Resilience 2017 Conference: Resilience as a key lens for biosphere-based sustainability science

By Cherie Forbes

Current rapid changes in global ecosystems and societies have prompted international efforts aimed at capturing resilience of Social-Ecological Systems (SES) and finding ways for people and institutions to govern social-ecological dynamics for improved human well-being from the grassroots to the global scale. There is a strong realisation that current and future sustainable development requires a paradigm shift from how we previously addressed issues within the development sphere and in order to maintain/increase resilience, the mere decoupling of development from the biosphere is insufficient. Instead, current and future development has to restore and make the biosphere resilient to the Anthropocene and the challenges it brings. Therefore, ‘resilience thinking’ is about cultivating the capacity for development to not only be sustainable, but to also thrive in the face of expected and surprising change.
Within a South African context, resilience and SES thinking and research has played an important role in the planning and policy space over the past ca. 15 years. There have been various projects and programmes that have spanned many different sectors, objectives and approaches. All of them have focused on sustainable development and interactions within policy and practice.

Professor Belinda Reyers (Keynote speaker during the 2015 Programme for Ecosystem Change and Society Conference (PECS)) described some of the key lessons central to resilience and SES-thinking that have emerged over the years: (1) although there is a need for SES research to produce empirical, technical/scientifically rich data, research cannot be done in isolation, and we therefore need to incorporate strong social collaborative and participatory processes (i.e. partnerships, co-production of knowledge and learning for implementation) as well as diverse modelling tools (e.g. tactical, learning, dialogue and decision-making models); and (2) the capacity to deal with unexpected shocks, turbulence and slower on-going change is a major challenge within sustainable development since we still lack tools, skills and appropriate systems in the public and private sector, and this hinders decision-makers and practitioners.

I am in the first year of my Doctoral studies specialising in Applied Palaeoecology at the University of Cape Town (UCT). On 20-23 August 2017 I will be one of 30 South African presenters participating in the 4th triennial Resilience 2017 Conference, which will be hosted in Stockholm, Sweden ( This Conference is co-hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Resilience Alliance which advocates resilience thinking as central to the understanding of SES. The Resilience 2017 Conference is an opportunity for young scholars and senior academics to engage with policy, business and practice, and to explore and advance a common agenda on resilience for sustainable development.

A main focus of the Resilience 2017 Conference will be on global sustainability challenges and opportunities, which today are heavily influenced by the speed, scale and connectivity of the Anthropocene. Over the past few years the food-energy-water nexus has become a ‘hot topic’ in the sustainability sphere and delivering food, energy and water for all in a sustainable and equitable way is one of the major challenges faced by societies world-wide.
Within South Africa (SA), land-use such as agriculture has played a major role in transforming the landscapes. Currently, SA’s water resources are allocated at excessive levels, and this is worsened by competition for water between livestock, crops and energy production. Agricultural and conservation landscapes depend on ecosystem services (ES), which are essential attributes of ecological systems upon which all societies depend.

In addition to land-use impacts, climate change will affect ES such as food production and water availability. A resilience and systems-thinking approach makes it clear that food, energy, water and climate are inextricably linked and will impact both the biodiversity and sustainability of our country’s landscapes. The Resilience 2017 Conference will explore five major Conference themes and my poster presentation falls within the Poster session “Ecosystem services and landscapes”, which is part of the 4th Conference theme titled, “Approaches and methods for understanding social-ecological system dynamics”. My participation in this Conference is a unique opportunity to be exposed to others’ research and views regarding resilience thinking and complex adaptive social-ecological systems so that I can contextualise her own research in terms of conservation, resilience and sustainability in South Africa. Effective climate change adaptation will depend on good governance and a sound understanding of the resilience of SES, therefore approaches and methodologies for understanding SES dynamics is of great value.
My poster presentation will showcase preliminary pollen and charcoal findings from my PhD research. My research study uses the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area (a formally protected water catchment) and surrounding agricultural lands in the Cape Floristic Region of the Western Cape, South Africa, as a SES case study to inform sustainable land-use management. GWWA has the potential to provide ES (e.g. biodiversity, water regulation, soil erosion regulation) to the surrounding active agricultural lands, therefore playing a critical role in food and water security, economic development and overall resilience.

In her study, changes in biodiversity, water quality and soil erosion in response to drivers such as local level climate variability and land-use change (fire, herbivore, crop cultivation and conservation) will be reconstructed over centennial-millennial timescales using palaeo-proxies such as fossil pollen, charcoal, dung fungal spores, minerogenic sediment accumulation rate and geochemical/magnetic markers.

Furthermore, I will use semi-structured interviews with local commercial farmers and key land management institutions such as CapeNature and local government to define the environmental problem, explore perceived resilience of the SES and explore implications for land-use management (adaptation and restoration options). In order to model future scenarios and identify management thresholds/Thresholds of Potential Concern, I will use Palaeo, climate and land-use data. Results from my study will add to the limited palaeoecological record of this vulnerable biodiversity hotspot, and inform key management objectives and restoration targets related to climate variability, fire regimes and vegetation composition. This case study will investigate the potential of increasing resilience to negative impacts of future climate change by encouraging multidisciplinary social-ecological research.

FOA (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). 2014. The Water-Energy-Food Nexus: A new approach in support of food security and sustainable agriculture.
Gillson, Lindsey. “Biodiversity Conservation and Environmental Change.” (2015): 54-114.
Goldblatt, Amy. “Agriculture: Facts & Trends, South Africa.” In World Wildlife Forum. 2010.