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Anticipating future risk in social-ecological systems using fuzzy cognitive mapping: the case of wildfire in the Chiquitania, Bolivia

Tahia Devisscher, Environmental Change Institute‬, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford; Stockholm Environment Institute
Emily Boyd, Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Reading; Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies
Yadvinder Malhi, Environmental Change Institute‬, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford


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Understanding complex social-ecological systems, and anticipating how they may respond to rapid change, requires an approach that incorporates environmental, social, economic, and policy factors, usually in a context of fragmented data availability. We employed fuzzy cognitive mapping (FCM) to integrate these factors in the assessment of future wildfire risk in the Chiquitania region, Bolivia. In this region, dealing with wildfires is becoming increasingly challenging because of reinforcing feedbacks between multiple drivers. We conducted semistructured interviews and constructed different FCMs in focus groups to understand the regional dynamics of wildfire from diverse perspectives. We used FCM modelling to evaluate possible adaptation scenarios in the context of future drier climatic conditions. Scenarios also considered possible failure to respond in time to the emergent risk. This approach proved of great potential to support decision making for risk management. It helped identify key forcing variables and generate insights into potential risks and trade-offs of different strategies. The “Hands-off” scenario resulted in amplified impacts driven by intensifying trends, affecting particularly the agricultural production under drought conditions. The “Fire management” scenario, which adopted a bottom-up approach to improve controlled burning, showed less trade-offs between wildfire risk reduction and production compared with the “Fire suppression” scenario. Findings highlighted the importance of considering strategies that involve all actors who use fire, and the need to nest these strategies for a more systemic approach to manage wildfire risk. The FCM model could be used as a decision-support tool and serve as a “boundary object” to facilitate collaboration and integration of different perceptions of fire in the region. This approach also has the potential to inform decisions in other dynamic frontier landscapes around the world that are facing increased risk of large wildfires.

Key words

adaptation; climate change; complexity; scenario; social-ecological system; uncertainty; wildfire risk

Copyright © 2016 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087