The following is the established format for referencing this article:Shumi, G., H. Wahler, M. Riechers, F. Senbeta, D. J. Abson, J. Schultner, and J. Fischer. 2023. Resilience principles and a leverage points perspective for sustainable woody vegetation management in a social-ecological system of southwestern Ethiopia. Ecology and Society 28(2):34.
Addressing ecosystem destruction and unsustainable development requires appropriate frameworks to comprehensively investigate social-ecological systems. Focusing on woody plant management in southwestern Ethiopia, we combined social-ecological resilience and a leverage points perspective to (1) assess how stakeholders perceive and operationalize resilience principles; (2) investigate resilience challenges and solutions across different levels of systemic depth; and (3) assess how different stakeholder groups noted challenges and solutions at different levels of system depth. Data were collected in focus group discussions with multiple types of stakeholders and analyzed via quantitative content and descriptive analysis. All stakeholder groups identified two principles currently applied in the landscape, while other principles were not currently applied widely. In total, we identified 37 challenges and 44 solutions to resilience, mainly focused on “deeper” systemic change. This trend was noted across stakeholder groups, but particularly by local people. Based on our work, we suggest to foster bottom-up changes in system goals, rules, paradigms, and intent, drawing explicitly on local people and their knowledge. More broadly, we suggest that further research on combining social-ecological resilience and leverage points perspectives could be helpful to better navigate and transform social-ecological systems.
Land-use change, particularly deforestation, forest degradation, agricultural expansion and intensification, and urbanization, affect most terrestrial ecosystems (Ellis et al. 2010, Foley et al. 2011, Steffen et al. 2015). Rapid and large-scale land-use change has impacted the state and functioning of the entire Earth system, and ultimately could trigger far-reaching, non-linear, and irreversible changes that may devastate a variety of ecosystem services (Steffen et al. 2015, Díaz et al. 2019, IPBES 2019) and other aspects of nature’s contributions to people (Díaz et al. 2018, Riechers et al. 2020).
Addressing ecosystem destruction (Rockström et al. 2009, WWF 2020) and unsustainable development pathways (White 2017, O’Neill et al. 2018, Brand et al. 2021) requires urgent and fundamental transformative change (e.g., Fazey et al. 2020, Vogel and O’Brien 2022). However, enacting such transformative change remains a challenge because of its political and normative character, as well as the inherent complexities and uncertainties in social-ecological systems (SES; see Blythe et al. 2018, Chaigneau et al. 2022). Hence, it is vital to find appropriate frameworks to comprehensively analyze transformational processes in SES in order to identify interventions with transformative potential.
Transformation processes can be assisted by embracing systems thinking (Ostrom 2007, Meadows 2009, Scoones et al. 2020). Systems thinking is an analytical perspective to study and manage the emergent behavior of complex and interlinked social-ecological system elements (Ostrom 2007, Meadows 2009). Within systems thinking, two complementary perspectives have emerged that can help to facilitate better and more sustainable management of SES. First, a resilience perspective is interested in how systems can cope with shocks and continue to develop (Folke et al. 2010). More specifically, this perspective emphasizes human-nature relations and adaptive management. The resilience perspective views humans as part of nature, and human-nature interactions form the core of SES (Berkes et al. 2003, Folke 2006). The resilience of SES can be enhanced by applying established principles that are widely recognized to foster social-ecological resilience (Biggs et al. 2012; see Table 1).
In addition to the resilience perspective, a leverage points perspective can also be useful to improve SES management (Meadows 1999, Abson et al. 2017, Fischer and Riechers 2019). Leverage points are specific places within a complex system where relatively small interventions can lead to substantial change (Meadows 1999). A leverage points perspective conceptualizes interventions in systems as acting on different levels of systemic depth, from the relatively shallow levels of parameters and feedbacks to the deeper levels of system design and intent (Abson et al. 2017), and thereby helps to identify potential interventions that could help bring about transformative change (Fischer and Riechers 2019; see Table 2 for details and examples). Interventions at shallow levels (e.g., allocating budgets for tree planting or increasing the size of a protected area) of a given system will be ineffective, or unfeasible, if such interventions are constrained by deeper level system characteristics (e.g., authoritarian regimes that resist institutional change or a system with core goals related to production-oriented rather than sustainability). Moreover, interventions need to account for possible interactions among system characteristics across multiple levels of systemic depth (e.g., Manlosa et al. 2019a, Jiren et al. 2021).
The study presented here is an empirical exploration that combines resilience principles (Biggs et al. 2012) with the notion of leverage points across multiple levels of systemic depth (i.e., system parameters, feedbacks, design, and intent; Table 2; Abson et al. 2017). Specifically, we investigated at which depth within a complex SES key challenges and opportunities occurred for applying resilience principles. Our case study focused specifically on the management of woody plant diversity for improved social-ecological resilience and well-being in a smallholder farming landscape in southwestern Ethiopia. Woody plant diversity, in this system, is central to both biodiversity and people’s livelihoods (Rodrigues et al. 2018, Shumi et al. 2019a). The region is also a part of the eastern Afromontane biodiversity hotspot (Mittermeier et al. 2011) and the center of origin and diversity of Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica; Anthony et al. 2002).
