Small group of experts interrogate Resilience by Design in Natural Resource Management

resilience-workshop-august-2016Natural resource systems are coming under pressure as a result of many factors, including climate change, rising populations, varying means of production and increasing societal interdependence. The predominant goal for society in this new era is on increasing resilience of social and ecological systems as a means of coping with the shocks and uncertainty associated with these contexts.

It is against this background that in August 2016, a small group of academics and practitioners met at the Institute of Natural Resources (INR) in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa to discuss resilience under the theme: Resilience by Design. The aim of this workshop was to interrogate how to manage and design for resilience of social ecological systems that produce multiple and socially desired outcomes and benefits. Presentations ranged from case studies about the sugar and dairy industries, small scale farming, artisanal fisheries, rural and peri urban contexts and sectors, thereby teasing out how the concept of resilience is understood and applied.

During the course of the workshop, several ‘aha moments’ emerged both from academics and practitioners. For example, Duncan Hay from INR said: “For me a conceptual ‘aha moment’ was that resilience is a state that can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. An ecosystem can be pristine and able to respond very effectively to resist a stressor such as pollution – it is resilient. Equally an ecosystem might be completely degraded and will resist any positive stressor such as restoration – it is also resilient”.

The concept of ‘bad’ resilience was highlighted by a number of presenters at the workshop. For instance, Catherine Sutherland illustrated how communities in rural peri urban informal settlements along the Palmiet River in the uMngeni become too reliant on the state, thereby limiting proactive movements to enforce positive change. This raised a critical conceptual question of how to manage resilience by understanding the process and dynamics of changing from a ‘bad’ resilience regime to a ‘good’ one.

Ernita van Wyk also captured her ‘aha’ moment in this statement: “For me personally, I found the talks dealing with context and capacity the most insightful and those ideas have inspired me to take a fresh look at resilience. My thinking has shifted towards asking: what capacity and contexts are required for social systems in nature to be expressive of the attributes and activities?”

During the course of the workshop, participants were separated into groups and asked to reflect and synthesise learning outcomes. This provided an opportunity to crossbreed ideas between different contexts and case studies. Some of the emerging learning outcomes included:

  • Moving out of undesirable resilience states often requires connecting to other social and ecological scales.
  • Tolerance and acceptance by social actors regarding current systems does not entail or reflect social resilience.
  • We cannot frame resilience without understanding contemporary issues.
  • The seven principles of resilience are not principles per se but rather activities.

The day long workshop was thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended – some colleagues meeting for the first time and establishing new links and networks in the name of resilience-based research. The proceedings from this workshop will culminate in a small Resilience publication, and a more substantial ‘Foresight Review’ document.