Agroecological approaches enhance resilience

In response to the food crisis, policy makers often now speak of the need for 'resilience', without asking the basic question: resilience to what and for whom? Using the case of Niger,the article below shows that the answer is to be found in the need to question the modern paradigms of technology-driven food systems and to support practices that make socio-ecological sense. 

The article was published in Third World Resurgence No. 223 (Mar 2009).

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Resilience: More than a trendy word
Juan Hoffmaister

THE concept of 'resilience' is resonating more and more in international negotiations. Government officials speak of 'increasing resilience' to the many challenges facing our planet, and food systems have been no exception.

Resilience, while a subject of transdisciplinary research, may provide important insights into how society can organise in times of crisis to prevent further stress. Enhancing food systems' resilience, however, does not require technological fixes or years of research - agroecological approaches can already provide strategies to confront challenges such as drought and desertification while enhancing food security.  Although discouraged in many parts of the world on the advice of the agro-industry, smallholder farming may bestow the answers in times of crisis. Here I will briefly examine how Niger has incorporated resiliency principles to combat desertification and recover from frequent droughts.

Resilience is generally understood as a measure of a system's integrity and capacity to recover from shocks - but specific definitions vary across fields. For ecologists, resilience is the ability of a system to experience change and disturbance without catastrophic qualitative change in its basic functional organisation (Holling, 1973), while social scientists understand resilience as the ability of human communities to withstand external shocks or perturbations to their infrastructure - such as environmental variability or social, economic, or political upheaval - and to recover from such perturbations (Adger, 2000). Regardless of what definitions are applied, the concept is only relevant when put in context, and not as an empty word in the development discourse.

A resilience approach is one that looks to manage resources in view of strengths and weaknesses against stressors across different scales, aware that socio-ecological systems evolve and adapt. The resilience of food systems in the drylands, for example, may depend on the ability of farmers to manage the land with appropriate agroecological practices to withstand perturbations, allowing them to recover and adapt to change. This can only be possible when farmers are engaged in creating institutions that support their coping strategies, rather than being passive targets of tech-fixes.

A resilient food system: more than words

Resilient food systems are evolving systems; it is not a goal, but a process. They are highly diverse systems, where uncertainty and change are common processes and where cross-scale interactions with the environment and society evolve together. Decades of command-and-control management have approached change and uncertainty as something that can be fixed, locking food systems in inflexible macro-management schemes. These management schemes reduce resilience; when the system is under stress it may reach a threshold after which the system loses its functions, and there is no 'back-up' diversity for reorganisation. In drylands, for example, the food systems may be particularly vulnerable to changes in precipitation and land cover, where changes in land cover may develop a series of feedbacks that create further changes in precipitation, developing a cycle that may be hard to break. The effects and length of drought may be extended if ecosystems are degraded prior to the drought, creating a downward spiral effect. If systems do not have the functional and response diversity, resilience is easily eroded and recovery may be much harder or the system may change into a regime.

Managing food systems for resilience is, however, much more complex than ensuring high biodiversity - as farmers have to cope with vulnerabilities associated with inequities, unresponsive governance, disease outbreaks, food price shocks, etc. - but it is possible.  In the drylands of Niger, for example, communities have managed to revert trends of desertification and drought through agroecological management while enhancing their resilience and increasing their food security (World Resources Institute, 2008).

After the devastating droughts of the 1980s, farmers and other actors have managed to revert desertification trends and enhanced economic, social, and environmental capital through farmer-managed natural regeneration: the adoption of simple, low-cost techniques for managing the natural regeneration of trees and shrubs and the use of soil and water conservation programmes.

The greening movement has offered a path to greater environmental and economic resilience and increased food security, even if many challenges remain for the Sahel region where Niger is located (Harris, 2007; Enfors and Gordon, 2007). The natural regeneration and other topsoil conservation practices might be able to break negative feedbacks of soil degradation, enhancing the resilience of agricultural systems (Antle, 1995). 

The challenges of producing food in the drylands for a growing population are still daunting, however. Projected impacts of climate change point to decreased water availability in many regions that depend on rain-fed agriculture, and irrigation schemes have caused more harm than good in many parts of the world.