Drawing on the rationale outlined above, we aimed to do the following:
- Assess how different stakeholders perceive resilience principles and operationalize them, including perceptions of the current social-ecological situation, and barriers and opportunities of applying resilience principles in the context of woody vegetation diversity management;
- Investigate and characterize the perceived resilience challenges and solutions across different levels of systemic depth, from the relatively shallow levels of parameters and feedbacks to the deeper levels of system design and intent; and
- Assess whether or not different stakeholder groups noted challenges and solutions at different levels of system depth.
In doing so, our study can contribute to better understanding how various stakeholders perceive the sustainability of their system, including its current situation as well as barriers and opportunities to resilience building. This, in turn, can help to identify places of intervention to improve resilience in the study region. Some of the findings may also be helpful for other similar settings, especially in bioculturally diverse parts of the Global South. The insights obtained are particularly important for the local community within our study area who greatly depend on, and have close ties to, nature. The local people have built a wealth of traditional ecological knowledge and experience, but are often marginalized by top-down and sectoral policies. Indirectly, our study thus also contributes to the better recognition of local people, and their livelihood and nature stewardship needs, local knowledge, and experiences. To this end, the outcomes of this study were summarized in a non-technical manual for how to build resilience within our study region in the context of woody vegetation management. This manual was produced in both English and the local language, so that it, too, can be used beyond the study area as appropriate (Shumi and Fischer 2023a, b). Finally, collaborative multi-stakeholder field days were organized to kick-start the implementation of some of the resilience principles prioritized by local stakeholders.
The concept of resilience, as defined above, was introduced by Holling (1973) in a seminal paper describing nonlinear ecosystem dynamics. Since then, resilience has become a dominant concept in SES research (Folke et al. 2004). Because many contemporary social and ecological challenges are complex and intertwined (Donohue et al. 2016), systems thinking can contribute to finding solutions to such multifaceted and interconnected systems’ problems (Ostrom 2007, Meadows 2009).
To this end, a social-ecological resilience perspective recognizes the strong impact and reliance of humanity on nature as well as possible non-linearities arising from human impact. This perspective can be used to explore and understand the current status and spatial-temporal dynamics of SES (e.g., see Fischer et al. 2015, Dugo 2019). Further, some principles seem to generally support the sustainable management of a given system, that is, applying these principles can help the system remain adaptable and avoid undesirable shifts into degraded system states (e.g., see Biggs et al. 2012). Biggs et al. (2012) identified seven generic principles through an assessment of the scientific literature, a survey of leading resilience experts, and a mock court workshop. The identified principles are listed in Table 1. In this article, as indicated in Table 1, we differentiated ecological and social aspects for each of the first three principles and considered them separately to avoid ambiguity as well as ease the discussion with local stakeholders.
The first three resilience principles focus on general SES properties and processes to be managed (diversity, redundancy, connectivity, slow variables, and feedbacks), while the remaining four principles relate to aspects of SES governance (Biggs et al. 2012). Overall, all principles are intended together as a guide to ensure a continuous flow of desirable ecosystem services (Biggs et al. 2012). Because these principles were first generated, there have been several attempts to apply them to diverse contexts, including ecological restoration (Krievins et al. 2018) and water management (Reilly et al. 2021), among others.
Applying resilience-fostering principles in real world landscapes, particularly in smallholder farming landscapes, remains challenging because of the prevalent production-oriented green revolution discourse (IPBES 2019, Grass et al. 2020). Operationalizing resilience principles to maintain resilient SES requires radical transformational change. A radically transformed system would place sustainability at the core of personal and societal value and belief systems and elevate it to the top of political agendas (Osborne et al. 2021, McPhearson et al. 2021). Fostering such transformative change hinges on identifying suitable interventions within a given system. This, in turn, can be facilitated by a leverage points perspective. In a landmark essay, Meadows (1999) identified a hierarchy of 12 leverage points—places of interventions—in complex systems. Meadows (1999) differentiated between leverage points at which interventions are simple but restricted in their potential to bring about transformative change (i.e., shallow leverage points) and leverage points at which interventions are more difficult but have great potential to bring about transformative change (i.e., deep leverage points). Building on the work by Meadows (1999), Abson et al. (2017) summarized the 12 leverage points into four main areas of leverage, and surmised that increasingly deep or influential areas of leverage would be associated with changes in parameters, feedbacks, system design, and the intent encapsulated by a given system (Table 2).
