Building capacity related to Multilateral Environmental Agreements in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP MEAs 3)

Interview with Thérèse Yarde: ''Staying practical and realistic and grounded in people’s realities.''

ACP MEAs 3 Caribbean Region Coordinator Thérèse Yarde, an environmental engineer with a PhD in human geography, found her calling at the age of 14, when the Global Conference on Sustainable Development for Small Island Developing States took place in Barbados where she grew up.

TY: The conference came, and there were speeches and exhibits and school tours. There was just so much dialogue around the environment and sustainable development and conservation. These were new concepts for us as an island country at that time and for me at that age.

Something about it really moved me and made me feel that this is a direction I want to contribute to, because it can transform the country and transform the world.

What we talk about when we talk about nature

When I went to work for the government of Barbados in what became the Environmental Protection Department I realised that an important part of the work has to do with people’s understanding of the environment and what it means to them, how it supports their lives, how it impacts them.

The technical aspects and the numbers don’t necessarily reach people or communicate with them. So my PhD was in human relationships to nature in Dominica. It was about learning what people think about the environment and why they value it, and the concepts they have created about it.

And part of the idea was, how do you leverage that to get people on board for environmental protection and environmental conservation, by talking to them in terms of what they care about. And in a sense that is still something that I am very interested in — how people think about nature, engage with nature, rely on nature.

I once said at a conference that one of the main things I’ve learned in terms of building awareness and building capacity for managing biodiversity is to stop using the word biodiversity. The principle of not using all the technical jargon, but breaking things down into something that people feel is practical and useful and actually affects their lives in a meaningful way.

The case for local varieties

ACP MEAs 3 comes at a critical time in the Caribbean: the region is shifting from export-driven monoculture to diversifying crops for food security. Monoculture farming is very intensive and very conventional in terms of pesticides use and clearing land to make room for the plantations, be they sugar cane or cocoa or bananas.

The focus country is St Lucia, which used to be banana country — every farmer grew bananas, mainly to send to the UK. And now they are looking at an amazing number of options: cocoa and chocolate, mango varieties and other fruits and vegetables, as well as beekeeping and forest products, such as mushrooms.

St Lucia is exploring the full range of what agriculture can provide economically and socially and in terms of food, without having to clear land — for example, through agroforestry and ecological agriculture.

And the ACP MEAs 3 project with its emphasis on ecosystem-based and biodiversity-friendly agriculture has the potential to make a strong contribution.

In the post-COVID environment after a lot of our imports were disrupted by the pandemic, countries are realising the importance of food security and food sovereignty: being able to feed your own population as much as you can with what you grow.

In St Lucia we are developing a national strategy for the conservation and management of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. What that means basically is seeds and planting materials that farmers use to grow food, but with a specific emphasis on local varieties.

This is because local varieties are adapted to the place where they developed. So in terms of climate resilience and disease resistance they are better than imported varieties, however there is less of a market for them. People are accustomed to a certain kind of sweet potato that looks a certain way. But you have orange and purple sweet potatoes and all kinds of varieties that have developed here that aren’t grown for mass production, and so are in danger of being lost.

Diversity in the crops that you grow is really important for a sustainable food system. If you have just one variety of bananas for example, a disease can come in and wipe out your entire cultivation in one fell swoop, because all your bananas are clones of each other essentially.

So a big part of ACP MEAs 3 is raising awareness of the need to preserve these varieties, and also finding ways to give farmers the incentive to do so. Because if there’s not a market for them farmers will say why should I plant them. So the strategy we are developing in St Lucia has been identified as a regional priority, and we’re hoping that what we do in St Lucia will be an example for other countries.

Grounded is better

Another part of what ACP MEAs 3 is doing both in forestry and in agriculture is delivering training and capacity building to extension officers so they have the skills and the understanding to reach out to farmers. The project also supports demonstration projects: it provides a venue on a plot of land growing a crop, where you get to practice the kind of “farmer field school intervention” that farmers appreciate.

So it is capacity building with a very strong emphasis on that practical hands-on field-based element, which I think is one of the really strong characteristics of this project. I know it’s something that the EU emphasised as well and I think it’s just a brilliant idea because when you’re talking about agriculture, that’s what farmers want. They don’t want policy documents — they want somebody to engage with them and come out into the field with them and show them how to do things better.

And that’s something I try to bring to the extent that I can to all of the work I do: being practical and realistic and grounded in people’s Caribbean realities.

Find out more about ACP MEAs activities in the Caribbean here.