12/18/2014 11:52 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

Theatre Opens the Brain and the Heart to Climate Smart Agriculture

In Zulu, my native language, there is no accurate and literal translation for the complex issues farmers now face. Climate change, nutrition and policy: these translate to weather, food and rules respectively. But many people would say that none of these are accurate translations.

So how best do I help farming communities in Africa like the one where I come from -- the places that are suffering the worst effects of climate change but who are the least involved in big policy meetings and global dialogues. The September 2014 Global Climate Summit convened for world Leaders by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, left behind most farmers puzzled and asking, "Why are they talking about climate smart agriculture? Do they think famers lack intelligence about the weather?

The recent 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCCC) projects that for African countries, the effect of climate change could reduce yields from rain-fed agriculture by up to 50% by 2020. As if that's not enough, some assessments project that by 2020, 75 to 250 million Africans will experience increased water stress and that rising temperatures could substantially degrade soil quality.

Surely, given the gravity of the situation, if we can't find the proper translations that capture the complexity of these issues, we need to look for more innovative ways to engage those who will be affected the most by climate change and bring them into the dialogue and the search for solutions.

The Food, Agriculture and Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), an organization I lead working across Africa, is in the business of demystifying the policy development process and drawing more people into discussions that could decide their future. The tool we use is theatre for policy advocacy or TPA.

Theatre speaks a universal language and it is a brain opener as well as a heart opener. Its power to communicate cuts across class and cultures, helping to create relationships between government and civil society, between people who make policy and people who must implement and experience it.

TPA performances are interactive and structured around issues that are pertinent to a particular community and its unique problems. The interactive approach enables the audience to be absorbed into the "action" and to then ask relevant and searching questions. This model brings together practical knowledge gained from the community with the technical knowledge of specialists, thus bridging a gap that often hinders the development of effective, workable solutions and evidence-based policies.

At FANRPAN it's been great to see policy makers come to these performances and engage with the masses, learning through theatre how people are affected and together coin solutions to development problems.

While at the Global Climate Summit in New York in late September, I participated in the launch of the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, which is being formed to help governments, farmers, scientists, businesses, and civil society, as well as regional unions and international organizations, to adjust agricultural practices, food systems and social policies so that they take account of climate change and efficient use of natural resources.

But I find myself wishing that the scientists and technical experts involved in this alliance could embrace the arts so we can develop a new vocabulary to expand the circle beyond the relatively narrow group of experts who are using terms like "climate-smart" agriculture as if everyone knows what they are talking about.

They don't, yet there are a number of policies and initiatives in Africa today relevant to the intersection of agriculture and climate change, even if they do not use the term "climate smart agriculture."

There are valuable experiences in all countries that can lead to a more intelligent approach to food production as conditions affecting crops and livestock are buffeted by climate change. They include farming methods based on traditional knowledge that deserve support, particularly among smallholder farmers who lack the capacity to deal with the higher temperatures and jarring shifts between drought and floods that are becoming more frequent.

Hopefully, the African Climate-Smart Alliance, which was launched at the Malabo African Union Summit in June 2014, will be informed bottom up and carve solutions for the unique nature in which African agriculture is affected by climate change.

But material capacity is limited, especially among smallholder farmers. Therefore, it is imperative to provide assistance to build resilience of local farmer communities -- based on a clear and mutual understanding of their needs, views, and preferences -- all of which makes me wish the great theatre capabilities of New York could have somehow merged with the considerable technical expertise that had been assembled for this climate gathering.

I wish scientists and decision makers could open to what's going on in the arts and embrace new ways of learning and establishing a dialogue. We could all develop not just new vocabulary but solutions to issues that affect us the most like climate change, nutrition and policy, which mean a lot more than weather, food and rules.

We need to find a way to align the various interests if we are to avoid conflicts, create alliances, and take advantage of communities of interest that exist but are largely untapped. In agriculture, that means we are seeing policies that are being developed without the full participation of farmers or civil society groups, and that often means they fail when implemented on the ground.

Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, theater has been much more than entertainment. It has been used to convey political and social messaging, much as we at FANRPAN use it today to discuss the changing climate. And the theater also has a convening power, it draws people together and facilitates conversation afterwards -- the perfect role in the greater drama of how climate change is impacting Africa. It is our mission to make sure that this larger drama does not turn into a tragedy, regardless of the language in which it is performed.