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What are the key concepts and challenges to adopting a resilience approach to agricultural development?

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

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.

Resilience of farmers and agro-ecosystems to shocks and changes is key to sustainable agricultural development. Photo: Neil Palmer Resilience of farmers and agro-ecosystems to shocks and changes is key to sustainable agricultural development. Photo: Neil Palmer

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.

Join us:

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.


Resilience is the real "in" word. Here in the Philippines USAID is targeting rural -urban resilience in economic development as part of its SURGE project.
I am still having problems in distinguishing resilience from sustainability and sustainable development- or perhaps the synonym is the "robustness of the sustainable system" to outside shocks to such thing as climate change?
In the Philippines where agricultural land water and for agricultural use eco- systems are certainly not for the most part in "sustainable" modes -robust or fragile- the challenge is to get sustainability recognized as critically important for "near future" livelihood.
I work with a large agricultural production cooperative, SIDC with contract raisers of hogs,poultry and aquaculture . my own work focuses on trying to make such contract raising systems environmentally sustainable as well as profitable.A major focus of our coop Green Farm unit is to make animal manure profitable to raisers through use in the generation of or methane used for heat and power needs for members and the Coop itself and by composting of manure sludge for organically registered organic fertilizer. We are also partnering with organic vegetable growers in Cordillera highlands of Northern Philippines to transport and sell our organic fertilizer in exchange fro organically grown temperate crop fruits and vegetables,
The tropical (and temperate) highlands of the Philippines (and much of SE Asia and South Asia) are among the areas of greatest degradation, unsustainability and 'free-fall towards abandonment to waste - lands. This is a result of initial thin soils, reduced ground tree and plant cover, steep slopes and high rates of erosion, resource- mining, surface and ground water er pollution from pesticide and herbicide applications,blocking of soil nutrients from use of inorganic fertilizers. I hope that current work to make such eco-systems and land water and other resources sustainable will be successful. Resilience or robustness of such sustainable ecosystems to external changes- climate change,population change,amenity migration urban development and the need to generate additional employment for populations with limited skills and little or no ownership or secure access to land water and other resources is indeed desirable.Just let us arrest the current unsustainable agro- and resource use eco-systems as the primary target!
I applaud this initiative of WLE and its CGIAR partners.I look forward to learning from the proposed debate and discussions. I hope we can include a major focus on fragile upland and mountain agricultural and resource use systems, in spite of the absence in the formal partnership of such agencies as ICIMOD .

Agreed, a fascinating and timely initiative, and also am relishing the debate rolling out! As David alludes to in his comment, whatever resilience thinking is able to offer (e.g. social systems in ecological system context, change and transformation in complex and fragile systems) to more traditional sustainability agendas, the clamour to use this current fashionable term can create issues. For instance, during a recent stint in a national government environment department, "resilience" entered the lexicon with such force, that it was often arbitrarily used in every document, a policy brief, presentation, watercooler conversation etc. In many cases, the term was used incorrectly, and it became apparent that very few individuals in policy circles were clear on its definition or how it might be applied effectively!
Therefore, the drive described above to better define, measure and operationalise resilience is extremely welcome. The journey from resilience theory to resilience practice, and demonstration of its effectiveness, is certainly going to be a fascinating one.

The socio-ecological resilience is the ultimate goal, but it is not within the scope of natural resource managers. Examples: When drought hits Australian farmers, Governments bail them out; in Eastern and Central Africa, populations are on the move. So, yes, we need to recognize the need for socio-ecological resilience, but, need to be modest is claiming the niche for ecosystem managers (WLE).