Contributing Authors: Matteo Jucker Riva, Gudrun Schwilch, Hanspeter Liniger
Editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: Jucker Riva, M., Schwilch,G., Liniger, H. 2016. A method for resilience assessment. CASCADE Project Deliverable 7.2, 61 pp


1. Identification of the land management systems

Resilience can be assessed properly only if we define clearly what the system under investigation is. In the scientific literature, scientists often refer to the resilience of an “ecosystem” (Folke et al., 2004; Kazanis & Arianoutsou, n.d.) or specific elements of the natural environment such as coral reefs (Hughes, Linares, Dakos, van de Leemput, & van Nes, 2013), resprouter shrub communities (J. Keeley, 1986) and others. In practical terms most studies are based on a selection of sampling points within an area of homogeneous features in terms of vegetation, soil or other characteristics (Lavorel, McIntyre, & Grigulis, 1999). In other cases the selection of the area to study is based on natural boundaries like a catchment (Mayor, Bautista, Llovet, & Bellot, 2007) or a forest stand (Moya, De las Heras, López-Serrano, & Leone, 2008).

We think that both approaches, while useful in practice for collecting scientific data, do not fit for a land management study: The approach by sampling points disregards many systemic relationships between parts of the system, and ultimately reduces the usability of the results beyond the sampling points. The use of natural boundaries disregards important factors for management, such as land tenure and regulatory constraints that have an important influence on the applicability of land management practices. Few authors refer to units that integrate human factors such as land parcels (Bestelmeyer, Herrick, Brown, Trujillo, & Havstad, 2004), or households (Choptiany, Graub, Phillips, Colozza, & Dixon, 2015), but they seem to give less importance to the natural environment.

Our definition of “land management systems” as an area that is managed with a specific set of land management practices takes into consideration both the natural and the human environment, and is flexible enough to be adapted to very different situations.

Identifying the boundaries of the land management system, although requiring some preliminary work has been relatively easy in all study sites. However, problems arose in depopulated areas where the land use and the land management is unstable: for example public grazing land near privately owned pastures, used only in summer or in exceptional situations, should it be considered part of the shepherd’s land management system? In other cases, some small portions of land within a land management system have a completely different vegetation composition and thus would require to be analyzed on their own. In all the cases, we relied on the criteria of what land management practices were implemented and who are the land managers.

Moreover, the land management is not always easily detectable on the field; it requires repeated exchanges with stakeholders and in-depth investigation. Thanks to the work done in »Documented and evaluated natural resource management practices, this information was already available for the implementation of the RAT within the CASCADE study sites.

2. Assessment of the objectives of management and of the state of the land management system

The questions of section 2 of the RAT and in the EPQ aim at understanding what do land users want from a certain area and how they evaluate the provision of ecosystem services and the state of the environment. Understanding the “scope” of the land management system is essential to provide land management solutions compatible with the land managers livelihood strategies, and the participation of local people in this process is at the center of many recent studies (Dixon & Stringer, 2015; Reed, Dougill, & Baker, 2008; Schwilch et al., 2012). In the RAT we have decided not to discuss only about ecosystem services, but to investigate also the perception of several environmental properties. Besides providing information on the state of the land management system and the perception of land users, it could facilitate drawing links with studies that are being performed within CASCADE, and could serve to orientate future scientific investigation in the study sites on matters that are relevant for local people.

Submitting a questionnaire directly to stakeholders, instead of collecting this information through an expert, allows capturing different perceptions and simplifies the quantification of results. However, in some cases, it was difficult to reach an adequate number of stakeholders having some relation with the studied land management system.

Moreover, the specific state at which the system is found at the moment of responding might have influenced the responses: the evaluation in the Portuguese land management systems (Por_1 and Por_2) was carried out within one year from a wildfire. This has probably influenced the very negative results of the evaluation. Previous studies have shown how perception about land management and the environment changes with time since the fire (Valente et al., 2015). This might not be negative, as the results are closer to the “real” situation at the moment of evaluation, but reduces the validity of the results in the long term played an important role in evolution.

The evaluation of the provision of ecosystem services was overall negative in all the study sites, and was not necessarily in agreement with the evaluation of the environmental properties. The most striking example is Ita_1 that was considered healthy by stakeholders in all the categories of environmental properties, while the provision of ecosystem services was considered "completely degraded". This appears to signal that there is a mismatch between the current configuration of the environment and the desired land uses or that the benefits provided by the environment are hindered by contextual factors (e.g. low market prices of milk and cheese produced on the land management system, for the specific case). The opposite case is Spa_2, where the provision of ecosystem services is considered satisfactory, while the environment is considered degraded. This suggests that the environment of the land management system is in a healthy state, but much degraded and probably close to the tipping point.

Spain 2 and 3 confirm this hypothesis: The vegetation of Spa_2 is an established pine forest, the healthy stable state of the ecosystem in the area, while Spa_3 is the shrubland resulting from failed forest regeneration after fire. Spa_2 provides the demanded ecosystem services such as soil stabilization, wood production and CO2 absorption. It is however at high risk of fire, and regeneration is not certain. Spa_3 does not provide any ecosystem service considered being important; but thanks to the specific management that involved selecting and planting resprouter species is more diverse than other shrubland formation in the area, and regeneration after fire is more likely to occur.

