Resilience self-assessment by communities

At the Agricultural Biodiversity Community (ABC) meeting in Boxtel, Netherlands at the beginning of October, practitioners, farmers, and researchers from Africa, Europe, Asia, North and South America came together and created a process for “Resilience Self Assessment by Communities.”

This was the fourth meeting of the ABC, and three working groups worked over four days on i) policy outreach, ii) open source seed systems, and iii) resilience assessment (the group I was involved with).

Why did we have a working group on resilience assessment for agricultural biodiversity? This was my understanding prior to helping facilitate the workshop:

  • There is an increasing demand from the international development community to ‘improve’ resilience of communities. Most communities, especially rural communities who are custodians of agricultural biodiversity, already have sources of resilience but assessment tools could help them identify and communicate this to external actors;
  • The Resilience Assessment Workbook for Practitioners is seen as an important and useful resource but with limitations for communities in a development context to use this themselves;
  • To share and synthesise knowledge and best practice amongst all the experts gathered here.

This matters because far too often external interventions, with altruistic motivations actually do the opposite of build resilience, and reduce diversity and erode local knowledge and culture that has maintained agricultural diversity for centuries (also the topic of my PhD).

Then there were two immediate contradictions to my initial understanding:

  1. Bioversity International, Satoyama Initiative, UNDP have been developing a toolbox for resilience assessment in agricultural biodiversity contexts based on the Social-Ecological Production Landscapes indicators (See also van Oudenhoven et al. 2010), and was launched at the CBD COP last week. So, what was the value added of our exercise?
  2. In the first session on the first day where we discussed setting the agenda as a group, many group participants said: “we don’t need a resilience assessment tool; we already do this in our communities and the last thing we need is some external perspective on what we already do.”

So, we threw our facilitation plans out the window.

In this first open session, many of the participants were asking what is Resilience anyways? The Thai and Ugandan farmer were saying that this is an English word and concept and might now be useful for them or their communities in their contexts.

We started by breaking down Why, How and What: resilience assessment?

WHY? We came to a shared understanding that what we wanted was a self-assessment by communities: for communities to a) identify and monitor sources and status of resilience in their communities for themselves, and b) in some contexts, to communicate to external actors and thereby possibly avoiding inappropriate development interventions.

HOW? Develop a process for communities to self assess resilience.

WHAT? The first part of this was to answer: what is resilience in agricultural biodiverse landscapes?

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Angoli cattle farmer Elizabeth telling a narrative about resilience in her community.

We listened to the narrative of our Ugandan farmer colleague, who rears Angoli cattle and the group drew this story on large sheets of paper. She told us how if she loses one cow due to some misfortune, her community will give her five in return. And she will of course do the same if something happens to her friends’ cattle. Our Thai friend, an agro-forestry farmer, then told us how she does agro-forestry because ‘she is lazy’ and it’s so easy to let the fruit and vegetables grow without her input. Her livelihood depends entirely on her forest. In a community context, she depends a lot on the connections she has with her extended family and neighbours, who all specialise in different products and share their wealth with each other. Finally, our Indian colleague led a narrative of why we need to assess resilience.

The first day ended with a shared understanding of what resilience meant to us, and why we, in our own communities, wanted to assess it.

2014-10-03 10.55.51

Identifying resilience attributes in agricultural biodiversity landscapes.

Our next steps as a group were to use the drawings to draw out attributes that were important to the custodians of the landscape. We used sticky notes on the big flipchart sheets for this. At the end, we had more than a list of attributes, but an understanding of what we valued in this community, and “what made it healthy and strong.”

 Taking a step back, we created a mindmap of the Process we were in the middle of, and what this might look as tool to share. Here is our mindmap:

1. Why is an assessment needed? 2. Who should be involved? How to achieve equitable representation.  3. Telling the Story 4. Identify attributes 5. Link to Action 6. Reflection

1. Why is an assessment needed?
2. Who should be involved? How to achieve equitable representation.
3. Telling the Story
4. Identify attributes
5. Link to Action
6. Reflection


The Agricultural Biodiversity Community is now in the process of pulling together resources to populate each of these steps with the expertise of the members of the group. For example, from MELCA in Ethiopia, experience with Eco-Mapping, and SeaRice, with community mapping. We are preparing a web-launch of this tool early 2015, which will link to other great resources, such as the RA workbook, a new E-learning course on Resilience Assessment by SwedBio to be launched soon, and the Satoyama tools.

