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ILRI/Ewen Le Borgne

Re-thinking resilience in the Fogera region of Ethiopia

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

During his time in north western Ethiopia, Dr. Steven Prager from the University of Wyoming observed the complex relationship between upstream and downstream farmers in Fogera region.  His results, he said, were unexpected.

It turns out that some farmers with multiple farm plots have their plots in both the upstream and downstream areas of the river basin.  This means that upstream and downstream relationships are much more complex than just household location.

Dr. Prager is assessing how farm plot location influences decision making in the river basin and the resilience of the agricultural ecosystems to changes in land management.

Dr. Prager spoke with Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog Editor Abby Waldorf about his work in this region of Ethiopia.  He started out answering the question he said was toughest to answer:

How do you define resilience?

The policy implications of these potential finding could be huge.  Designers and implementors of incentive structures for upstream and downstream users can use this information to tailor and target interventions at farmers who are less resilient to shocks and changes in the system.

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Steve - you mention the implications for policy which are true but one of the biggest problems in countries like Ethiopia or Laos is having flexible policies which take into account complexity. For the most part, policies are very top-down and prescriptive...how can policy makers actually use this. I would suspect at the district or catchment level this could have interesting implications..

Thanks, Michael, I appreciate the comments.

I agree with you completely, one of the critical points we're trying to make with this and some of our offshoot research is that there is an incredible amount of local variation and that it is necessary to take this variation into account in terms of thinking about the linkages between policy and actual outcomes. Likewise, as I am sure everyone on this thread can appreciate, is that this variation has both an ecological and a social component and understanding systems from this integrated perspective is, likewise, useful.

Happy to continue the dialog at any point!

Hello Dr. Steve,
I watched the video posted and I would say it was nice. I paid attention to your response for Mike Victor. I liked that you have mentioned the issue like there are variations in ecological and ecological components and acknowledging them in research can add value. However, in most cases we deal with other components and hardly have developed frameworks to look resilience in social-ecological terms. I feel that mechanisms has to be developed so that both social and ecosystem issues are equally valued in governance research.

Thanks Steve for your definition of social-ecological resilience, especially in the context of Fogera.

Beyond the complexity of upstream-donwstream relationships resulting from some farmers with multiple farm plots having their plots in both the upstream and downstream areas of the river basin, would you say that such a combination, where farmers don't put all their eggs in the same basket, do increase the resilience of their farm?

I am posting the same information what I put in NRM group as a comment in resilience thinking as per request from Mike Victor.

I agree that Holling definition of resilience (1973) would be a starting point for ecologists who work for resource management. However, I think that this definition does not explicitly say about human roles in ecosystem changes. New researches actually have looked more deeper into human roles and often offering new insights that seeing resilience in social-ecological terms is more pragmatic. Certainly, defining resilience as a process of recovery spanned through many disciplines including recovery from natural disasters and even in health science. We may agree that with respect to ecosystems, using the term is more context specific. We often say resilient fisheries, resilient forestry etc. Often we mixed up the idea with sustainability but they are not certainly the same thing. In my idea establishing resilience may lead sustainable development. Here is the question like how can we achieve this overarching goal of resilience though meeting the social and ecological objectives of resources ? Very often we focus more on the biodiversity and neglect local livelihoods of local people (e.g. many marine reserves used as no-take zones). Although the idea of resources governance has changed with the scholarly works of Elianor Ostrom (1990), Fikret Berkes (1989) and many others who support common property systems and roles of users in governing a resource are acknowledged, the success of this type of framework is marred by local corruptions and issues of rigid political systems who are often disinterested to handover management rights to users. Many comanagement programs still topdown as government mostly control the process. So the success of building resilience through the widely used mechanisms such as comanagement, integrated management of natural resource has been mixed. I worked for WorldFish Center, Bangladesh for many years and did a Ph.D. recently on managing fisheries and related ecosystems through community participation. I tried to understand how the interests of both social system and ecosystem are maintained in comanagement programs. I found in my research that where outcomes from comanagement does not support livelihoods (no much incomes from fishing), community supports erode from engaging in joint actions over time. There are 100s of comanagement in fisheries in Bangladesh that ran from 1990-2006. Some of them are still working but many of them failed to operate when donor supports ended. I investigated ox-bow lakes comanagement program where comanagement could enhance resilience in social-ecological terms which may be a good read for who are interested in resilience thinking.
Here is the link:


Thanks for reading my note on the resilience idea. Apologies if many typos have occurred or have unclear areas at my note.