A leverage points perspective recognizes the link between causal and teleological explanations of system change, that is, change is perceived to arise from variables influencing one another as well as from how human intent traces and shapes the trajectory of a system (Fischer and Riechers 2019). System change can also arise from interactions among system characteristics across multiple levels of systemic depth (Fischer and Riechers 2019, Manlosa et al. 2019a, Jiren et al. 2021).
Combining a resilience perspective with a leverage points perspective could be useful to facilitate a better understanding of the depth within a system at which resilience challenges and solutions occur; and thereby, identify possible interventions that are needed to more fully apply or operationalize resilience principles in a given system. In our context, challenges were defined as actions, processes, or structures that hinder the application of resilience principles and thus, transformation to sustainability. Solutions were defined as actions, processes, or structures that could facilitate the application of resilience principles.
Our study was conducted in Jimma Zone, within Oromia National Regional State, in southwestern Ethiopia. In this region, we engaged stakeholders selected from two kebeles (the smallest administrative unit), namely Gido Bere and Kuda Kofi; from the two districts that these two kebeles are located within, namely Gumay and Setema; and from Jimma town also (Fig. 1). We selected the kebeles and districts based on our previous work experience in the study area (Shumi et al. 2018, Shumi et al. 2019a, Shumi et al. 2021), which suggests that these kebeles and districts are broadly representative of the typical social-ecological characteristics of the broader region.
The study area is characterized by a mosaic of forest, farmland (arable land, grazing land, and home gardens), and settlements. The forest in the area is moist evergreen Afromontane forest. Woody plants are rich and abundant in the forest-agriculture mosaic of the region. Dominant woody plant species include Olea welwitschii, Pouteria adolfi-friederici, Schefflera abyssinica, Prunus africana, Albizia spp., Syzygium guineense, Cordia africana, Croton macrostachyus, and Coffea arabica (Shumi et al. 2019a).
Woody plants have important ecosystem functions and contribute critically to local biodiversity (Engelen et al. 2017). They also provide multiple ecosystem services, e.g., including soil fertility maintenance for agricultural production or livestock and honey production, and local people strongly depend on these services for their day-to-day livelihoods (Ango et al. 2014).
Subsistence agriculture, including cropping and livestock keeping, is the main source of livelihoods (Manlosa et al. 2019b). Coffee and to a lesser degree honey are economically important non-timber forest products in the area (Ango et al. 2014). Coffee is widely managed at altitudes between 1500 and 1800 m asl, within its ecological optimum, generally under a canopy of native shade trees (Teketay 1999). The largest ethnic group in the region is the Oromo, while Amhara, Kefficho, and Tigre people are minorities (Shumi et al. 2019a).
We chose focus group discussions to collect empirical data on perceptions and operationalization of the resilience principles. Focus groups can help to generate a joint understanding of complex social-ecological system issues, with participants being informed and stimulated in their thinking by the discussion points of others. Because of this, we selected this tool over other, more individually focused tools, such as key informant interviews (Hennink 2014). Focus group discussions were guided by prompting questions on how stakeholders perceived established resilience principles (sensu Biggs et al. 2012; see Table 1), and how they might or might not operationalize them in the context of woody vegetation management in southwestern Ethiopia.
For this, we first systematically grouped relevant stakeholders, from local to zonal levels, based on their likely similar backgrounds, shared experiences, ages, and wealth or social status (Hennink 2014). Grouping of stakeholders into separate discussion groups was done to minimize potential effects of unequal power relations and fundamentally differing perceptions of key issues, and to allow the emergence of different perspectives and discussions within and between groups. Accordingly, at the local level, stakeholders in each kebele were divided into five groups, namely (a) model farmers (i.e., those who usually adopt new agricultural technologies and have close contact or link to extension agents or experts and researchers), (b) low-income farmers, (c) women, (d) elders, and (e) a group that comprised elementary school teachers, students (including graduated and jobless youngsters), and development agents. At the district level, stakeholders in each district were divided into two groups, specifically (a) experts from the agricultural office (i.e., crop, coffee, livestock, extension, and natural resource management department) and the Oromia Wildlife and Forest Enterprise (OFWE), and (b) experts from different administration offices (i.e., district-admin, security, cooperatives, tourism, marketing, and financial experts) and district-level experts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). At the zonal level, we divided stakeholders into three main groups, namely (a) experts from the agricultural office (i.e., crop, coffee, livestock, extension, and natural resource management experts) and from OFWE, (b) experts from the administration (i.e., zone-admin, security, cooperatives, tourism, marketing, and financial experts) and from zonal NGOs, and (c) lecturers and researchers from Jimma University and the Biodiversity Research Institute.
