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Strategies for managing complex social-ecological systems in the face of uncertainty: examples from South Africa and beyond

Reinette (Oonsie) Biggs, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden; Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), Wallenberg Research Centre at Stellenbosch University, South Africa; Centre for Studies in Complexity, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Clint Rhode, Department of Genetics, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Sally Archibald, Natural Resources and the Environment, CSIR, South Africa; Centre for African Ecology, Animal Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
Lucky Makhosini Kunene, Department of Sociology, University of Fort Hare, East London, South Africa; Africa Institute of South Africa, Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa
Shingirirai S. Mutanga, Africa Institute of South Africa, Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa
Nghamula Nkuna, Public Administration, University of Limpopo, South Africa
Peter Omondi Ocholla, Department of Earth Sciences, Stellenbosch University, South Africa; Department of Hydrology, University of Zululand, KwaDlangezwa, South Africa
Lehlohonolo Joe Phadima, Scientific Services Division, Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, South Africa


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Improving our ability to manage complex, rapidly changing social-ecological systems is one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. This is particularly crucial if large-scale poverty alleviation is to be secured without undermining the capacity of the environment to support future generations. To address this challenge, strategies that enable judicious management of social-ecological systems in the face of substantive uncertainty are needed. Several such strategies are emerging from the developing body of work on complexity and resilience. We identify and discuss four strategies, providing practical examples of how each strategy has been applied in innovative ways to manage turbulent social-ecological change in South Africa and the broader region: (1) employ adaptive management or comanagement, (2) engage and integrate different perspectives, (3) facilitate self-organization, and (4) set safe boundaries to avoid system thresholds. Through these examples we aim to contribute a basis for further theoretical development, new teaching examples, and inspiration for developing innovative new management strategies in other regions that can help address the considerable sustainability challenges facing society globally.

Key words

adaptive management; complexity; resilience; social-ecological systems, southern Africa; uncertainty

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work 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