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How and when does autochthonous human adaptation to biodiversity change lead to transformation?

Posted by Patricia L. Howard on
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How and when does autochthonous human adaptation to biodiversity change lead to transformation, and how can transformative adaptation be supported by policies and interventions?

Prof. Patricia Howard, Wageningen University, NL and University of Kent, UK

[email protected]

Background and justification

Rapid biodiversity change that is already occurring across the globe is accelerating, with major and often negative consequences for human well-being. Biodiversity change is partly driven by climate change, but it has many other interacting drivers that are also driving human adaptation, including invasive species, land use change and habitat fragmentation, pollution, and overexploitation. Humans are adapting to changes in well-being that are related with these biodiversity drivers and other forces and pressures. Adaptation, in turn, has feedbacks both for biodiversity change and human well-being; however, to date, these processes have received little science or policy attention. Research on human adaptation to biodiversity change requires new methods and tools as well as conceptual evolution, as social-ecological systems and environmental change adaptation approaches must be reconsidered when they are applied to different processes and contexts - where biodiversity change drivers are highly significant, where people are responding principally to changes in species, species communities, and related ecosystem processes, and where adaptation entails changes in the management of biodiversity and related resource use regimes.

Multiple drivers, including climate change and other anthropogenic stressors, are forcing rapid biodiversity change across the globe (Ichii et al. 2019). This rapid change is also the outcome of human adaptation to biodiversity change, which affects both the drivers of biodiversity change and creates new feedbacks with both intentional and unintentional consequences for ecosystems and human well-being (Howard and Pecl 2019). Human adaptation to biodiversity change can lead to regime shifts and intentional transformation  (Howard 2019). However, human adaptation to biodiversity change is not yet considered in any international, regional, or national policy or science forums (Howard 2009), not even in IPBES, which otherwise integrates the multiplicity of human values, indigenous and local knowledge, and good quality of life within its framework. Policy makers and scientists thus lack conceptual frameworks, knowledge, and tools to understand or predict human responses and their actual or potential outcomes, synergies, and feedbacks in terms of human welfare, biodiversity, social-ecological systems, climate change mitigation and adaptation (Howard 2009) and, most importantly, transformation.

Human adaptation to biodiversity change is a response to changes in in the web of life affecting human well-being. Given humanities’ global range, we are the only species that is reliant on the full range of ecosystem services that biodiversity provides and the only species that, through our actions, can alter biodiversity change processes from local to global levels. To date, most of the environmental change literature focuses on climate change as the primary driver of human adaptation, where adaptation is by now considered to be an imperative. However, there are three reasons for focusing on biodiversity change both as a driver and as a component of human adaptation. First, as is argued in this volume, ‘The critical nexus for human adaptation…is not so much change in global temperature or precipitation regimes, but rather the consequent and relevant local changes in biodiversity that support the web of life’ (Thornton et al. 2019, 2). People who depend directly on natural resources for their livelihoods are, as much of the climate change literature attests (without acknowledging as much), responding to changes in cropping and livestock systems, forests, and fisheries, that is, to biological change that is driven, at least in part, by climate change. Second, biodiversity change has many other drivers which, by comparison, are as yet more important than climate change – including land use change and habitat fragmentation, pollution, species invasions, and over-exploitation (IPBES 2019). Third, biodiversity change is occurring at an alarming rate across all of the earth’s biospheres, in terrestrial, freshwater, and oceanic regimes (IPBES 2019). It is affecting all aspects of human life and all dimensions of human well-being, and people must and will respond to these changes, and adapt (Howard 2009; Pecl et al. 2017). Human adaptation to biodiversity change, as Howard’s (2019) review on adaptation to invasive species so aptly illustrates, in turn feeds back into these change processes and alters them.

Autochthonous adaptation has three fundamental dimensions: 1) it refers to individuals and small groups of individuals; 2) it is specific to the locality – specific environmental, social, and cultural conditions that prevail in specific places where people live and act; and 3) it occurs within a local system. Howard thus defines autochthonous adaptation as ‘adaptation actions purposefully undertaken by individuals or small social groups that are specific to and occur within a local system, where human populations are ultimately affected’ (2019). such adaptation occurs everywhere, in the presence or absence of planned adaptation, either in synergy or conflict. As well, across much of the globe, as our current environmental crises so clearly attest, planned adaptation to environmental change is either absent, only weakly implemented or, in some cases, even backfires. Autochthonous adaptation thus always plays not only a major, but very likely a defining role in both our community and common futures. Adaptation cannot simply be planned ‘top down,’ as it continuously emerges from the micro- and meso-organizational levels of human societies as well. In other words, individuals and households must adapt, as must communities and states, to sustain themselves in a changing environment characterized by multilevel interactions and impacts of both environmental change and adaptation (Howard 2019). ‘Managing’ adaptation in a globalised world thus necessarily involves connecting these levels and their constituent actors, pathways, and institutional nodes (Pecl et al. 2019).

