Farmers’ vulnerability to global change in Navarre, Spain: large-scale irrigation as maladaptation


Agricultural landscapes are dynamic environments which change in response to cropping and trade opportunities, available technologies and climatic conditions. In this article, we investigate farmers’ vulnerability to climate-related stressors and crop price volatility in rural Navarre, Spain. Specifically, we analyse the extent to which livelihood differences and vulnerability can be partly explained by the development of a large-scale irrigation project promoted by the Spanish and regional governments. Grounded on qualitative and quantitative data gathered across 22 villages, we demonstrate that small-scale diversified farmers appear the most vulnerable and least able to adapt to climate-related stressors and crop price volatility. In contrast, more market-driven, large-scale intensive farmers, who participate in the irrigation project, are the least vulnerable to these stressors. We argue that the irrigation project has increased the short-term adaptive capacity of irrigation adopters while establishing the institutional conditions for the displacement of small-scale farming. Therefore, we suggest that farmers’ vulnerability in Navarre can be explained by maladaptive irrigation policies designed to favour large-scale and market-driven agriculture.

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  1. 1.

    When the project is concluded, the channel is expected to run for 177 km and to have irrigated 57,700 ha of farming land.

  2. 2.

    Communal land decrees refers to Foral Law 6/1986 -repealed by Foral Law 6/1990. Likewise, councils transforming communal lands can get a higher subsidy for the installation of irrigation technology if such councils prioritise full time farmers rather than other kind of farmers when allocating communal lands among the neighbouring farmers (Foral Order 186/2011 and Foral Order 185/2015).

  3. 3.

    Questions with too many missing values were removed before data analysis. When there were few missing values (e.g. < 10 missing data) it was retained, but respondents with missing values were removed from the analysis of such particular variable. Thus, the results rely on 364 respondents of the 381 total surveys performed.

  4. 4.

    Check the development of the index in the methods section and supplementary material. VI can take negative values when adaptive capacity (AC) values are higher than exposure (E) values.

  5. 5.

    ‘Few’, ‘some’, ‘many’ and ‘most’ are used consistently to mean less than 25%, up to 50%, up to 74% and 75% or more of the corresponding sample, respectively.

  6. 6.

    A personal communication of an NGO technician revealed that those participating in the large-scale irrigation project accessed most of the available subsidies and received higher subsidies.

  7. 7.

    Also known as contract farming. Through these contracts, the farmers’ crop harvest will be sold to large-scale agribusinesses (German et al. 2011). Farmers and future buyers agree on a price for the harvest, which may be either above or below future market price, so farmers may either lose or win money. They accept the potential loss because they are guaranteed the purchase of the harvest.


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We would like to thank the insightful comments by Dalal Hanna and H.M. Tuihedur Rahman; Adam Searle for their help in proof-reading the paper. We would also like to thank two anonimous reviewers for their useful comments and suggestions. The usual disclaimer applies.


This article has received funds from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) under the Grant agreement no.264465 (EcoFINDERS). This research is supported also by the Basque Government through the BERC 2018-2021 program and by Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness MINECO through BC3 María de Maeztu excellence accreditation MDM-2017-0714. Amaia Albizua also wants to thank the grant for contracts of Postdoctoral Training of the Education Department of the Basque Government. Esteve Corbera acknowledges the support of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona-Banco de Santander-Talent Retention Programme and the contribution of this article towards ICTA’s María de Maeztu Unit of Excellence 2015 (MDM-2015-0552).

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Correspondence to Amaia Albizua.

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Albizua, A., Corbera, E. & Pascual, U. Farmers’ vulnerability to global change in Navarre, Spain: large-scale irrigation as maladaptation. Reg Environ Change 19, 1147–1158 (2019).

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  • Social vulnerability
  • Large-scale irrigation
  • Global change
  • Sensitivity
  • Adaptive capacity
  • Exposure