Many of us left saying that we had achieved much more than we had ever expected. Farmers and practitioners left the workshop saying that this is definitely a tool that they can use in their communities. We will start field trials in Thailand, Uganda, South Africa, Peru, India and other countries early 2015.

As a researcher studying resilience in agricultural biodiversity landscapes, I left thinking that we achieved a milestone in co-creating a process that is accessible to communities and that we made a contribution in aggregating existing tools assessing resilience in agricultural biodiversity contexts, moving towards a specified assessment. We look forward to connecting this to the many other ongoing initiatives to assess resilience.

On a personal note, I found the workshop very challenging, but incredibly rewarding. Despite dedicating my work to smallholders, being a lover and advocate of wheats, millets, pulses and everything else, at the end of the day I am a young Northern female scientist. And my voice, especially at the beginning without any personal trust behind it, held very little legitimacy in this context. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. But, it makes it very difficult to contribute, let alone facilitate a co-creative process like this. Over time, as we got to know each other, these barriers broke down. But wow, it was humbling! I am so grateful for an incredible learning experience, where I also started a process of finding a space for my own voice in this critically important issue of conserving agricultural biodiversity that we all share a passion for.

Dutch farmer Jan at Eemlandhoeve.

Dutch farmer Jan at Eemlandhoeve.

Beyond Divides: Prospects for synergy between resilience and pathways approaches to sustainability

What does an (un)sustainable world look like? How might we ‘know’ and research (un)sustainability? How should sustainability researchers position themselves in relation to civil society, policy, business and academic communities?

These are some of the questions friends and I at the Stockholm Resilience Centre ask in a new paper “Beyond Divides: Prospects for synergy between resilience and pathways approaches to sustainability” (led by Simon West) which we think will be useful for young interdisciplinary scientists beyond the scope of resilience and pathways. We explore how resilience thinking and a pathways approach address such questions, untangling similarities and differences in their ontologies, epistemologies and areas of strategic action. Through examples such as the debate between Johan Rockstrom and Melissa Leach (documented here and here), as well as examples from our own research, we find that the most exciting areas of sustainability research lie in the boundaries between emerging trans-disciplinary research communities such as the SRC and STEPS centre.

Here are some highlights from our conclusions:

In this paper we discussed how the ontological commitments of resilience and pathways lead us to see the world differently. While both work within systems frameworks, the willingness in resilience research to draw firmer system boundaries enables researchers to establish functional relations and identities. In contrast, the emphasis in pathways research on the production of system boundaries enables researchers to uncover the discursive (and contingent) mechanisms that enable us to establish identities and relations in the first place. Given these ontological stances we then examined the epistemological strategies of resilience and pathways. We established that, generally speaking, the resilience emphasis on functionality leads to questions of ‘what works?’. In the pathways approach the emphasis on distribution leads to questions of ‘who’s losing, who’s benefiting?’. Therefore, while participatory governance structures are encouraged in resilience research primarily as a means of increasing the pool of knowledge available, in pathways oriented research they are promoted to facilitate deliberation and contestation between different knowledges. These epistemologies, supported by distinct methods, frame the role of the trans-disciplinary sustainability researcher in different ways. For resilience-oriented researchers, appropriate action for sustainability, conceived as maintenance of biophysical processes, may take the form of empowering ‘system-level’ resilience, engaging with a wide range of actors from the private sector, civil society and the state. Pathways researchers, conceiving of sustainability in terms of social inequity and inequality, are more likely to see their role as highlighting marginalised perspectives and subaltern narratives, in which case engaging with powerful private sector voices may not be so relevant. However, at the same time, we see pathways and resilience researchers acting in the same policy arenas, and, in some areas, supporting each other’s agendas. This suggests that these two visions for the role of the sustainability researcher may not be mutually exclusive but actually beneficial. The problem remains, however, how to work across these perspectives and produce trans-disciplinary, rather than simply multi-disciplinary, spaces.

We found the STEPS summer school to be an incredibly enriching experience, and are really happy to see a newly formed Alumni Association in which we hope to continue these dialogues.

Download the pdf by clicking on it

Download the pdf by clicking on it



Excerpt from: You are what you EAT @ #SES_Link

“Are you happy? (asks Feike Sijbesma from DSM).

–       yes! (Audience)

Oh. Did you hear about the horrible crisis today? Where 9,000 people died?

–       no.

That’s because nobody is talking about it. 1, 2, 3, 4… 4 seconds go by and another person dies from hunger.

9,000 will die today, and another 9,000 will die tomorrow.

