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Powerless Spectators, Coping Actors, and Adaptive Co-managers: a Synthesis of the Role of Communities in Ecosystem Management

Christo Fabricius, Rhodes University, South Africa
Carl Folke, Stockholm University
Georgina Cundill, Rhodes University, South Africa
Lisen Schultz, Stockholm University


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We provide a synthesis of the papers in the Special Issue, the Communities Ecosystems and Livelihoods component of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), and other recent publications on the adaptive capacity of communities and their role in ecosystem management. Communities adapt because they face enormous challenges due to policies, conflicts, demographic factors, ecological change, and changes in their livelihood options, but the appropriateness of their responses varies. Based on our synthesis, three broad categories of adaptive communities are identified. “Powerless spectator” communities have a low adaptive capacity and weak capacity to govern, do not have financial or technological options, and lack natural resources, skills, institutions, and networks. “Coping actor” communities have the capacity to adapt, but are not managing social–ecological systems. They lack the capacity for governance because of lack of leadership, of vision, and of motivation, and their responses are typically short term. “Adaptive manager” communities have both adaptive capacity and governance capacity to sustain and internalize this adaptation. They invest in the long-term management of ecosystem services. Such communities are not only aware of the threats, but also take appropriate action for long-term sustainability. Adaptive co-management becomes possible through leadership and vision, the formation of knowledge networks, the existence or development of polycentric institutions, the establishment and maintenance of links between culture and management, the existence of enabling policies, and high levels of motivation in all role players. Adaptive co-managers are empowered, but empowerment is a consequence of the capacity for governance and the capacity to adapt, rather than a starting point. Communities that are able to enhance their adaptive capacity can deal with challenges such as conflicts, make difficult trade-offs between their short- and long-term well-being, and implement rules for ecosystem management. This improves the capacity of the ecosystem to continue providing services.

Key words

Adaptive co-management; community-based ecosystem management; governance; livelihoods; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

Copyright © 2007 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087