Great conversation!

In British Columbia, Canada, we are using resilience as a central concept for climate change adaptation in the forest sector. See the 2009 report: “Ecological resilience and complexity: a theoretical framework for understanding and managing British Columbia’s forest ecosystems in a changing climate.” (link below)

However, this report mainly lays out the framework, and it is not obvious how to translate that to management activities on the ground. For me, that is the key step in defining resilience – what does it mean in terms of actions or indicators?

Here’s one example, I’m sure there are others. In a recent study, we used tree species diversity, tree growing stock, logging rates and net revenue from logging as indicators of socio-ecological resilience in a simulation modeling experiment. We used combinations of different management activities that resulted in different amounts of damage from the mountain pine beetle and different risks to future insects and disease due to species diversity. Those different management regimes created different scenarios in terms of the resilience indicators. We are hoping the results from this study will help forest managers in BC make more adaptive choices.


Comment from Steven Prager:


Thanks for the question and apologies for the delay, I have been hit or miss with internet access while on travel.

The question, reworded slightly, is whether spreading plots across the landscape is one means to buttress resilience of individual farmers. This is a fascinating question for a number of reasons.

First, I would give a qualified yes, and say that in some cases having plots in different locations within a watershed could potentially improve resilience for individual farmers. Thinking in terms of strategies at the individual level, this could be one of several potential approaches for managing risk. Likewise, we would need to simultaneously consider complimentary issues such as specific crop choices, land management practices and the like. All of these have the potential to be part of the portfolio of individual-level management strategies.

By way of example, at the Fogera site, there are a number of plots located in very sensitive portions of the watershed. There are two farmers in particular with the majority of their holdings in a portion of the watershed that is potentially very sensitive to the upstream decisions of others. In one case, the farmer’s holdings are fairly substantial. This farmer has an adequate land base such that he has been able to allocate the most vulnerable portion of his lands to less sensitive activities such as grazing. Another famer in the same area has a significantly less land and the vast majority of his holdings are allocated to subsistence and market driven agriculture. If there were a major disturbance in this system (e.g., heavy rains and high levels of sedimentation), the farmer with the larger holdings and thus more flexibility in terms of management decisions will fair far better then the farmer with little choice as to what practices he can implement where.

The “portfolio” approach to individual land management decisions has a great deal of potential. One of the challenges, as the above example illustrates, is that the ability of individual smallholders to create a portfolio of different practices is limited by their holdings. This issue is further exacerbated by the fact that individual holdings are, more often then not, shrinking and increasingly fragmented over time due to population growth, unstable land tenure systems, in migration, etc.

Another reason this is an interesting question is that it gets at the issue of scale. When we think in terms of policy, it is necessary to consider how the assemblage of individual actions serves to collectively influence the resilience of the broader area. In some ways, this is a version of Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” in that what is good for the individual is not necessarily the best choice for the system as a whole. At the watershed level, we know that different practices are often advisable for different portions of the watershed. However, while these practices may be useful for promoting water infiltration and soil retention at the system level, they may actually result in lower levels of food production for those with plots located in areas better suited to alternative non-food practices.

When we’re thinking in terms of resilience of the system, we need to think both about individual resilience and system resilience and, especially, these concepts over time. The choice between individual and system level resilience is not clear-cut by any means, but when we incorporate time into the equation, the need for focusing on system-level properties quickly becomes evident.

Again, however, I would assert that all of these systems are set within broader social contexts (cultural, political, economic, other). It is thus critical to consider these contexts when thinking in terms of larger scale policy and the specific actions required at the local level to achieve these policy aims.

I think that both Mamun’s and Caren’s examples speak to the fundamental necessity of considering these broader contexts. There is no disentangling individual action from the broader context. Caren’s point that defining resilience in relation to the problem(s) and system(s) at hand is directly relevant here; if we wish to orient BOTH policy decisions and local/individual actions toward increasing resilience, we need to specifically define what it is we want to accomplish and how specific actions and indicators serve to measure success in that regard.