Is failure a part of adaptation?

Building community isn’t simple. As we adapt and pilot new technologies in an ever-changing world how do we hope to achieve success when the variables are unknown? Launching successful projects is hard enough, but throw the pressures associated with climate change into the mix and you’re bound to come up against some real challenges.

When we first started working in Pemba we began by planting trees. Everyone wanted to plant cassuarina – a fast growing, naturalized species that was good for house construction. As a Canadian tree planter, I struggled with the proliferation of the single species monocultures that dominated our landscapes. It scared me to think that we may end up with a similar monoculture forest in Pemba, but I didn’t feel like I could say any different. I wasn’t Pemban. CFI Co-founder Mbarouk Mussa Omar and I were responding to Pemban needs and requests and we knew that they wouldn’t plant trees if they didn’t see the value in the forests. We bit our tongues and followed the lead of our communities.

In 2009, we showed up at a community called Pujini only to discover that 10,000 planted trees were eaten by a handful of  grazing goats, who happen to love the  taste of cassuarina trees. One season a single type of insect destroyed an entire crop of seedlings in a few communities. The consequences were devastating, but we weathered the storm. Sometimes neighboring communities donated surplus seedlings to compensate for the hardships; sometimes we just had to try again. We always understood the risks that the hardworking people of Pemba were undertaking when they decided to try something new. It may seem simple to plant trees or try a new way to grow food, but there’s always a risk when you move away from a way of living that’s been practiced for generations.

Now we grow and plant over thirty-five different tree species,  from native trees for conservation to fruit trees for food. We started with a need and let Pembans lead the way. Over time, communities began to realized they wanted more than a plantation – they wanted a forest for all the other amazing benefits that forests provide. Communities had to see the need themselves in order to value diversity. On our end we had to make sure we had the technical ability to support the projects, ensuring that communities had the support, information and training that they needed. It took years to get there.

As we grow, we learn; building local knowledge and capacity along the way. We’re lucky now, working in 18 communities allows us to try something new and see the results of different trials, but the risks are still there. Especially as we pilot new ways to adapt to our changing climate

Currently we’re working through the kinks in our approach to rainwater harvesting. We’ve built two systems to date, one in Kokota and another in Uvinje. The systems were built by local technicians with support from Community Forests International and our sister NGO Community Forests Pemba. Recently cracks have begun to form on the Kokotan tank, slowly leaking water from the catchment.  With limited resources we’re working with local technicians and engineers to pinpoint the cause and develop a solution. We’ll get there, just as we’ve done countless times before, but these are the challenges we face.

We’ve got a great technical team in Pemba and have been able to provide them with some of the resources necessary to ride out the challenges with our communities. We’ve been able to be there and work through difficulties, facilitate knowledge transfer from community-to-community and build a global network of innovators but we need to do better.

That’s why the Rural Innovation Campus is so important to us. If we can build a demonstration centre that allows us to work with communities to pilot new technologies in a controlled environment, we can ensure a greater chance of success once we launch new projects in the field. Failed attempts are only mistakes if you don’t learn from them.  So how do we learn faster? We’ve built a lot of trust over the years and we have never given up. In the coming year, the Rural Innovation Campus will become a space to make these mistakes, a place to learn and support new ideas.

Our ability to adapt is only limited by our capacity to learn from our mistakes and share these lessons with the world.

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-Jeff Schnurr

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