Pastoralism in Transition: Linking Localized Interactions and System Behavior to Evaluate Social-Ecological Vulnerability

This CNH project is about livelihood transitions that poor rural communities in developing countries are making in order to cope with deteriorating environmental conditions, shifting social trends, and broader changes in governance. While the transformation of livelihood activities has the potential to improve human well-being, food security, and ecological sustainability, it can also have the opposite effect and increase the vulnerability of the human population and the ecosystems that support them. In the drylands of Africa, about 100 million pastoralists rely heavily or solely on livestock production for their subsistence. Modernization has brought drastic political and social changes, as well as unprecedented population growth, land degradation and more frequent droughts that decimate herds. Today, many pastoralists are adopting crop agriculture alongside their struggling livestock-based livelihood system as an avenue for much-needed diversification. Such a transformation entails profound changes in the ecological functioning of landscapes, the level of risk exposure faced by households and whole communities, and the authorities and rules governing land use and land rights. Given the complexity and novelty of these changes, assessing the conditions under which social and ecological vulnerability is likely to be alleviated or exacerbated is a profound challenge, but is urgently needed as traditional subsistence-level societies worldwide face similarly uncertain futures. This research will assess how the transition to agro-pastoralism in two Maasai communities in Kenya is affecting three components of social-ecological vulnerability: the ecosystem's sensitivity to drought and shifting grazing pressure; the degree of risk exposure that households take on as they make the transition; and the coping capacity afforded by the suite of new rules and practices adopted by the communities. 

The approach adopted in this research is based on advances in complex systems theory, which can be applied to ecosystems, human interactions, and governance systems alike. This approach is also highly advantageous because it enables the use of information about easily-measured, small-scale interactions to understand and predict broader trends such as tipping points and thresholds, which emerge at the level of the whole social-ecological system. By developing theoretically grounded methods to evaluate multiple dimensions of vulnerability, this research will build transformative links between theory and real-world empirical assessments. It will directly enhance the ability of scientists to understand and solve other complex sustainability problems emerging around the world. Through ongoing participation and dialogue, research procedures and findings will be shared with local community members as tools for empowerment and sustainability planning. Cooperative ties with key colleagues in regional academic, development, and conservation communities will ensure that the research tools developed will enhance the approaches and impact of other sustainability initiatives and research programs. The project's mentored PhD student and postdoc will gain a unique learning experience of the value of science-society collaborations for high-impact research outcomes. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.

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