Andrew Noble, Director of WLE, sets out some of the key resilience concepts and thinking in WLE as well as what we want to achieve throughout this month-long theme (April - May 2014) on the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog (now called Thrive). Learn more about our themed month series here.
As the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) invites partners to embark on a month-long blog discussion of Resilience, I would like to share an experience that galvanized my conceptual thinking around resilience.
It goes back to my formative undergraduate years in South Africa. One of the subjects undertaken was a module on natural grassland management with a strong focus on the grassland biomes of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa.
A highly nutritious grassland biome in the uplands of KwaZulu Natal is dominated by the locally known ‘rooi gras’ (Themeda triandra) species that is sought after in these extensively grazed grasslands due to its palatability. Contrasting this is a species known locally in Zulu as ‘ngongoni’ (Aristida junciformis), which is relatively unpalatable, of low nutritional value and whose dominance results in dramatic declines in animal weight.
Both of these species occur within these native pasture systems. From a management perspective, one should focus on ensuring that rooi remains the dominant species within the pasture. This is achieved through appropriate grazing management and the use of fire as a management tool, as these grassland communities have evolved through routine burning.
There is a very fine line between maintaining the dominance of rooi grass over ngongoni in these pasture systems. Through inappropriate management, over-grazing and poor fire management, rooi grass dominance becomes displaced by ngongoni. Through such a management practice, ngongoni begins to gain the upper hand within the pasture and slowly becomes more prominent.
A ‘tipping’ point is reached where the resilience of the pasture to return to a rooi grass dominant pasture is superceded. It moves to a new state, where the pasture is 100% dominated ngongoni. This is irreversible – a regime shift in resilience parlance. There is no easy going back. The dominance of ngongoni pastures has increased dramatically due to over stocking by pasturalists in KwaZulu Natal, reducing the productivity of these systems.
This example demonstrates how a system can be transformed irreversibility to state that is less productive all due to human interventions in the management of these pastures. Unfortunately, there are growing signs that were are ever increasingly crossing these tipping points: from greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, to the unsustainable draw down of groundwater in numerous aquifers, and rapid population growth and aging.
Addressing these problems will require a new paradigm for development, one that recognizes the tight coupling between human and natural systems, and one that includes resilience thinking into its way of working.
What does this mean for WLE?
WLE is embarking on this challenge, and is guided by two areas of thought. The first is that an ecosystem-based approach is a prerequisite to ensuring sustainable food production systems that can increase yields through more ecosystems based solutions.
Second, agriculture production operates in a dynamic and complex environment where multiple interests often collide. Thus, there is a need to ensure that issues related to gender and equity are taken into consideration so that decisions do not exclude marginalized groups including women and youth.
Increasing the resilience of agricultural ecosystems to shocks and changes will improve the likelihood of achieving global goals of feeding a growing global population, while recognizing the supporting role of healthy ecosystems to human livelihoods.
What is new and different about resilience thinking is an explicit recognition that we are coupled with natural systems (socio-ecological), and that our survival as a species depends on working with, rather than against ecosystems.
Definition: Resilience, or socio-ecological resilience, is the capacity to persist through, adapt to, or to transform into a different kind of system when faced with external changes, or otherwise cope with the consequences.
Throughout this month WLE has invited partners and researchers to take a practical look at resilience to better understand how resilience is evolving from a research concept to development options and interventions that support sustainable development.
Some of the themes that we will highlight and foster dialogue around this month include:
Enabling farming communities to develop resilient systems:
Farming communities are facing a number of new challenges. These can be natural such as decreasing yields, greater weather variability and climate change. They can be socio-economic such as out-migration, feminization and increasing marketization of agriculture. Or they can be institutional such as new policies and investments. How are communities and small holders responding? What are some of new solutions being tested to improve the resilience of these systems and the people that are exposed to these drivers of change?
Integrating multi-functionality and flexibility into policies, planning and investments:
Policies and investments in large-scale projects must account for how development investments will impact ecosystems, the services they provide, and people that depend on these services. We would like to see how policies and investments improve their capacity to address these synergies and trade-offs, and whether we are capable of increasing societal flexibility and adaptability to change
Ensuring consideration of multiple voices and perspectives:
Purely technical or linear solutions typically prove ineffective because tackling agricultural development and poverty reduction requires a more integrated and socially sensitive approaches. Such approaches need to engage stakeholders in policy discussions, give them voice in decision-making, foster collective understanding and responses to the challenges we are faced with.
Measuring resilience in ecosystems
An important role for research is to develop indicators and measures for understanding resilience within social and ecological systems and to provide decision-makers with evidence based research to improve how decisions are made. Here we will look at a number of examples where different models have been used to assist policy makers and investors to incorporate ecosystems services into decision-making processes. This theme is of particular relevance as we globally take stock of progress on the Millennium Development Goals, and set the agenda for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. Are we at a place where we are ready, and able to include resilience thinking into the global agenda?
Adding resilience as part of the equation in building sustainability into our food production systems will be an imperative. As we move into an era where uncertainty, variability and risk will become the norm of our production systems, increasing resilience through a range of technical as well as policy interventions will be critical.
We invite you to participate in our month-long discussion on Resilience. Please submit blog posts of no more than 800 words to a.waldorf(at)cgiar.org. Posts should be forward thinking and solution oriented. You may consult our blog guidelines here.
*Please note that this month-long series ended May 2014. We will still accept blog submissions to be featured separately from the series.*
Some good reading:
Folke, C., Carpenter, S., Elmqvist, T., Gunderson, S., Holling, CS, and Brian Walker. Resilience and Sustainable Development: Building Adaptive Capacity in a World of Transformations. Ambio Vol. 31 No. 5, August 2002.
Andrew Noble is the Deputy Director General of International Center for Agricultural Research in the Drylands (ICARDA). He is the former WLE program director and an ex officio member of the WLE Steering Committee. [read more]