Once communities begin on a path of designing and implementing sustainable community development (SCD) projects in Belize, they want to maintain a systemic capacity of those projects taken together to improve the overall resiliency of the community. The imperative for communities to take action toward resiliency is also tied to uncertain conditions represented by global climate change, sea level rise, the end of the era of cheap energy, natural disasters, and resource depletion. The need for adaptation, as well as prevention of further degradation, is clear and is moving many communities to begin looking at strategic planning activities in new ways, offering opportunities for development that will promote resiliency. No one wants to have to start again from scratch after a setback.
The goal of SCD in Belize should be to create and maintain thriving social, economic, and ecological systems that are intimately linked: humanity depends on services of ecosystems for its health, prosperity and security. Moreover, humans can transform ecosystems into more or less desirable conditions. Humanity receives many ecosystem services (i.e., clean water and air, food production, fuel, and others). Yet human action can render ecosystems unable to provide these services, with consequences for human livelihoods, vulnerability, and security. Such declines in ecosystem services can thus negatively impact the resiliency of a community. While evidence suggests the essential role of resilience for prosperous development of communities, studies have also revealed the tight connection between resilience, diversity, and sustainability of social-ecological systems.
The idea of resilience is defined as: “a measure of the ability of systems to absorb change… and still persist.” In an ecological context, resilience is generally described as the long-term capacity of an ecosystem to cope with and adapt to change and perturbation, such as storms, fire, and pollution. In the societal structure of communities, resilience is the capacity of a system to deal with change and continue to develop; it is both about withstanding shocks or disturbances and regaining functions afterwards. In a human context this is closely linked to the ability to adapt to changing conditions through learning and innovation or even transformation. Hence, it is both the capacity to withstand pressures and to rebuild and renew itself if degraded.
Few community development programs have addressed the various interlinked and interdependent components of community resilience. Development of human management strategies to promote community sustainability requires direct consideration of both resilience and risk factors. And since these are indirectly related to the uncertainty of environment and natural resources, in order to operationalize sustainable, healthy ecosystems with multiple societal benefits the SCD practitioner needs to recognize three major sets of community characteristics:
- human communities are able to plan and act in concert with natural systems;
- ecosystems are used for multiple community benefits; and
- those with ideas on differing uses of the ecosystems seek common ground.
One necessity for successful sustainable community improvement is that communities should be seeking to develop methods of local resiliency management. Methods for local resilience management emphasizing social-ecological resilience can increase the robustness of a town, city, or community to a range of shocks, crises, and disasters. For example, loss of ecological resilience tends to lead to more vulnerable systems, and possible system shifts to undesired states that provide fewer goods (e.g., fish and crops) and services (e.g., flood control and water purification). An erosion of resilience is often caused by gradual loss of diversity making the system progressively more susceptible to disturbances like hurricanes or pollution. In this case a loss of diversity is true for both natural resources and business types.
Understanding the concepts of resiliency requires the combined consideration of the following:
- Persistence: the capacity of a natural or human system to maintain structure and function when faced with shocks and change (g., for a forest to withstand a storm);
- Adaptability: the collective capacity of people to learn and adapt to changing conditions in order to stay within a desired state (g., ability to safeguard water supplies under climate change); and
- Transformability: the capacity of people to innovate and transform in periods of crisis in order to create a new system when ecological, social, or economic conditions make the existing system untenable (g., turning the current global financial crisis into an opportunity to transform the local economy).
Management can destroy or build resilience, depending on how the social-ecological system organizes itself according to the above principles. As noted above, resilience is often associated with diversity – of species, of human opportunity, and of economic options – that maintains and encourages both adaptation and learning. For example, it has been observed that resilience derives from slowly restored controlling variables, such as reservoirs of soil nutrients, heterogeneity of ecosystems on a landscape, multiplicity of businesses types, or variety of genotypes and species.
Social-ecological systems are constantly changing and difficult to control or channel. Additionally, one often assumes that ecosystems respond to gradual change in a smooth way, but sometimes there are drastic shifts, such as weather-related disasters. Paradoxically, management that uses rigid control mechanisms to harden the condition of social-ecological systems can only erode resilience and promote collapse. In contrast, management that builds resilience can sustain social-ecological systems in the face of surprise, unpredictability, and complexity. It conserves and nurtures the diverse elements that are necessary to reorganize and adapt to novel, unexpected, and transformative circumstances. Thus, it increases the range of shocks with which a socio-economic system can cope.
The outdated perception of humanity as decoupled from, and in control of nature is an underlying cause of society’s vulnerability. Technological developments and economic activities based on this perception further contribute to the erosion of resilience. These vulnerabilities can be counteracted by communities understanding the complex connections between people and nature, which create opportunity for technological innovations and economic policies aimed at building resilience. Two useful tools for resilience-building in social-ecological systems are structured scenarios and active adaptive management. Stakeholders can engage in scenarios to envision alternative futures and the pathways by which they might be reached. By envisioning multiple alternative futures and actions that might attain or avoid particular outcomes, they can identify and choose resilience-building policies alternatives.
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