Then, for each of the 17 groups, 10–12 participants were selected purposefully and further divided into two sub-groups comprising 5–6 discussants each (a suitable size for focus group discussions; Hennink 2014), which also helped to align our work with local SARS-CoV-2 regulations at the time, resulting in 34 individual group discussions. To limit the time spent in the group discussions, one sub-group then discussed resilience principles P1, P3, P6, and P7, while the other sub-group discussed P2, P4, P5, and P6 (see Table 1 for a list of the principles). Before we started each focus group discussion, we introduced the objectives of our study and informed the discussants about the voluntary nature of participation in the focus group discussion. A poster illustrating all seven resilience principles (in general terms) and a set of open-ended guiding questions in the local language (Oromifaa) were used to stimulate and guide the focus group discussions for each principle. Within each focus group discussion, participants were first briefed about each resilience principle. Then, participants were asked to discuss the principles in relation to woody vegetation management. They were encouraged to explicitly articulate how they understand each principle, that is by describing their current social-ecological situation with respect to the resilience principle and were asked whether they apply a given principle or not, and to list possible barriers and opportunities for applying each principle in the context of woody vegetation management within the study landscape.
Thus, in total, we conducted 34 separate focus group discussions from March to April 2021. All were conducted in the local language Oromifaa and moderated by local experts and supervised by the lead author.
The qualitative data obtained from the focus group discussions were transcribed and coded using MAXQDA 2020 software. Data were coded mainly deductively based on the resilience principles, as well as inductively, meaning that additional coded categories were developed for each principle based on the responses of discussants.
Quantitative content analysis (Mayring 2000) was used to assess how different stakeholders perceived and operationalized resilience principles (aim 1). To this end, we analyzed the frequency of statements on the social-ecological situation, challenge, and opportunity or solution (related to a given resilience principle) across stakeholder groups or the percentage of groups articulated these statements. We chose to analyze the data quantitatively because the frequency or percentage of mentions provides an indicator of how prevalent a given understanding was of the current situation, challenges to, and solutions for, increasing social-ecological resilience, both within and across different stakeholder groups. Further, we identified the resilience principles that were linked to many challenges, as well as suggested solutions that would address multiple challenges at the same time.
To investigate and characterize the perceived resilience challenges and solutions across system characteristics (aim 2), we classified the coded categories of challenges and solutions of each resilience principle across levels of systemic depth, namely system parameters, feedbacks, design, and intent (see Table 2 for system characteristics and specific leverage points). The classification into leverage points was based on Meadows (1999) and Abson et al. (2017), combined with our experiences of the study area (e.g., Fischer et al. 2021), and was undertaken independently by three of the co-authors and then synthesized. Using the frequencies of challenges and solutions mentioned in relation to a given resilience principle, we generated Sankey diagrams in R software (R Core Team 2022) to visualize how resilience challenges and solutions linked to each level of systemic depth.
Finally, to assess whether different stakeholder groups focused on challenges or solutions at different systemic depths (aim 3), we determined the frequency of resilience challenges and solutions across parameters, feedbacks, design, and intent system level by each stakeholder group. We produced histograms to visualize the results using R software (R Core Team 2022).
Perceived current resilience situation, challenges and solutions
Perceived current resilience situation
All 17 stakeholder groups agreed on the existence and benefit of various direct and indirect ecosystem services of diverse tree and shrub species (P1E; Table S1). Similarly, a large majority of groups, (16 or 94%) and (13 or 77%), perceived benefits from the existence of connectivity among different habitats (P2E) via vegetation strips/corridors and steppingstones in the landscape (Table S1).
However, almost all (16 or 94%) groups noted an absence of local social networks (P1S) for tree management in the landscape (Table S1). A majority of groups (15 or 88%) also perceived an absence of social connectivity or collaboration among stakeholders (P2S) across scales. Similarly, all 17 groups perceived steadily ongoing degradation of land and water resources, including biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as changes in the climate (P3E). All groups also agreed on the presence of slow social drivers, namely ongoing human population growth, deterioration of traditional social norms, values, cultures, and institutions; and 14 or 82% of groups reported growing poverty (P3S; Table S1). All 17 groups perceived absence of genuine participation or local self-organization (P6) in tree or forest management and voiced a lack of decision-making powers by local people and their social networks. Instead, 16 or 94% of groups revealed that tree/forest management related decision-making powers across the landscape were exerted exclusively by government actors, namely by local administration, and agricultural or OFWE experts (P7). About half of the groups (9 to 10 groups) voiced absence of understanding of SES as complex adaptive systems (CAS; P4), and absence of learning and experimentation processes (P5) in the context of tree/forest management (Table S1).
Perceived resilience challenges and solutions
In total, 37 different challenges were identified that could hinder the application of at least one resilience principle. Identified challenges were most numerous for applying P6, i.e., participation (24 challenges), P1S, i.e., social diversity and redundancy (22 challenges), P7, i.e., encouraging polycentric governance (22 challenges), and P5, i.e., continuous learning and experimentation (20 challenges; Table S2).
