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How do we study resilience? A systematic review

Yann le Polain de Waroux, Marie-Claude Carignan, Olivia del Giorgio, Leandro Díaz, Lucas Enrico,  

Pedro Jaureguiberry, María Lucrecia Lipoma, Flavia Mazzini, Sandra Díaz

Published - February 18, 2024


1. The concept of resilience has gained immense popularity as a way to frame social and environmental challenges. However, its empirical operationalization and the integration of social and ecological dimensions continue to present difficulties.

2. In this paper, we conduct a systematic review of existing empirical studies of re silience in social, ecological and social-ecological systems (SESs) and examine how and to what extent these studies have achieved the operationalization of the concept of resilience.

3. We evaluate the operationalization of resilience in 463 papers based on whether they define the system of interest and disturbances, whether they define resilience, whether they evaluate resilience, and for papers focusing on SESs, whether that evaluation integrates social and ecological dimensions.

4. We find that 51% of empirical studies do not meet at least one of these operation alization criteria, and that even those that do often lack key features for effective operationalization, such as clear system boundaries and baseline state or an effective integration of social and ecological dimensions. Of the papers examining SESs and evaluating resilience, only 54% integrate social and ecological dimensions in that evaluation.

5. Building on these findings, we propose some design guidelines for operational izing future empirical studies of resilience.

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Helen Newing, Arash Ghoddousi, Stephanie Brittain, Ana Buchadas, Olivia del Giorgio, Catherine Grasham, Robert Fallon, Jaime Ferrito, Ricardo García Márquez, Munib Khanyari, Apoorva Kulkani, Ranjini Murali, Siyu Qin, Judith Rakowski, Bettina König, Fleur Winn



Greater clarity on good practice approaches to ‘participatory’ research in conservation, especially where it involves Indigenous peoples and local traditional communities, is highly topical following the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. The Framework goes further than any previous major international conservation policy document in recognising the important role that Indigenous peoples and local communities play in global conservation, calling for conservation to be rights-based and for implementation to be based on traditional knowledge as well as scientific evidence. This will require a paradigm shift towards more equitable, inclusive approaches to conservation that support local environmental stewardship. Conservation researchers can play a significant role in supporting this shift, and we see this as a rational next step in the advancement of conservation science as a meta-discipline. Here, we explore these issues from our perspective as a group of researchers who work with Indigenous peoples and local communities. We briefly review the history of thinking about ‘participatory’ research in conservation, and then discuss three cross-cutting aspects, which emerged from our discussions: the research process, data collection methods, and ethics. We end by presenting a set of fourteen broad principles for good practice, outlining what researchers need to do to respect rights and seek more equitable forms of engagement with Indigenous peoples and local communities, making the most of the expanding range of methods and tools that are available. We encourage conservation researchers to reflect on these and build on them through dialogue with Indigenous peoples and local communities.

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del Giorgio, Olivia

Published - August 23, 2023

Across the globe, the expansion of large-scale commodity agriculture is occurring not into empty space but over existing social systems. An understanding of the dynamics of expansion and associated impacts of commodity agriculture thus fundamentally requires examining how existing control regimes are dissolved and, simultaneously, how novel ones are assembled in order to make way for the changes in resources use that characterize these transitional moments. With this in mind, in this article, I provide a broad review of the strategies used to secure control over land prospected for agricultural commodity production, distinguishing between the tactics that are applied by agro-interested actors in order to ‘break down’ forms of existing land control, those they apply in parallel to ‘build up’ new control structures, and those strategies that are applied by actors (often smallholders) wishing to ‘hold on to’ the control that they have. I then present a framework for examining the dynamics of control transfer that builds on this analytical structure of ‘breaking down’, ‘building up’, and ‘holding on to’ control.

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Olivia del Giorgio, Brian E. Robinson, Yann le Polain de Waroux

Published - May 27, 2022

The global restructuring of productive systems in the last few decades has led to the rapid expansion of large-scale, industrial agriculture. This agricultural expansion has occurred by means of the acquisition and consolidation of vast tracts of land by agribusinesses, fundamentally changing the dynamics of land control. In order to secure access to resources, agribusinesses employ tactics of privatization and enclosure, which are supported by state-led processes of legalization and territorialization, as well as tactics of intimidation and violence. For smallholders faced with such pressures, maintaining access to land and resources is of critical importance. Here, we examine how changing access to land and resources influences what livelihood strategies smallholders are able to pursue in the Argentine Gran Chaco, a region that is experiencing high rates of deforestation for the expansion of large-scale soybean and cattle production. Our findings indicate that the ability of smallholders to engage in activities critical to their livelihoods has been impacted by changes in access brought about by the expansion of commodity frontiers in the Gran Chaco, leading to a restructuring of these activities. In particular, we found that cattle and goat herding were constrained by the spatial conditions and relational pressures associated with frontier expansion, possibly leading to a greater reliance on pig rearing, but that smallholders who deployed access mechanisms, such as working with lawyers to obtain land titles, were better able to maintain these activities. Our results demonstrate the value of adopting a disaggregated view on the different dimensions of smallholder access, and more generally highlight the need to assess smallholders’ access to land and resources, rather than merely the availability of resources, in order to better understand the impacts of agricultural commodity frontier expansion and properly target policy to reduce smallholder vulnerability.

