Building Adaptive Capacity in Systems Beyond the Threshold: The Story of Macubeni, South Africa

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Abstract

Social–ecological systems that are pushed beyond their limits have lost their ‘seeds of renewal’ that are necessary for moving toward a more productive and resilient state. Between 2001 and 2007 an inter-disciplinary group of academics, funders and development facilitators conducted participatory ‘action’ research with rural communities at Macubeni in South Africa’s former Transkei homeland. Macubeni is one of the most ecologically degraded and impoverished areas in South Africa, mainly because of the historical impacts of development policies. The many positive changes can be ascribed to interventions founded on resilience theory, but the local people's capacity to cope with rapid institutional, economic and political change at national level remains low. Adaptive co-management in systems beyond the threshold faces six challenges: 1. Maintaining key individuals and balancing power relations; 2. Motivating all actors to collaborate; 3. Making the most of available capacity and resources; 4. Overcoming and coping with disturbances during the early stages of capacity development; 5. Focusing on the finest resolution that time and budget allows; 6. Persisting for long enough. The amount of investment required to fully rebuild the adaptive capacity of a system that has gone beyond the threshold is underestimated.