of land that is accessible to us. The government encourages us to expand our farmland and vegetable plots. I have been following their advice, but I don’t get enough technical support and there are no reliable market linkages if I do produce a surplus. Also, there has been a conflict here that stopped me from farming for more than one month this year and now you can see half of my sorghum is dead and the vegetable garden is choked with weeds (Deng, personal communication, April 2015).

What is notable in this comment is the realization of a “weather problem” that had impacted the livelihood of this pastoralist and pushed him into crop and vegetable farming. However, this transition – or adaptation – has been impacted by a lack of quality extension services and the time needed to dedicate himself to cultivation while conflict engulfs the country. A lack of good market access – and, indeed, good markets – further disincentivizes him from focusing on producing the kind of surplus the country needs to meet its food security needs.

Conclusion: Climate Change, Social Institutions, and Vulnerability

While it might seem peculiar to compare the impacts of climate change on agricultural production in Ghana and South Sudan, the two countries offer unique insights into the ways that communities respond to climate change at the local level and the ways that the relative social and political contexts impact farmers’ ways of responding to environmental perturbations.

In Ghana, farmers have freedom from both violence and isolation and the luxury of multiple layers of economic buffers to allow them to devise and deploy agricultural adaptations to climate extremes. These adaptations are hybridized solutions based in farmers’ knowledge sources on the local level, the national level, and the international level. Farmers have the freedom and means to seek agricultural knowledge and the support systems necessary to take risks.

In South Sudan, farmers have the desire to adapt to a changing environment through fine-tuned agricultural practices. The civil war and political situation, however, both prevents farmers from completing their work and disincentivizes them by eroding markets and market linkages. While some farmers are able to deploy these strategies to maintain food security, other farmers don’t receive the support or conditions necessary to adapt to environmental changes and feed themselves.

Environmental anthropologists examining climate change adaptability strategies should examine the conditions on multiple layers of social organization. Most communities have the willingness and capacity to both devise agricultural strategies on their own and successfully implement them. However, communities who are exposed to political uncertainty, violence, and a lack of support systems may not have the necessary conditions to enable them to adapt to climate change. Where this line is drawn is important for understanding the situation on an anthropological level as well as devising impactful solutions at the humanitarian level. For example, in some situations farmers might be free from violence but lack the support systems required to adapt to climate change. In other situations, farmers might have the support systems necessary to adapt but be impacted by social or political violence. In ideal situations, farmers would be able to provide food for themselves and their agricultural economy as well as take risks and devise new production systems in anticipation or response to further environmental changes. Climate change, social institutions, and vulnerability levels are interconnected, inseparable, and provide the conditions wherein a community may or may not be able to maintain its livelihoods.


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2015, Country Fact Sheet on Food and Agriculture Policy Trends in Ghana, Ghana, viewed 15 June 2015, <>

La Rose, D. 2011. Buem Crop Choices and Agricultural Strategies as Adaptability Practices: Social Responses to Environmental Change in a Rural Ghanaian Farming Community. M.A Thesis. Montezuma Publishing, San Diego, CA

Series Navigation<< Anthropologies #21: Annual Review of Anthropology, Climate Change, AnthropoceneAnthropologies #21: Is There Hope for an Anthropocene Anthropology? >>

Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.