The most commonly mentioned challenges were the following: individualism and an absence of commitment or care (85 instances out of a possible 170, namely 17 focus groups by 10 specific principles), lack of awareness and experience sharing (82), weak government performance or policy implementation (36), and failure to recognize and prioritize local people and their needs and experiences (32). Challenges that were perceived most consistently throughout all principles were lack of awareness and experience sharing, individualism and absence of commitment or care, lack of monitoring, absent or weak support and supply of materials (e.g., seedlings), absent or weak tree/forest management and maintenance, and weak government performance or policy implementation (Table S2). Box 1 summarizes the key challenges that need attention in the study area.
1. Individualism and absence of commitment, responsibility, care, and respect
2. Lack of awareness and experience sharing
3. Weak government performance and policy implementation
4. Failure to recognize and prioritize local people and their needs and experiences
5. Deforestation/tree clearing for land-use expansion and intensification, and overutilization
6. Lack of or weak monitoring
7. Lack of or fake participation, only for political/reporting purposes
9. Absence of or weak trees/forest planting, management, maintenance, and governance
10. Predominance of inequality and unfairness
11. Lack of or weak support and supply of materials (e.g., seedlings)
12. Predominance of human-wildlife conflict
13. Dependency on or waiting for government for tree/forest management
14. Lack of or fake collaboration: connectivity among stakeholders across scales
15. Lack of or weak local social network and collaboration in trees/forest management
16. Lack of coordination or predominance of diverging values, knowledge, needs, and interests
17. Lack of responsible unit or institution
18. Loss of local social norms, values, cultures, institutions, and bylaws (customary laws)
19. Power of political elite: local people are afraid to stand up for their rights
20. Predominance of mistrust/doubt, and absence of interest, motivation, and willingness in trees/forest management
As to solutions, 44 different types of solutions were identified to help facilitate the application of at least one of the resilience principles (Table S3) in the context of woody vegetation diversity management. The most frequently named solutions were: enhancing awareness and experience sharing (72 instances out of a possible 170 mentions [17 groups by 10 principles]), connectivity among stakeholders across multiple units and levels (71), adaptive co-management and governance of trees and forest (68), enacting local social networks and collaboration legally (60), genuine participation or self-mobilization of local people (41), strengthening government structures and policy performance (41), and enhancing equity and roles of stakeholders (30; Table S3). Among the solutions that could improve the operationalization of most resilience principles simultaneously were the above-mentioned solutions, as well as enhancing laws and law enforcement, support and supply of materials, e.g., tree seedlings, and monitoring of the entire system (Table S3). Box 2 lists the most prominently suggested solutions for better resilience management for our study system.
1. Enhance awareness creation and experience sharing
2. Enhance connectivity among stakeholders across units and levels
3. Enhance adaptive co-management and governance of trees/forest
4. Enact and enhance local social network and collaboration legally
5. Enhance genuine participation or local self-mobilization
6. Strengthen government structures and policy performance
7. Enhance equity and roles of stakeholders, particularly local groups
8. Avoid individualism, and enhance care, responsibility, and respect
9. Restore and enhance local cultures, norms, values, institutions, and bylaws
10. Empower local people and their social networks/institutions
11. Enhance support and supply of materials (e.g., seedlings)
12. Recognize and prioritize local people, their needs and experiences
13. Enhance NGOs/projects and their performance
14. Enhance family planning services
15. Enhance law, legislation, and proclamation as well as its enforcement
16. Enhance monitoring
17. Recognize local people trees/forest ownerships and use rights
18. Enhance soil and water conservation practices
19. Enhance transparency and freedom of speech or expression
20. Enhance job creation/suitable poverty reduction strategy
21. Stop corruption
Resilience challenges and solutions across system characteristics
Relatively few resilience challenges and solutions were associated with the shallow levels of system parameters (Fig. 2) and feedbacks (Fig. 3). In contrast, many perceived resilience challenges and solutions occurred at the deeper levels of system design (Fig. 4) and intent (Fig. 5).
As to differences among stakeholder groups, administration staff, expert, researcher, and model farmer stakeholder groups articulated resilience challenges and solutions that occurred across all system levels, including shallow levels of system parameters and feedbacks (Fig. S1, S2, S3 and S4). In contrast, local stakeholder groups, including low-income farmers, perceived resilience challenges and solutions that occurred predominantly at the deeper levels of system design and intent (Fig. S3 and S4).
We combined two perspectives on complex SES, namely a social-ecological resilience perspective and a leverage points perspective. First, we documented stakeholders’ understanding of the resilience principles, and identified numerous challenges and suggested solutions to building resilience. Second, we uncovered linkages from resilience challenges and solutions to many different leverage points, ranging from parameters to intent. Third, we noted divergence among local and other stakeholder groups in their perceptions, in that most local stakeholder groups perceived resilience challenges and solutions that were associated predominantly with deeper systemic levels, while higher-level stakeholders also (and sometimes primarily) considered relatively more shallow levels of the social-ecological system.