The need for a resilience approach to manage ecosystem services that increase water availability for food production is paramount. Recent research points to the potential of managing water vapour flows to increase soil moisture, rather than the traditional focus on managing water runoff for irrigation, with techniques to manage vapour flows from evapotranspiration and rainfall that can improve land productivity (Rockstrom et al., 2004; Makurira et al., 2009).

Resilience in food systems thus requires a commitment to a new paradigm in management. Some important principles in this approach are:

* Diversity is valuable: The structure and function of an ecosystem to deliver services depends on its diversity. High functional and response diversity are characteristic of resilient ecosystems, as they serve as insurance during shocks. In drylands, some vegetation cover might be tolerant to extreme temperatures, providing a source of regeneration after shocks, such as droughts (Bellwood et al., 2004).1

* Systems are dynamic, not linear: Small changes may be amplified through feedbacks, stressing the need to consider the scale of management interventions and cross-scale interactions, as well as thresholds. The adaptive cycle, characterised by long periods of growth and stability and shorter periods of shock, provides opportunities for innovation and rearranging to better management (Gunderson et al., 1995).

* Systems adapt: Socio-ecological systems evolve and adapt to new circumstances with trade-offs as part of an adaptive cycle and in assessing and responding to vulnerability (Eriksen, 2008).2  The capacity of food systems to adapt to change depends on how farmers are able to live and cope with uncertainty, and how institutions can support them. Multilevel and decentralised institutions are necessary to enhance information flow and combine different types of knowledge for learning, providing a forum at different levels to collaborate during periods of reorganisation prior to and after a shock (Harrison, 2003; Folke et al., 2005). In Niger, the secretariat of the 1993 Rural Code, in collaboration with NGOs and other actors, has helped create this environment for collaboration, where they support farming practices rather than dictate to them.

In Niger, farmers have enhanced their resilience not through expensive technologies but through farmer-led agroecological practices, such as rock-lining, improved traditional planting pits, etc. While much of the discourse on desertification and drought has focused on bringing solutions to the ground, we have done little to realise that enhancing resilience is a socio-ecological process. This process requires establishing multilevel adaptive institutions to respond to change collaboratively.

The government has become an ally of farmers, and modified laws to support them, such as the Rural Code, providing farmers with rights and a framework to enable farmer-managed natural regeneration approaches in collaboration with agricultural extension services. Enhanced resilience in the region has increased the capacity to cope with drought because farmers practising natural regeneration are able to stock grains during good years and to harvest trees for food and income, obtaining better insulation against cyclical droughts (see Tougiani et al., 2008 and Reij, 2006, in World Resources Institute, 2008).

Resilience: To what and for whom?

The experience of Niger serves to highlight that resilience is not a concept that stands alone, but an approach to advance how society organises against shocks. Applying resilience requires answering some basic questions: resilience to what and for whom? In the case of Niger, the answers to these questions support - once again - the need to question the modern paradigms of technology-driven food systems and to support practices that make socio-ecological sense instead. Interest groups have used the recent food crisis to sell solutions, when the solutions have always been with us.

A resilience approach sees socio-ecological systems (SES) and their actors beyond the production of food, but as a system that interacts at many levels and scales. If managed correctly, SES can prepare for and reorganise after shocks, thus enhancing food security. Enhancing soil quality in the Niger has required preserving ecosystem functions that may not seem to contribute directly to food production (such as the planting of native tree species) but that have other benefits for the system. Ecosystem services, such as food provisioning, depend on the maintenance of biological integrity and diversity in agroecological systems (Altieri, 1999). A resilience approach, one that seeks to manage biodiversity while giving famers the right to use their knowledge, is important for food security.

As the debate about how to respond to the looming food crisis unfolds, it is important to understand the forces that govern the food system.  Who are the growers and who decides what to grow? When the answers to these questions are left to the market, food systems will be configured in a particular way. When these questions are answered in view of what is necessary to enhance the resilience of food systems, the implications for food policy will be different: Enhancing the resilience of food systems requires strengthening from within, learning and using knowledge and resources to accommodate to change, and seizing the opportunities to enhance ecosystems, as farmers have done in Niger.            

Juan Hoffmaister hails from Costa Rica and is completing graduate studies at the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden.


1          Functional groups are collections of species that perform a similar function, irrespective of their taxonomic affinities.

2          Dr. Polly Eriksen has worked on approaches to integrate factors across a food system to assess the system's vulnerability to environmental change, focusing on key processes and system characteristics.


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