December 15, 2014

Building Resilience Among the Most Vulnerable Populations

Eva Fillion, EcoAgriculture Partners

Whether we like it or not, communities around the world are now in the position of being forced to adapt to the inevitable effects of a changing climate. Sure, reducing emissions and taking similar measures to slow human-driven sources of climate change are still at the forefront of research, but we must also face the harsh reality of climate change and begin to figure out strategies for coping. In fact, adaptation was a central theme at UNFCCC COP20 in Lima, Peru, where global leaders came together from December 1-12 to discuss salient issues regarding climate change. Conference participants struggled with decisions regarding mitigation and adaptation while a new paper released last week from EcoAgriculture Partners and Cornell University, discusses a strategy for combining the two through an integrated landscape management approach.

Addressing the four connected dimensions of resilience

Managing for Resilience, by Dr. Louise E. Buck, director of the Cornell University Ecoagriculture Working Group, and Ian D. Bailey, a Ph.D. candidate in development sociology at Cornell, presents a landscape management framework that addresses the authors’ central question: “How can agrarian livelihoods meet the food, fiber, and economic needs of communities while simultaneously mitigating the effects of climate change”. Based on an extensive literature review as well as practitioner experiences, the paper serves as clear guidance for building resilience among vulnerable populations.

Buck and Bailey take readers through a framework that addresses four connected dimensions of resilience. The key to implementation, Buck points out, is investing in all four: livelihood resilience, agroecosystem resilience, ecosystem resilience and institutional resilience. While investing in each domain right off the bat may be overwhelming or logistically impossible, starting with one domain with clear plans to expand to all four within a short timeframe is a realistic way to begin. Leaders may want to focus on a handful of specific goals listed within each domain, such as hillside rainwater harvesting within Ecosystem Resilience or diversification of income sources within Livelihood Resilience. Combining elements of the social and ecological realms is what makes this approach unique and successful, though it is important to keep in mind that the initiatives suggested within the paper serve as examples and should be adapted to fit the needs of each community.

Components of resilient landscapes. Photos (clockwise from top right) by Seth Shames, Bas Leenders, Martin Noponen, and Jeff Holt.

Components of resilient landscapes. Photos (clockwise from top right) by Seth Shames, Bas Leenders, Martin Noponen, and Jeff Holt.

Framework draws on local stakeholder experience and knowledge

This new tool is exciting because of its scalability and mobility. Experience shows that no two landscapes are alike and even populations living in similar settings face distinct challenges. Because this framework draws upon local knowledge and expertise by heavily involving stakeholders, it is designed to stretch and mold to individual situations. The framework offers a promising way to build resilience at a landscape scale by placing an emphasis on stakeholder collaboration, or, to use the authors’ term, Multi-Stakeholder Adaptive Management. This cyclical strategy encourages landscape leaders to ask a series of basic questions. These include, “What are we already doing?” “What are the ripe opportunities for investment?” and “How can we draw upon the strengths and knowledge of stakeholders?”

This approach to building resilience has proven results in a variety of settings already, which the authors present. One such case, an initiative supported by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and studied by EcoAgriculture Partners, is the MERET (Managing Environmental Resources to Enable Transitions to more sustainable livelihoods) project in Tigray, Ethiopia. There, WFP seeks to overcome issues of severe drought, unstable weather and soil infertility that has led to chronic and acute food insecurity in the region. MERET has chosen to employ food and cash assistance as incentives for those who invest in sustainable land management practices. Project leaders have also developed technical assistance for climate resilience, such as gully re-vegetation, soil improvement and biomass enhancement. It is a prime example of a successful take on the framework presented in Managing for Resilience, as the project leaders have invested broadly but have targeted specific goals to help achieve climate resilience.

Investing in local leadership pays off

Critics often point out that working with extremely vulnerable populations can be resource intensive and time-consuming. To this end, Buck and Bailey include a section entitled “Highlights and Lessons from Practitioner Experience” where they offer suggestions such as investing in leadership, exploring value added marketing and improving community and regional infrastructure. Buck noted in a recent conversation that the goal is to move beyond traditional food-based programming to build sustainability by engaging local leaders as well as international groups that specialize in working with at-risk populations.

In this age of climate change coupled with rapid population growth, it is valuable to have guides such as the one presented by Buck and Bailey that serve as practitioner handbooks for strengthening resilience through the marriage of social and ecological elements within a single landscape.

Photo by Michael Sale. 
Eva Fillion is a Communications Intern at EcoAgriculture Partners. Her passion for the environment has allowed her to participate in projects ranging from land management in upstate New York to teaching students about urban farming and road tripping throughout the Southwest.
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