In the following, we discuss these findings with respect to (a) applying resilience principles, and particularly why applying some principles remains challenging in the Global South; and (b) the importance of the deeper systemic levels of system design and intent to guide interventions. Finally, (c) we reflect on the possible utility of combining the two perspectives used here (a resilience perspective and a leverage points perspective) in other SES contexts.
Applying resilience principles
Our findings showed widespread management of woody plant diversity and redundancy (P1E) and ecological connectivity (P2E) in the study area. A possible reason for this could be that the culture of local people and farmers is to manage trees and favor agrobiodiversity (Altieri 2009, Jiren et al. 2018a, Shumi et al. 2021) in spite of agricultural intensification policies (Kassa et al. 2016) and a highly hierarchical food security and biodiversity conservation governance in the region (Jiren et al. 2018b). A likely additional reason is that local communities directly depend on and have close ties to nature, and especially woody vegetation and their associated ecosystem services, for their livelihoods in the area (Shumi et al. 2019b), similarly to other SES within the Global South (e.g., Samberg et al. 2016, Pehou et al. 2020, Gitz et al. 2021). Managing diverse tree and shrub species across the landscape can also facilitate ecological connectivity, as corroborated by other studies (e.g., Bailey 2007, Saura et al. 2014), which is vital for the maintenance of local and regional biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, and ecological functions.
In contrast, our findings also uncovered the widespread lack of application of many other resilience principles, such as managing social diversity and redundancy (P1S), managing social connectivity (P2S), managing slow ecological variables and feedbacks (P3E) and slow social variables and feedbacks (P3S), understanding of SES as complex adaptive systems (CAS; P4), adaptive learning and experimentation processes (P5), participation (P6), and polycentric governance (P7). This may be due to deep-rooted, expert-driven, top-down command and control economic development strategies (Holling and Meffe 1996, Jiren et al. 2018b, Reed et al. 2020) that are typified by strong power hierarchies and asymmetries (Armitage et al. 2009, Foli et al. 2018), which is common in many parts of the Global South (e.g., see Faye 2017, Mustalahti et al. 2020, Zafra-Calvo et al. 2020). Linked to this is the possible marginalization of local people, their traditional knowledge, social networks, norms, and lifestyles (Megerssa and Kassam 2020, van Noordwijk 2020, Zinngrebe et al. 2020), which could eventually lead to a deterioration of their relationship with nature (Faye 2017, White 2017, Lyver et al. 2019). For example, empirical findings by Jiren et al. (2018b) in our study area and by Mustalahti et al. (2020) in Mexico, Nepal, and Tanzania revealed highly hierarchical natural resource governance that favors only few powerful stakeholders and functions without adequate legitimacy of deprived social groups and their livelihoods (Faye 2017, Salomon et al. 2018).
The issues mentioned above may explain our findings regarding the difficulty of pursuing participatory management (P6), social diversity and redundancy (P1S), polycentric or decentralized governance (P7), and adaptive learning and experimentation (P5) in our study area. Our findings concur explicitly with study by Ruiz Agudelo et al. (2020) who documented difficulties in the application of these principles in the Amazon basin, as well as with other studies from other countries that show widespread absence of political recognition of social groups and absence of decentralized governance (e.g., see Scheba and Mustalahti 2015, Faye 2017, Mustalahti et al. 2020). Applying these key principles therefore may be hampered by strong prevailing political power differences as well as by reductionist views (Béné et al. 2009, Scheba and Mustalahti 2015), lack of political willingness, bureaucratic institutions, and social-political reluctance for change in natural resource governance (Brockhaus and Angelsen 2012, Foli et al. 2018).
Despite many challenges, our findings also highlighted possible solutions, including enhancing awareness and experience sharing, connectivity among stakeholders across scales and levels, adaptive co-management and governance of woody vegetation, enacting local social networks and collaboration, genuine participation of local people, strengthening government structures and policy performance, and enhancing equity, all of which can facilitate resilience building in the study region. Furthermore, often these interventions were understood as contributing simultaneously to multiple resilience principles (see Fig. 4 and 5; Table S3). Our empirical findings concur with studies, by e.g., Waters et al. (2022) and Chavez-Miguel et al. (2022), that provide insights into the importance of contextualized, locally based initiatives for SES resilience building. Importantly, they have clear parallels with recent recommendations for reconciling resilience and well-being (Chaigneau et al. 2022), for social-ecological transformation (e.g., see Visseren-Hamakers et al. 2021, Fougères et al. 2022), and for supporting the pluriverse, that is, pluralistic, culturally, and contextually specific solutions (Escobar 2018).
