Symposium on ecological and social resilience in New York

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By Kame Westerman, Blue Ventures Velondriake LMMA Coordinator from 2010 – 2102, Madagascar

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the American Museum of Natural History’s symposium on ecological and social resilience in island systems, which brought together marine managers, anthropologists and academics. I was there to share Blue Ventures’ innovative and pragmatic approach to building community resilience in southwest Madagascar through integrated Population-Health-Environment (PHE) activities. It was a pleasure connecting with others who work on these issues, and I wanted to share a couple thought-provoking themes…

Often, people researching and writing about resilience in rural coastal areas come to the conclusion that these areas are highly vulnerable to climate change. Lacking savings, alternative income sources, or well-built housing, and often without much government support, these communities can be strongly impacted by climate events. However, as several researchers argued at the symposium, what makes these communities vulnerable also makes them adaptable. Pointing to the fact that many communities have lived through cyclones and other destabilising events over many generations, they say communities are more adaptable then we give them credit for. For example, communities have been known to switch staple foods during a severe drought. Another example is housing construction – while houses made from local wood and leaves are more likely to be damaged, they can much more easily be rebuilt than a more robust concrete building.

I’ve witnessed flimsy houses in Andavadoaka destroyed by strong winds and waves, only to be rebuilt within a day, but I have a hard time thinking of this as true resilience.  If your home is destroyed each year by a cyclone or other major event, losing possessions and putting your family in danger, that isn’t resilience. Perhaps we do dramatise climate change vulnerability sometimes, but we have seen cyclone intensity and frequency increase over the last few years, and it certainly isn’t easy for these households to recover.

A second interesting theme to the symposium was how others think about social resilience. Here at Blue Ventures, we take a very pragmatic approach – providing families with access to family planning and community health education and supplies, and increasing income generation through octopus fishery management and aquaculture. Many of the people I heard from at the symposium relayed their efforts to increase social resilience through documenting traditional ecological knowledge – for example, interviewing elders about how to preserve yams in times of drought, or recording traditional names of fish. While Blue Ventures has done some recording of traditional ecological knowledge, including this 2006 report and recent interviews with community elders, we’ve haven’t really described this work as building social resilience before. Many of the people at the symposium were particularly interested in Blue Ventures’ pragmatic and integrated approach, so it seems like there is a lot that we can learn from each other.

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