Breaking the trap

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

This post is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog’s month-long series on Resilience.

Resilience thinking: why does it matter?

The CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) officially drew to a close at the end of last month.  One could easily forget that in 2009, CPWF redefined its objective “to increase the resilience of social and ecological systems through better water management for food production.” Why did it matter at that time, and why does it still matter today for water, food and ecosystems?

Degraded Uganda2 Manurepicture4

Pasture restoration in the Uganda Cattle Corridor: the ecosystem passed a seemingly irreversible threshold, unable to recover from termite infestations (left) – cattle coralling at night enabled the restoration of vegetative pasture grass cover, yielding more feed for animals and providing carbon sequestration – Photos : Dennis Mpairwe, Univ. of Makerere.

When considering the results from CPWF Phase 1 (2003-2008), the people and the ecosystems we had been working with in 10 river basins had almost the same characteristic: they were in a degraded state, in a way that often looked hardly reversible.  We identified situations where social-ecological systems were “stuck” or trapped on undesirable, low-productive pathways, and explored what kind of interventions could enable transformations to better pathways.  If we could not halt the factors contributing to agricultural land degradation, such as climate change, population growth, and migration, we could at least try to understand how resilient agricultural communities were and help “push” them to a resilient and more desirable state.

Regime shifts – moving upwards without falling over the edge

Resilience itself refers to the capacity of a social‐ecological system to both withstand perturbations from, for example, climate or economic shocks, and to rebuild and renew itself afterwards. Resilience thus emphasizes persistence, as well as development and innovation, whereby it deals with adaptation as well as the capacity to navigate and shape change.

When we started considering resilience, we initially thought of resilience building as maintaining a desired system to avoid collapse in the face of shocks and disturbances.

We realized that many negative shifts happen since we often perturb systems without knowing where thresholds are. Even when we do, there are rarely economic incentives to build the buffer capacity and long-term resilience necessary to avoid undesired shifts. There is thus a general tension of planning for the long term under pressing short-term conditions.

We also tried to identify how the different types of regime shifts materialize in our basins in order to anticipate resilience-building interventions.

The Mekong River Basin, where fisheries are at risk of collapsing from massive dam development, is a typical example of where short-term planning effects are known and anticipated; but the precise threshold is unknown and this is where the resilience of the fishery systems are most at risk. The CPWF Mekong program looked at a number of interventions including options for improving the livelihoods of relocated communities, fish ladders, and costs and benefits of fisheries expansion.

In the Nile Basin Highlands, we considered how severely degraded systems could be moved to an improved state. Interestingly, here ecosystem degradation due to overgrazing and land degradation had moved the pasture system beyond a tipping point where termite populations were limiting any attempt to restore the pasture. In Uganda a simple institutional innovation based on convincing herders to corral their cattle on a collective grazing area quickly helped recover a once degraded pasture land where termites had taken over (see photo above). This type of innovation was then adapted to the Ethiopian highlands. In this case termites were still an issue, but a different entry point was needed, namely introducing new grasses to improve fodder production and regenerate degraded land.

The Ganges Delta shows a different picture when considering resilience and sustainable intensification through rice and shrimp under increasingly saline conditions. The present degraded state, with high poverty rates, frequent and alternating flood and drought events, and scarce but highly saline water define the social-ecological system as heavily trapped and under high risk of collapse (if not already beyond). The desired state with, depending on locations, crop diversification, multiple rice-cropping and/or shrimp, is likely to significantly improve livelihoods, but remains subject to intense climate variations and very sensitive to insects and pest diseases, i.e. not necessarily more resilient. Here CPWF worked with water management as an entry point, seeing the key to productivity was in how the water was managed at different points in the year.

CPWF’s most successful resilience building intervention was the development of benefit-sharing mechanisms in the Andes. Legal frameworks and mechanisms helped reinforce benefit-sharing mechanisms to enhance not only ecosystem services but also livelihood options from crops and livestock. In the future we will see how this new state, relying upon legal arrangements and regional markets, is sensitive to possible changes in political and economic environments.

Resilience traps identified by CPWF
1. Risk traps: High risk situations (such as re-current droughts, large health risks, and/or risk of financial collapses) reduce internal incentives to invest in systems since investment risk is high.
2. Consumption/production traps: The rate of consumption/outtake of bio-resources are too close to the rate production - this leads to vicious cycle of resource mining.
3. Variability traps: Small investments do take place (resource limitations make these very small), but the occurrence of droughts and resulting losses of capital are not large enough to make any substantial development changes.
4. Resource access traps: Farmers have too small land plots, which results in a cap of revenues, despite high productivity.
5. Policy traps: Dis-enabling policies and lack of transparency prevents markets and resources from being used effectively.
6. Cultural traps: Mindsets can prevent change.

If in a trap, stop digging - what’s next ?

Applying such resilience thinking to our research proved enlightening to all those facing difficulties to evolve the systems they have been working with. To quote André van Rooyen (ICRISAT):

Resilience thinking, and even more importantly, complex systems theory provide a solid framework for the development of sound theory around which to design R&D programs.…Using such theory greatly enhanced my views on development science and I am using this in just about all my research and ‘scientific thinking’. If I could do my CPWF project again, I would mold all of our work around those theories and principles.”

Through our work we identified a set of six different types of social-ecological traps that are undesirable but difficult to break free from and would be worth considering within the diversity of situations encountered by WLE (see box above).

While each of these traps will probably sound familiar to many, are we ready to test how resilience thinking could help us stop digging and identify pathways to sustainable intensification into WLE’s respective cases? Has anyone been successful using a ‘resilience lens’ to get an ecosystem and/or a poor community out of any of these traps?

We would like to hear from your own experience!