Interventions at deep leverage points: system design and intent
Several recent studies have emphasized the need for working with deep leverage points (system design and intent) to instigate system-wide transformative change (e.g., Dorninger et al. 2020 in energy and food systems, or Ives et al. 2020 for inner sustainability). Because there are interactions and interlinkages among leverage points, deeper system design and intent interventions might also facilitate interventions at more shallow leverage points, and vice versa (Manlosa et al. 2019a, Fischer and Riechers 2019, Riechers et al. 2021). Empirically, our findings uncovered the occurrence of a majority of both challenges and solutions at relatively deep leverage points (see Fig. 4 and 5); that is, effectively operationalizing resilience principles in smallholder faming landscapes likely entails deep interventions, such as changes in system goals, rules, values, self-organizing structures, paradigms, and intents (Abson et al. 2017, Ives et al. 2020). In line with our findings, the study by Fischer et al. (2022), for example, reveals the manifestation of resilience challenges (mainly triggered by the global green revolution discourse) at system design and intent levels in highly divergent SES of south-eastern Australia, central Romania, and southwestern Ethiopia. Thus, to address sustainability challenges or to enact effective solutions and foster diverse and fair futures for human and nonhuman life on Earth, paradigm shifts are needed (Patterson et al. 2017, Fougères et al. 2022).
In pursuing such paradigm system shifts, recognizing and aligning with indigenous peoples and local communities, and their multiple worldviews could help to facilitate social-ecological transformation (Fernández-Llamazares et al. 2021, Tynan 2021), particularly in the Global South (Escobar 2016, Megerssa and Kassam 2020, Martin et al. 2022). Our findings that most local stakeholder groups perceived that challenges and solutions occurred at deep leverage points (see Fig. S3 and S4) indicates a strong potential of local thought and action for transformative change and fundamentally improving social-ecological resilience (Ives et al. 2020, Molnár and Babai 2021, Fernández-Llamazares et al. 2021). Nevertheless, in many cases both Western and non-Western modernist practitioners (i.e., those who focus on the green revolution or growth-based development, and often have an intent to dominate or control other humans and nature), policy makers, and researchers neglect local communities and their livelihoods, complex systems of knowledge, cultures, and norms (Arora 2019, Lyver et al. 2019, Fernández-Llamazares et al. 2021). Modernist thinking can “inferiorize” local people and their long-standing practices as “primitive,” “irrational,” or “unproductive” (Arora 2019, Megerssa and Kassam 2020). Because of this, even though local people perceive and are affected by a loss of resilience, they do not have the power to use their experiences to reverse the situation (e.g., see Jacobi et al. 2017, Zikargie and Cochrane 2022, Hartel et al. 2023). Our findings therefore add to the growing recognition of the importance of facilitating resilience by drawing on deeper place-based local knowledge, including the people, culture, and norms that produce such knowledge (see also Hernández 2020, Thomas 2021, Tynan 2021).
Combining social-ecological resilience and leverage points perspectives
Many land-use models (e.g., land‐sharing/‐sparing analyses of landscapes for ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation; Grass et al. 2019) and social-ecological system studies (e.g., on woody plant conservation and ecosystem services; Dugo 2019) primarily consider the material characteristics of SES, without due consideration of immaterial system feedbacks, design, and intent (e.g., Fischer et al. 2014, Fischer et al. 2022, Riechers et al. 2022). Such models and studies are likely limited in their ability to address sustainability problems, because deep-rooted dominant worldviews, power structures, institutions, and technologies favor intensification for material production and consumption (Beddoe et al. 2009, Blythe et al. 2018, Knutti 2019), but are outside the scope of many existing investigations.
By combining the social-ecological resilience and leverage points perspectives, our research revealed the current state of social-ecological resilience, as well as context-specific resilience challenges and solutions for transformative change toward sustainability. This combination of perspectives can help to shed light on the places to intervene in the system, and in our case, clearly underlined the need to draw on the deep knowledge of local people to overcome current challenges. Our research thus suggests that combining social-ecological resilience and leverage points perspectives can provide a useful framing for revealing and understanding context-specific challenges and solutions for transformative change toward sustainability in complex SES. Applying a similar approach could therefore also be useful in other types of SES.
Finally, the findings discussed above depend entirely on the empirical data gathered from focus group discussions with various stakeholders, and therefore may be limited by our accuracy of understanding the points made by discussants, as well as by the accuracy of our coding these data. The study may also be limited by a certain degree of subjectivity in classifying the generated codes into levels of systemic depth, namely system parameters, feedbacks, design, and intent. Nevertheless, we suggest future studies should also attempt to combine a social-ecological resilience perspective and with a leverage points perspective, because this may be a promising way to generate new insights for how to better navigate and transform SES.
Addressing ecosystem destruction and unsustainable development pathways requires appropriate frameworks to comprehensively investigate complex and interlinked social and ecological processes. Such approaches are key to identifying interventions that can facilitate transformation to sustainability. Yet, much work is still needed to link suitable approaches to concrete, local transformative change. In this study, by combining a social-ecological resilience perspective and a leverage points perspective, we documented evidence of stakeholders’ understanding of currently applied approaches to building SES resilience. In addition, we documented numerous challenges, and suggested solutions for further building SES resilience. Many resilience challenges and solutions were related to deeper systems properties, such as institutional structures and rules (system design) and the worldviews, system goals, and underpinning paradigms that shape the governance of SES (system intent). Especially community level stakeholders perceived resilience challenges and solutions as being associated predominantly with these deeper systemic levels.