New concepts and tools are needed to consider the biological change-human adaptation nexusit is not possible to simply extend existing concepts of adaptation to climate change and transformation, since biodiversity change refers to different processes and contexts: where biodiversity change drivers are highly significant, where people are responding principally to changes in species, species communities, and related ecosystem services, and where adaptation entails changes in the management of biodiversity and related resource use regimes. Howard (2019) found, for example, that biological invasions involve drivers that affect both invasion processes and adaptation. Invasive impacts on human well-being are the primary adaptation drivers, as people seek to change these impacts. Adaptation ‘spheres’ include invasive control and management, resource use and management systems, households and micro- and meso-scales, including cross-scale interactions. There are types of adaptation that are specifically associated with biodiversity change, such as ecological diversification, resource tracking, disintensification, shifts in species, and the establishment of ‘human biological corridors’ (see e.g. Ellen 2018; Borrell et al. 2019; Howard 2019). Further, a focus on local knowledge is key (Howard and Pecl 2019), as it is often the most important asset that people deploy when adapting to biodiversity change or effectuating transformation, as well as the most important source of information about local environmental change and adaptation. A review of 55 case studies across the globe on autochthonous adaptation to invasive species showed that,

in cases where local resource management systems have evolved over fairly long time periods within vacillating ecological environments, and local ecological knowledge has evolved to manage biological change, people often prevented invasion, ‘restored’ invaded environments, or generated far greater benefits by altering resource systems to create greater biodiversity, use and exchange value, and human well-being (Howard 2019).

Autochthonous adaptation to biodiversity change has led to transformation not only of components of social-ecological systems, but also at landscape scales (e.g. Jagoret et al. 2012; Fedele et al. 2018). Many policies and external interventions, however, ‘effectively limit or subvert local autochthonous adaptation through policies of encroachment, appropriation, development, and conservation’ (Thornton et al. 2019, 4; see also Howard 2019). Policy mismatches are very much in evidence, as governments or regulators seek to adapt in ways that constrain or undermine autochthonous adaptation, but there are also many examples of ways in which scientists and supra-local resource management institutions have considered local knowledge and supported autochthonous adaptation (Howard and Pecl 2019).

Sub-questions that could guide this scoping exercise include:

How quickly do human populations respond to changes in species composition and richness, ecosystem services, and to changes in states or regimes, transforming social-ecological systems in ways that are desirable in terms of human welfare, biodiversity, and ecosystem services?

How do highly biodiversity-reliant communities take action to maintain their traditional livelihood adaptations and social–ecological resilience in the face of biodiversity change? Under what circumstances do these become transformative, or do they change in order to achieve transformation? Are changes in biodiversity so rapid and significant that they overwhelm human capacity to respond or are humans, especially those in highly biodiversity-reliant social-ecological systems, highly capable innovators that can provide lessons for humanity at large?

What impairs, and what facilitates transformative human adaptation, and what influences the outcomes? How are cultural values, economic systems, institutional arrangements, knowledge, and social and physical mobility linked or not to human capacity to adapt and transform in the face of rapid biological and ecological change?

What level of access to formal power do people require to effectuate transformative change? How dependent is transformation on government cooperation? How does autochthonous adaptation potentially interact with planned government efforts and what are the implications for further adaptation planning? How can interventions support autochthonous adaptation strategies that already contribute to transformative change? Under which circumstances should policies seriously address human adaptation to biodiversity change as a response option?

Are there predictable trajectories of response given particular patterns of change, environments and social-economic systems, and are there variables and processes that cut across such systems? How might and adaptation and transformation processes intersect and play out under future scenarios of social-environmental change and response at different scales?


Borrell, J. S., S. Dodsworth, F. Forest, O. A. Pérez-Escobar, M. A. Lee, E. Mattana, P. C. Stevenson, M.-J. R. Howes, et al. 2019. The climatic challenge: Which plants will people use in the next century? Environmental and Experimental Botany: 103872. doi:10.1016/j.envexpbot.2019.103872.

Ellen, R. 2018. The impacts of local networks on subsistence resilience and biodiversity in a low-lying Moluccan reef system between 1600 and the present. Ambio. doi:10.1007/s13280-018-1091-2.

Fedele, G., B. Locatelli, H. Djoudi, and M. J. Colloff. 2018. Reducing risks by transforming landscapes: cross-scale effects of land-use changes on ecosystem services. PLoS ONE 13. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0195895.

Howard, P. L. 2009. Human adaptation to biodiversity change: facing the challenges of global governance without science? In Paper presented at the Amsterdam Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change, “Earth Systems Governance,” 2-4 December 2009. Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Howard, P. L. 2019. Human adaptation to invasive species: a conceptual framework based on a literature metasynthesis. Ambio.

Howard, P. L., and G. T. Pecl. 2019. Introduction: human adaptation to biodiversity change in the anthropocene. Ambio.

Ichii, K., Z. Molnár, D. Obura, A. Purvis, and K. Willis. 2019. IPBES global assessment on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Chapter 2.2 Status and trends - nature. Unedited draft. Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Jagoret, P., I. Michel-Dounias, D. Snoeck, H. T. Ngnogué, and E. Malézieux. 2012. Afforestation of savannah with cocoa agroforestry systems: a small-farmer innovation in central Cameroon. Agroforestry Systems 86: 493–504. doi:10.1007/s10457-012-9513-9.

The Human Adaptation to Biodiversity Change (HABC) Project of the Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation Programme of the UK government (See sought to review literature on this topic; this review has been ongoing since 2011. The use of terms directly related with ‘human adaptation’ and ‘biodiversity change’ yielded very few citations. The use of many terms associated with biodiversity change (e.g. ‘biodiversity loss’) also yielded few citations. The vast majority of literature referring to ‘adaptation’ and biodiversity change terms refers to non-human species.