Development programs and policies can influence smallholder producers’ abilities to adapt to climate change. However, gaps remain in understanding how households’ adaptive capacities can become uneven. This paper investigates how development transitions—such as the recent adoption of ‘green revolution’ agricultural policies throughout sub-Saharan Africa—intersect with cross-scale social-environmental processes to unevenly shape smallholders’ adaptive capacities and adaptation pathways. Drawing on quantitative and qualitative material from a multi-season study in Rwanda, we investigate smallholder adaptation processes amid a suite of rural development interventions. Our study finds that adaptive capacities arise differentially across livelihood groups in the context of evolving environmental, social, and political economic processes. We show how social institutions play key roles in shaping differential adaptation pathways by enabling and/or constraining opportunities for smallholders to adapt livelihood and land use strategies. Specifically, Rwanda's Crop Intensification Program enables some wealthier households to adapt livelihoods by generating income through commercial agriculture. At the same time, deactivation of local risk management institutions has diminished climate risk management options for most households. To build and employ alternate livelihood practices such as commercial agriculture and planting woodlots for charcoal production, smallholders must negotiate new institutions, a prerequisite for which is access to capitals (land, labor, and nonfarm income). Those without entitlements to these are pulled deeper into poverty with each successive climatic shock. This illustrates that adaptive capacity is not a static, quantifiable entity that exists in households. We argue that reconceptualizing adaptive capacity as a dynamic, social-environmental process that emerges in places can help clarify complex linkages among development policies, livelihoods, and adaptation pathways. To ensure more equitable and climate-resilient agricultural development, we stress the need to reformulate policies with careful attention to how power structures and entrenched social inequalities can lead to smallholders’ uneven capacities to adapt to climate change.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Geography, Planning and Development
- Sociology and Political Science
- Economics and Econometrics