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Considering religion and tradition in climate smart agriculture: Insights from Namibia

Religion and tradition can act as barriers to the effective behavioural change needed for adaptation. However these can also be used to leverage local practices for better uptake of adaptation.
Cecilia Mari Franco


Rural communities in the semi-arid areas of southern Africa are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they depend predominantly on rain-fed agriculture to support their livelihoods. In addition, a number of non-climatic issues—including poverty, inequality, education deficits and poor governance—render communities in these areas even more susceptible to climate-related problems. Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) has the potential to increase the resilience of these vulnerable communities because it integrates environmental management and climate-change adaptation with social and economic sustainability.

The implementation of CSA, however, has proven difficult in southern Africa. Previous studies have shown that key barriers include inadequate policy and insufficient access to finances, technology, land and human resources. Less is understood, however, about how cultural barriers—norms, values, historical legacies, religious and traditional beliefs and social identities—affect the adoption of CSA.

This study* considers the role played by devotion (religious faith and belief) and respect for tradition (preservation of time-honoured customs) CSA adoption in Namibia. This study is part of the The Climate-Smart Agriculture Papers, an open-access book that focuses on Investigating the Business of a Productive, Resilient and Low Emission Future.

*Brief insights are provided below. Read the full text (download from right-hand column) for more information.

Key Findings

Climate-smart agriculture has the potential to increase the resilience of the farming communities in semi-arid north-central Namibia that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and variability. Although some farmers have adopted climate-smart practices, others have been slower to transition toward new methods.

Traditional norms and religious beliefs can prevent the implementation of agricultural practices that enable adaptation to climate change such as the use of seasonal forecast information, uptake of new agricultural practices and the sale of livestock when a drought is expected.

The values and belief systems of local communities have played a significant role in the uptake of CSA in southern Africa. In Namibia, it is clear that religion and tradition have prevented some farmers from taking steps to become more climate resilient. We argue, however, that it is important to work with religious and traditional value systems. Because these systems play such a pivotal role in agricultural decision-making, they provide a key opportunity through which to promote the dissemination and uptake of climate change information in general and CSA in particular.

What was done and how was it novel?

This book chapter focuses on the role that traditional norms and religious beliefs play in decision making in agriculture. It not only highlights their importance in making agricultural decisions, but it also suggests how tradition and religion can be harnessed to enable the uptake of climate-smart agricultural practices.

Research involved a review of existing literature and the collection of empirical data through 60 semi-structured interviews. These interviews were conducted with farmers in the semi-arid north-central region of Namibia in July 2017 as part of the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) research project.

Key implications for policy, practice and research

It is important to work with traditional and religious leaders to enable the uptake of more adaptation practices. Information needs to be co-developed with these leaders, and tailored and disseminated in a way that it is trusted by farmers with different beliefs. This can include, for example, the use of religious narratives.

Future research should consider empirically testing the application of the three avenues—positioning traditional leaders as agricultural champions, integrating traditional and scientific knowledge, and reframing CSA—suggested here. For example, it may be important for researchers to consider why, to date, there has been limited evidence of efforts to promote collaboration between agricultural extension services and religious or traditional leaders. Or, in cases where religious groups do promote CSA, studies could perhaps determine the degree to which this is done in conjunction with sound technical advice and appropriate technologies that are readily available to the congregation. In addition, future research agendas might benefit from testing novel extension approaches in neighbouring districts, revising the type of training provided to extension workers or, in cases where extension services are inaccessible, consider how individual “lead” farmers within a community may be trained in adaptation techniques and encouraged to disseminate these innovations to the broader community.

In carrying out such studies, it is essential to emphasize that there is no single solution, and future research should therefore promote flexibility and an awareness of local cultural, environmental and socio-economic contexts. Different types of advice, or alternative framing devices, may need to be adopted when communicating information to diverse cultural groups, or to older versus younger farmers.

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