So, Are you still happy?”

Yet, obesity and overweight kills more people than underweight. The richest billion people in the world consume 40% of the resources.

This is the global food crisis.

We were presented this dilemma during the EAT forum plenary. The first annual EAT Forum was hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Stordalen Foundation to bring together environmental and health impacts of the food we eat.This type of narrative may get people to act. It is certainly one approach, and undoubtedly a successful one if business leaders are using it. I’ve written a more comprehensive blog about it on our #SES_Link homepage.

But I found myself thinking: why should we be unhappy? I know the world is unjust and try to work everyday in small ways to reduce that inequity. But does it mean that I should be so miserable that I can’t act? To be honest, some days I am. Those days when the world feels too heavy, the problems too big, and my own contribution completely insignificant, or even worse, counterproductive. Speaking for myself, what I need  to hear are more positive stories, not horror stories.

A more important critique though, is that by always framing things in the negative, we may find solutions to those problems , but we won’t change the system in which the problems arose. Improving seed varieties may solve aspects of world hunger, but it won’t change the system which makes hunger pathological.

So back to my mantra, why should use food as a lens to talk about global food problems: 1) Food frames problems in the positive;  2)  Food is evocative; food is more than just calories that feed us, and more than just ingredient that create a recipe. Everyone has a story, an emotion, associated with food. This is what is behind the sovereign space in which ideas are created;  3) Food is simple and levels the playing field; everyone can talk about food.  You can read more about our approach on the SIANI blog, or on my own.

As Bill Clinton said in his keynote at the EAT Forum: “What kills people is believing that their tomorrows will be like today.” Maybe talking about food can open up new tomorrows.

Sedative consumption of science

Limits, boundaries & thresholds. Real or constructed. Motive for action, or a power grab by elite scientists? The concept of planetary boundaries has become a somewhat heated polarized debate, which you can read more about from Victor Galaz on the Resilience Science blog,or Robert Pielke Jr’s blog, or Melissa Leach in the Huffington Post.

Erle C. Ellis wrote in the New York Times this week that ‘Overpopulation is Not the Problem.’ I am part of a global sustainability group, called the Balaton Group set up by Donella and Dennis Meadows (authors of Limits to Growth) in 1982 to discuss planetary issues in one of the few places where ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ scientists could meet in the 1980s, on the shores of lake Balaton. The op-ed by Ellis has sparked a lively debate amongst this heterogeneous group of scientists. We have our annual meeting later this week to discuss “Technology and Transformation—Meeting human and planetary needs.” I will present on Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability: Equity and sustainability in the governance of science, technology and innovation.

Many, on the planetary boundaries side, might say that this debate distracts from actually doing something about the challenges we face. On the other side, there is great discomfort about the top-down science that the concept of nonnegotiable boundaries promote.  I think the interesting challenge here is how can critical pluralism, as Andy Stirling calls it, lead to positive action? This seems to be the challenge we face: to maintain a diversity of alternative options in a democratic open space. We seem to be all too willing to give into the seduction of clean, clear boundaries that call for the change we ultimately all wish to see.

Ellis: “The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.”

Stirling: As knowledge can be power, so power tries to shape knowledge – including green knowledge. And few oppressions are more forceful than closure of imaginations. So, for all their seductive appeal; concentrated power, expert certainty and fallacies of control remain the oldest enemies. Despite pressing constraints, the great strength of green politics lies in its critical pluralism. This means hope-inspired democratic choice, not fear-driven technical compliance.

At a local scale, this is how I, with Frederik van Oudenhoven proposed igniting local imaginations for alternative futures:

We propose to “abandon the professed neutrality of pseudo-scientific paradigms in favour of the subjectivity of aesthetic ones. In other words, to turn away, if only for the purpose of reflection, from the informational, ‘professional’, or ‘academic’ (i.e. external) narratives as a basis for conceiving development trajectories, towards the singularity and aesthetics of popular stories and memories rooted in local culture. Huyssen (2003) relates the “fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures” to the differential treatment of history vs. memory. Development activities predicated on memory will be different from those based on a linear account of history and, arguably, allow for greater flexibility and creativity in responding to environmental, economic or geopolitical changes.

In a development context, in one that I know well, have a read of our article on how development organizations erode the very pathways they try to build, and the subjects of development become exactly that, subjected to development. So the real challenge in creating a sustainable future is to maintain diversity in imagination.

What would you do with this rock?