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La reestructuración global de los sistemas productivos en las últimas décadas ha llevado a la rápida expansión de la agricultura industrial a gran escala. Esta expansión agrícola ha ocurrido por medio de la adquisición y consolidación de vastas extensiones de tierra por parte de los agronegocios, cambiando fundamentalmente la dinámica del control de la tierra. Para asegurar el acceso a los recursos, los agronegocios emplean tácticas de privatización y cercamiento, que están respaldadas por procesos de legalización y territorialización dirigidos por el Estado, así como tácticas de intimidación y violencia. Para los pequeños productores que enfrentan tales presiones, mantener el acceso a la tierra y los recursos es de vital importancia. Aquí, examinamos cómo el cambio en el acceso a la tierra y los recursos influye en las estrategias de subsistencia que los pequeños productores pueden emplear en el Gran Chaco argentino, una región que está experimentando altas tasas de deforestación por la expansión de la producción de soja y de ganado a gran escala. Nuestros hallazgos indican que la capacidad de los pequeños productores de participar en actividades vitales para sus medios de vida se ha visto afectada por los cambios en el acceso provocados por la expansión de las fronteras agropecuarias en el Gran Chaco, lo que ha llevado a una reestructuración de estas actividades. En particular, encontramos que el pastoreo de ganado vacuno y caprino se vio limitado por las condiciones espaciales y las presiones relacionales asociadas con la expansión de la frontera, lo que posiblemente condujo a una mayor dependencia de la cría de cerdos, pero que los pequeños productores que desplegaron mecanismos de acceso, como trabajar con abogados para obtener tierras tituladas, eran más capaces de mantener estas actividades. Nuestros resultados demuestran el valor de adoptar una visión desagregada sobre las diferentes dimensiones del acceso de los pequeños productores y, de manera más general, resaltan la necesidad de evaluar el acceso de los pequeños productores a la tierra y los recursos, en lugar de simplemente la disponibilidad de recursos, para comprender mejor los impactos de la expansión de las fronteras agropecuarias y orientar adecuadamente las políticas para reducir la vulnerabilidad de los pequeños productores.

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Olivia del Giorgio, Mathis L. Messager, Yann le Polain de Waroux

Published - August 7, 2021


The rapid expansion of commodity agriculture worldwide has led to land use changes that are threatening forest ecosystems and the millions of people worldwide that are dependent on them. Forest-dwelling smallholders are facing pressures due to changes in land control, notably through the privatization and enclosure of natural resources. Consequently, the impacts of agricultural expansion go well beyond the limits of deforested areas. Yet the spatial extent of agricultural impacts on smallholders has been mostly measured through deforestation. We propose a novel approach for capturing the complex livelihood impacts of gradual changes in resource control dynamics along commodity frontiers. We apply this approach in the Argentine Gran Chaco, a region that has experienced amongst the highest global rates of deforestation for agriculture. Our findings suggest that access to natural resources has been reduced far beyond what would be expected if only looking at deforestation, and that the degree to which access has decreased differs between livelihoods. As such, this study highlights the fact that forest smallholders are likely facing pressures to shift livelihood strategies well in advance of the actual conversion of forest in their immediate vicinity.

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La rápida expansión de la agricultura intensiva al nivel global amenaza no sólo a ecosistemas forestales, si no también al sustento de millones de personas que dependen de éstos. En regiones donde la expansión de cultivo agrícola fronteriza con los bosques, una gran presión es ejercida sobre los pequeños productores, quienes se enfrentan a cambios importantes en el uso de la tierra a causa de la privatización y el confinamiento de los recursos naturales. El impacto de la expansión agrícola sobre los pequeños productores a menudo se aproxima midiendo los niveles de deforestación. Sin embargo, los cambios en el control de la tierra y las presiones relacionadas al sustento diario, van más allá de las zonas deforestadas. Proponemos un enfoque novedoso para la evaluación de cambios en el acceso a la tierra por parte de pequeños productores, los cuales resultan de cambios graduales en el control de la tierra en fronteras agropecuarios. Aplicamos este enfoque en el Gran Chaco argentino, una región que en los últimos años ha experimentado una de las mayores tasas de deforestación por cultivo intensivo a nivel mundial. Nuestros resultados sugieren que el acceso a los recursos naturales por parte de los pequeños productores se ha reducido mucho más de lo que cabría esperar si sólo se tuviera en cuenta la deforestación, y que el grado de disminución del acceso difiere entre las distintas actividades de sustento. Por ello, este estudio pone de manifiesto que los pequeños productores probablemente se enfrentan a presiones para trasladarse o cambiar sus estrategias de sustento, mucho antes de la conversión de los bosques en sus inmediaciones.

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Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

Guest Editorial


Olivia del Giorgio, Morgan A. Crowley, Luci X. Lu, Kerstin Schreiber

Published - November 2, 2020


As graduate students, and despite having vastly different backgrounds, we share a common goal: to positively impact society by producing actionable, social–ecological science. Making the leap from student to impactful researcher, however, was harder than we had each anticipated... In steps interdisciplinary graduate collaboration, which has empowered us as graduate researchers.

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Baumann, Mathias; del Giorgio, Olivia; Fernández, Pedro; Gasparri, Ignacio; Kuemmerle, Tobias; le Polain de Waroux, Yann; Levers, Christian

In progress

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