Reflections from the Monday parallel session “Traps and Regime shifts: Approaches and methods for understanding social-ecological system dynamics”

Rapid and unwanted changes in human and natural systems can be unexpected (surprise!) and have terrible consequences for some. An increasingly large number of research groups are exploring the detection, prediction, and consequences of these rapid shifts in the environment. Understanding the immediate and long-term impacts on societies is of vital importance in creating and promoting sustainable communities. Then there are impoverished communities trapped in self-reinforcing mechanisms which causes poverty to persist: they have little choice but to reside in areas that are not well-protected against rapid changes. The World Bank has an article on just this topic and, more importantly, cartoons.

Chaired by Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) PhD student Daniel Ospina, presenters at this session gave quick, 5-minute overviews of research related to regime shifts and traps. Among them were four colleagues of Ospina, SRC researchers Steven Lade, Jamila Haider, Maja Schlüter and Gustav Engström.

They argued that development aid must incorporate culture and nature better in efforts to push communities out of poverty. “Big Push” solutions, when aid agencies inject cash for seeds, fertilisers and machinery, for example, into rural economies caught in a vicious cycle of underdevelopment, can instead lead to ever-more persistent poverty in some places.

Lade and his colleagues classified three types of solutions to alleviate poverty. The first is the standard Big Push “over the barrier”. The second is to “lower the barrier”, which could include training of farmers to change behavior and practices. These two classifications form the backbone of current aid strategies. The researchers introduce a third classification they call “transform the system”.

Resilience thinking can integrate complex interactions among multiple dimensions of poverty, diverse poverty alleviation pathways and diverse poverty-environment relationships into the poverty trap concept. For example, the complex roles of nature and culture in poverty traps call for diverse and often transformative poverty alleviation strategies. Credit: E. Wikander & E. Wisniewska/Azote













Blinded by economic models

The classification is about fundamentally rethinking the intervention strategy. For example, encouraging a farmer to devote a portion of his or her intensively-farmed land to local crops maintained through traditional practice to maintain resilient seed varieties.

Haider says, “If poverty in an area is causing environmental degradation then maybe a big push will work. But if the land has been managed sustainably for generations then development agencies need an approach that takes that knowledge into consideration.”

This seems obvious, but intervention strategies can become blinded by powerful yet simplistic economic models, she explains. Some communities have remained resilient for generations through, for example, using many traditional seed varieties. In their work, the researchers show how development interventions need to vary based on different relationships between poverty and environment.

Your Resilience2017 correspondent:

Jessica Burnett is a Ph.D. student at the University of Nebrsaka-Lincoln in Nebraska, U.S. Her research explores the use of statistical and modelling techniques for identifying rapid changes in wildlife communities across space and time. She is also interested in using existing data to identify areas and systems vulnerable to the effects of climate change and globalisation.


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