We recently had a ‘Stockholm Resilience Centre’ Marathon, where we spent a day learning about each others’ research. It was an incredible day, at the ethnographic museum in Stockholm. Our instruction was to NOT use powerpoint. So we had role plays, songs and videos… and our group, the Landscapes Theme (because our centre is based around cross-cutting research themes) presented objects. Mine was a rock. And here is my 1 minute blurb:

What would you do with this rock? What productive function would this rock have to you?

In the high desert steppe Pamir mountains of Central Asia,  people make soil from rocks. With their own hands, they break the rocks with hammers, dynamite or other, bigger rocks, until they can throw them off their land and build a stone wall with them.  They then flood this field, once, twice, three times, usually over three seasons with the silt-laden water of the Amu Darya. After three years, they may have a mulch that is just good enough to grow some fruit trees, or if the silty flood is particularly rich, perhaps even some grains.

This landscape, is barren, difficult and desolate. One might even ask why anyone decided to live here. Increasing population and severe food production restrictions indeed beg the question why anyone still lives here at all. And it’s true, living here is difficult. But the life that does grow, is unique and astoundingly resilient. Drought resistant crop varieties, endemic fruit varieties prosper in micro-niches and the food tastes so much better.


Afghan farmer in the Wakhan Corridor clearing his land of large rocks. 3 seasons from now he may use this field of rocky mulch to grow fruit trees, or even grains. August 2011 (r) Jamila Haider

A scientist might look at this landscape and see only limits that must be overcome with technocratic solutions. But let’s take for a moment the perspective of the people who live in this valley; who have co-evolved with this landscape for thousands of years. This spirit and courage is ever present in the Afghan farmers who work hard on their land, as in this photo here where rocks are cleared before being smashed to mulch.

Just on the other side of the river, this spirit of ingenuity has been all but lost. Replaced by modernization schemes, Tajik farmers will tell us that they have forgotten how to work the land.

Monumental efforts have been made to overcome these barriers, first the Soviets, and then development organisations have tried: fertilizer inputs, massive irrigation schemes, riparian stabilization, improved crop varieties.

But most do not work. The fields are too high, the soil to difficult. People are incredibly poor with some of the worst human well-being indicators in the world. Traditional development has failed. Efforts to increase food production have in fact done the opposite. Improved wheat varieties have failed after 1 or 2 seasons, depleting the soils which cannot fallow, or not withstanding drought. These interventions have done little more than create new traps, dependency on a state (the Soviets were for a while flying in fodder), or development organizations introducing seeds that requires fertilizers. How can we regain the resilience of this landscape based on the ingenuity of the farmers and break the dependency trap?

Why Resilience? Why Now?

Resilience. The capacity to absorb shock and maintain function while at the same time re-organizing and developing. I first heard of resilience as an undergraduate student caught awkwardly between Biology and Political science degree, and it was immediately intuitive to me. All of a sudden my world made sense. The fact that my thoughts didn’t fit into any particular discipline was O.K. I had found my academic home. Importantly it helped me make sense of the seeming conundrum of sustainable development.

“Sustainability is the capacity to create, test, and maintain adaptive capability. Development is the process of creating, testing, and maintaining opportunity.  The phrase that combines the two, sustainable development, thus refers to the goal of fostering adaptive capabilities and creating opportunities. It is therefore not an oxymoron but a term that describes a logical partnership” (Holling, 2001).

In addition to making sense of how we might conserve and develop at the same time, the concept that human-environment, or social-ecological interactions take place across multiple scales, are dynamic and result in emergent outcomes with a huge degree of uncertainty based on initial states were concepts I thought would be intuitive to all, given the turbulent world we live in. So, this blog is about why is Resilience so popular now? What is unique about our point in history?

But HOLD IT! I’m visiting Cambridge for the week, and was just asking this question in the Zoology tea room “why the exponential rise in resilience in the past 5 years?” …and was reminded that I live in a bit of Resilience bubble as PhD student at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Speaking with a group of very good ecologists, many of them didn’t know much about resilience, and had never even heard of Panarchy!! Shock-horror. (I am a self-professed disciple). So, taking a few steps back, here are main facts about resilience, from a social-ecological perspective.

A fundamental starting assumptions is that Social-ecological systems (SES) are complex adaptive systems. This means: Non-linear behaviour, self-organisation, multiple scales. I.e. A clock is a complicated system, not a complex one.

From a useful website

Stages of the Adaptive Cycle: Basic Ecosystem Dynamics

Panarchy identifies four basic stages of ecosystems, represented in the Figure below: exploitation, conservation, release and reorganization.  All ecosystems, from the cellular to the global level, are said to go through these four stages of a dynamic adaptive cycle (see below).