Our results and approach could be useful well beyond our study area, especially because in 2021 the IPBES launched its new call for a “Transformative Change Assessment” with the aim to understand and identify factors in SES that may be leveraged to bring about transformative change (IPBES 2021). To enhance transformative change and resilience management in the landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia and other similar parts of the globe, we suggest (a) to foster bottom-up changes in system goals, rules, paradigms, and intent, drawing explicitly on local people and their knowledge; and (b) more specifically to recognize local people, mainly farmers, and their livelihoods, long-aged traditional ecological knowledge, and practices.
RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLE
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The study was funded through Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU), Project ID: Az 35333/01-43/0. We thank the Governments of Ethiopia and Oromia Regional State for their permission to conduct the research. We also thank the staff of kebele, woreda, and zone offices; Jimma University and the Biodiversity Research Institute; and the local farmers for their cooperation and participation. We thank local experts and our driver for their support during data collection. We acknowledge support by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Open Access Publication Fund of Leuphana University Lüneburg.
The empirical data that support the findings of this study are also available on request.
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Table 1. Contemporary principles for building resilience of social-ecological systems (SES), and their relation to the management of woody vegetation as discussed in this paper. E = primarily ecological aspects; S = primarily social aspects. E and S were differentiated for some principles for ease of discussion with local stakeholders; we are acutely aware that E and S aspects are tightly interrelated. Adapted from Biggs et al. 2012.
|P1. Maintain diversity and redundancy||P1E: Maintaining ecological diversity and redundancy
Diversity refers to diversity of woody plant species, habitats, and ecosystems. Redundancy is functional replication of species in SES that can provide options for responding to change and adapting to uncertainty, thereby building resilience.
|P1S: Maintaining social diversity and redundancy
Diversity refers to diversity of social actors. Redundancy relates to the functional replication of social actors in SES and can provide options for responding to change and adapting to uncertainty, thereby building resilience.
|P2. Manage connectivity||P2E: Managing ecological connectivity
Ecological connectivity—that is, the way in which resources, e.g., seeds, disperse, species migrate, or interact with each other across patches, habitats, or ecosystems—helps to maintain diversity and is key for resilience.
|P2S: Managing social connectivity
Social connectivity—that is, the way in which multiple social actors interact with each other and collaborate across social structures and domains—helps to maintain diversity and is key for resilience. Notably, too much connectivity can cause rigidity.
|P3. Manage slow variables and feedbacks||P3E: Managing ecological slow variables and feedbacks
Managing ecological, slowly changing variables as well as the feedbacks that influence the configuration and dynamics of a given SES is important to avoid crossing possible thresholds into undesired states.
|P3S: Managing social slow variables and feedbacks
Managing social, slowly changing variables as well as the feedbacks that influence the configuration and dynamics of a given SES is important to avoid crossing possible thresholds into undesired states.
|P4. Foster an understanding of SES as complex adaptive systems||Complex adaptive systems thinking helps to make sense of SES dynamics and to manage SES for multiple ecosystem services in an integrated way, across multiple temporal and spatial scales.|
|P5. Encourage learning and experimentation||The uncertain and dynamic nature of complex SES requires continuous learning via adaptive management, co-management, and collaborative governance.|
|P6. Broaden participation||Active participation of stakeholders in the management and governance process enhances collective action for resilience.|
|P7. Promote polycentric governance systems||Governance systems in which various interacting governing bodies have autonomy to make and enforce rules can enhance resilience by improving connectivity, participation, and adaptive learning.|
Table 2. System characteristics as defined by Abson et al. (2017) and leverage points by Meadows (1999), with increasingly deep (i.e., influential) leverage points toward the bottom of the table.
|System characteristics||Leverage points|
|Shallow leverage points||Parameters||The relatively mechanistic characteristics or physical elements typically targeted by policy makers (or environmental managers in our case)||12.||Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards);|
|11.||The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows;|
|10.||The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures);|
|Feedbacks||Interactions between elements within a system that drive internal dynamics||9.||The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change;|
|8.||The strength of negative feedbacks, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against;|
|7.||The gain around driving reinforcing feedback loops;|
|Deep leverage points||Design||The social structures and institutions that manage feedbacks and parameters||6.||The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information);|
|5.||The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints);|
|4.||The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure;|
|Intent||The underpinning values, goals, and worldviews of actors that shape the emergent direction to which a system is oriented||3.||The goals of the system;|
|2.||The mind-set or paradigm out of which the system, its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters, arises;|
|1.||The power to transcend paradigms;|