Preparing a farmer-herder peacebuilding initiative in Benin


Throughout our work, we have found that the outcome of a dialogue-based project depends on the preparation done by and with the communities involved. In this brief check-in with Karuna program manager Troy Caruana, we wanted to share a glimpse into that aspect of peacebuilding. Troy has been working closely with our local partner in Benin, Association Coexister, and our colleagues at Neem Foundation, to launch our new Building Climate and Conflict Resilient Communities project that began in October 2023.     

The project’s goal is to reduce the risk of farmer-herder conflict and improve community security, paying special attention to the impacts of climate change in four communities in northern Benin. To that end, our team will be fostering understanding among farmers and herders, and equipping community members with dialogue practices and early warning-early response systems that they can use to proactively prevent violence.

So what is going on in the project right now?

We started data collection last week, which is exciting. We will be interviewing 100 people in each of the four program communities, talking to people from diverse ethnicities, genders, age groups, and more to really get a wide sample and diversity of perspectives. This data will be our baseline for evaluating the program’s impact, but it will also allow us to develop a more nuanced understanding of these communities so that we can tailor program activities to their specific needs.

Neem Foundation, our close partner as part of our Protecting Our Communities (POC) program in Nigeria, is helping with the data collection and ensuring we incorporate the best practices and lessons learned from our POC program into BCCRC. We’re also fortunate to have a new partnership with Association Coexister which has many years of experience implementing peacebuilding activities and fostering social cohesion in communities in this region.

What kind of conflicts are communities facing?

The insecurity and conflict drivers in these communities are really complex and intertwined. Farmer-herder conflicts are a serious problem. There’s also more of a threat of violent extremism than we [at Karuna Center] originally anticipated. This contributes to a certain sensitivity to sharing information: If the community is not sure how the information from a survey or dialogue is being used, they could be concerned that it could be used to harm the community. We had to make sure that we ran radio ads and that we talked to all the heads of the communities ahead of time, to make it very clear that the data enumerators are collecting the data for an upcoming project to strengthen social cohesion.

Economic stressors are so high in this region. Things are much more tense if a farmer loses his crop, because it might mean that he doesn’t know how he’ll feed his family for the next year or it might throw him into a cycle of poverty—and same thing with cattle. If a herder’s cattle eat someone’s crops and then some are killed [in defense or retaliation], that could be like a year’s salary or a very large loss for the herders. So the underlying economic conditions are made worse by climate change, putting farmers and herders into conflict with one another.

PHOTOS ABOVE: Site visits conduced by Association Coexister to do initial outreach within the four project communities in December 2023 (first three photos); the hybrid virtual/in-person training for data enumerators in January 2024; and the beginning of surveys in communities.

Is there an awareness within communities of climate impacts?

We’ll have a better idea of how communities understand the impact of climate change when we get the data back, but from what we’ve learned so far, there is a broad understanding that weather patterns are shifting. Rains are more erratic, making it challenging for farmers to know when to plant their crops; or with the dry season coming earlier, herders may have to migrate earlier and use different routes to find vegetation and water for their livestock. Even if it’s not described as ‘climate change’, there seems to be a broad awareness that things are different.

Defining what we meant by climate change was a big point of conversation at our data enumerator training. While our survey was designed in French, the majority of community members in these areas speak various local languages. This meant that we needed to translate this concept into multiple local languages where there isn’t necessarily a commonly used term for it.

Gaining a better understanding of the community’s awareness of climate change, and how they are impacted by it, is critical to the program’s success. We want this project to empower communities to make more informed decisions about how they adapt to the changing climate, based on what they identify as their shared needs.

After this round of data collection in communities, what comes next?

The data collection will continue through the beginning of February. Then, we will synthesize it into a report that will make the data usable.

After we identify key leaders, stakeholders, and organizations through the surveys, we will begin preparing for community dialogues, an integral part of this overall project. We’re going to have three or four community dialogue facilitators in each community, and they’re going to organize larger dialogues in their communities with continued coaching and oversight from our dialogue mentor, dialogue expert, and partner organizations. The purpose of these dialogues is to really foster social cohesion, and get various groups that might be at risk of pulling apart from one another to see the humanity in the other.

We’ll begin with intra-group dialogues. For example, we’ll gather herder associations and have them hold a dialogue on what they perceive as their biggest challenges, opportunities, and concerns faced by their community. We’ll also do the same with farmer associations, youth groups, women’s groups, and more. The goal is for each group to develop common understanding and practice with the dialogue process before engaging in dialogues across divides.

At the same time, we’re going to be working on getting the early warning-early response (EWER) committees and systems in place. These committees are tasked with working with a wide diversity of community members, local security personnel, traditional leaders, and the dialogue facilitators to identify challenges and flag issues, and proactively address them before they lead to any violence.

Then, this spring, we will start holding call-in community radio shows to extend the reach of the project beyond the people who participate in the activities. We’ll also build on the dialogues to help address the underlying factors that are driving conflict and insecurity, by supporting community members to advocate their needs to government agencies.

While we’re still very much so in the initial stages of this program, we are well under way.

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