  • The exploitation stage is one of rapid expansion, as when a population finds a fertile niche in which to grow.
  • The conservation stage is one in which slow accumulation and storage of energy and material is emphasized as when a population reaches carrying capacity and stabilizes for a time.
  • The release occurs rapidly, as when a population declines due to a competitor, or changed conditions
  • Reorganization can also occur rapidly, as when certain members of the population are selected for their ability to survive despite the competitor or changed conditions that triggered the release.Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 4.25.35 PM

Adaptive Cycles   

The four stages of the adaptive cycle described above (analogous to birth, growth and maturation, death and renewal), have three properties that determine the dynamic characteristics of each cycle:

  • Potential sets the limits to what is possible – the number and kinds of future options available (e.g. high levels of biodiversity provide more future options than low levels)
  • Connectedness determines the degree to which a system can control its own destiny through internal controls, as distinct from being influenced by external variables (e.g. temperature regulation in warm blooded animals, which involves five different physiological mechanisms, is an example of high connectedness)
  • Resilience determines how vulnerable a system is to unexpected disturbances and surprises that can exceed or break that control (see below for more details).

The adaptive cycle is the process that accounts for both the stability and change in complex systems.  It periodically generates variability and novelty, either internally such as through genetic mutations or adaptation, or by accumulating resources that change the internal dynamics of an ecosystem.  These changes are the triggers for experimentation. In the reorganization stage various experiments are tested and resources are reorganized in new configurations, some of which enter a new exploitation stage to repeat the cycle.

Interconnectedness of Levels

Panarchy places great emphasis on the interconnectedness of levels, between the smallest and the largest, and the fastest and slowest.  The large, slow cycles set the conditions for the smaller, faster cycles to operate. But the small, fast cycles can also have an impact on the larger, slower cycles. There are many possible points of interconnectedness between adjacent levels; however, two specific points are of particular interest with respect to sustainability:

panarchy revolt remember color

  • “Revolt” – this occurs when fast, small events overwhelm large, slow ones, as when a small fire in a forest spreads to the crowns of trees, then to another patch, and eventually the entire forest
  • “Remember” this occurs when the potential accumulated and stored in the larger, slow levels influences the reorganization. For example, after a forest fire the processes and resources accumulated at a larger level slow the leakage of nutrients, and options for renewal draw from the seed bank, physical structures and surrounding species that form a biotic legacy.

The fast levels invent, experiment and test; the slower levels stabilize and conserve accumulated memory of past, successful experiments.  Sustainability in this framework is the capacity to create, test and maintain adaptive capability.  Development becomes the process of creating, testing and maintaining opportunity.

And resilience is indeed a concept that is catching on. It’s unnecessary to list all the websites devoted to resilience, the swath of donor agencies who have recently redirected their strategies to include resilience, or the environmental ministries around that world that have adopted resilience as a core concept.   Resilience and Dynamism are the two acclaimed buzzwords at the 2013 World Economic Forum in Davos. But some people resist the temptation to join the band-wagon.

There are some good debates about this, researcher Chris Bene at UK-based STEPS centre questioning whether Resilience is the new Tyranny? These debates are useful in pushing our understanding, but some debates seem to be more about academic turfism. Such as the fight put up by Political Ecologists.The reasons for this divide are multiple, but largely because many other geographers and political ecologists and the like feel they have been doing ‘social-ecological resilience’ research for a long time. But why hasn’t it caught on?

The core idea of the adaptive cycle is not new, and has come up various times throughout the course of history. The ever-present mantra of “birth, growth, death and renewal” can be traced back Ancient Greece, “there is nothing permanent except change.” So wouldn’t it be interesting to analyse the global state we are in now, and why we are so happy to adopt the notion of resilience. After the 2008 economic crisis, the natural disasters which have ravaged the Americas and much of Asia’s coasts in the past 5 years? Have we, as a society, crossed some sort of invisible threshold where we have accepted that the future is uncertain, and the some sort of collapse is inevitable, but we are comforted by the idea that reorganization is just around the ‘corner.’

Likewise, human-ecology, political ecology and geography and arguably also conservation biology have been studying social-ecological systems for at least as long as resilience theorists. So why resilience, and why now? Holling has been promoting his findings since the 1970s within a limited sphere of influence. So what is it about resilience that has captured the imagination of the world? An assumption of crisis and necessary reorganization is certainly one.

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