3. Pressures and factors enabling management

The list of pressures and factors enabling management are adapted from the WOCAT method, based upon the information gathered through the exchanges with stakeholders. There could be some overlapping between pressures and disturbances: e.g. “Deforestation” can be caused by fire, or “Over-abstraction of water” can be driven by drought. However, this is related to the definition of a disturbance. In resilience and regime shift studies, disturbances are considered external from the system and as analyzed as such (David D Briske et al., 2010); however, ecologists agree that small disturbances are to be considered a part of the ecosystem and contribute to its equilibrium and its gradual evolution ( Keeley, Pausas, Rundel, Bond, & Bradstock, 2011).

Identifying the factors that can influence management is a key aspect to assess the viability of land management practices, and can provide important information to administrators responsible for land use planning or designing programs to support the sustainability of land uses.

In particular, 4 out of 8 study sites indicate “market prices of goods produced on the land” and “subsidies for nature conservation” within the 3 most important enabling factors. This suggests that combining public funding for sustainable land management while maintaining the productivity of the land is the best way to improve sustainability and resilience of socio-ecological systems, in accordance with the concept of “multifunctional agriculture” (Renting et al., 2009).

Very little quantitative information was available to forecast the future evolution of these factors, and we had to rely for the large part on the opinion of land users. This supports the participatory approach chosen for this study, because the information not available from scientific literature and /or measured data can be presumed from land user and land managers experience.  

4. Disturbances affecting the system and permanent changes

Assessing the disturbances that affect the system, the thresholds and their consequences are a crucial part of studying resilience.

The fact that all assessments indicated more than one disturbance affecting their land management system, and 6 out of 8 more than one potentially inducing permanent changes to the system, shows the importance of not focusing on one single disturbance but of enlarging the scope of the studies that deal with resilience and regime shifts. This is a topic that has been investigated by some researchers (Buma & Wessman, 2011), The description of the thresholds is particularly interesting, as very few information is available in the scientific literature, and even less indications are practically useful, despite recent efforts (D D Briske & Fuhlendorf, 2013; Walker & Meyers, 2004).

We state that on this topic the combination of local and scientific knowledge is particularly interesting, as it can provide information that is important locally and can allow to better understanding the processes and important variables in general terms. For example, the fact that 2 study sites indicated using the land after a disturbance as a factor leading to permanent changes, suggests that scientists should not focus solely on the disturbance, but they should also investigate the state of the system at the moment of disturbance and immediately afterwards. This could increase our ability to forecast regime shifts and to identify new indicators of impending regime shifts that could be practically useful on the ground.

Moreover, identifying probable changes in ecosystem services after an above-threshold disturbance allows to better forecast the impact on the system, and to understand if a regime shift in the environment could turn into a catastrophic shift for the socio-ecological system (Walker & Meyers, 2004).

In particular, 3 out of 8 study sites indicated that a permanent change would lead to “decreased protection from risks”, giving a concrete example of how hysteresis could display in those systems. In general, a permanent change in the vegetation has important consequences for soil erosion. In systems affected by fire, an above threshold fire (in terms of intensity and frequency) would change the composition of vegetation to more fire-prone one, leading to vicious circle of increased disturbances. This phenomenon has been explored in the literature (Knox & Clarke, 2012), and identifying it on the ground could help designing better land management strategies to increase resilience of these land management systems.  

5. Impact of land management on the resilience to disturbances

The evaluation of the impact of land management had to take into account the wide variety of disturbances and land management practices within the CASCADE study sites. Moreover, the information sources on this topic were very different: some systems (e.g. Spa_1) had been previously investigated with scientific means, in others (Cyp_1, Gre_1) we had to rely only on the knowledge of land users and of the expert who compiled the assessment.

Moreover, the existing indicators for resilience assessment ( are not flexible enough to be adapted to different contexts, and the general indicators related to regime shifts (Guttal & Jayaprakash, 2008; Scheffer et al., 2009) require a vast amount of data and are too complex to be used in a participatory assessment such as the RAT.

The investigation of the impact of land management practices allows to map the influence of land management on resilience, and has delivered some unexpected results: The land management of Por_1, which was envisaged to contribute particularly to sustainability, was revealed to have rather negative impacts on the resilience of the system.

With the exception of revegetation practices such as “Multispecific woody plantation” (Spa_1) and “Afforestation with Pinus halepensis” (Spa_2), no other practice has a positive effect on resilience against droughts. Controlled grazing (Gre_1, Cyp_1), often considered to be the best possible land management practice in pastures, revealed to have some trade-offs, in its impact on resilience to different disturbances. More in general, only the “clearing of fire-prone vegetation” was assessed to have all round positive effects, while all the other land management practices have positive impacts on one disturbance, but negligible or negative effects on others. Thus, combining multiple land management practices seems the most reliable strategy to increase the overall resilience of a system. In general, land management practices are not effective in preventing disturbances.

6. Resilience of land management practices

Studying the resilience of land management practices allows to understand how much land users can rely on the benefits provided by a certain land management practice (resilience to disturbances) and where the land management practices could be implemented with positive results (spatial resilience). This leads to understand better the potential of each land management practice and could decrease failures in the implementation of these land management practices.

The evaluation of the impact of disturbances proved difficult because in some cases the difference between the impact of the disturbance on the land management practice and on the system was difficult to distinguish, stressing the need to restructure that part of the analysis.

The assessment of the spatial resilience shows how delicate the revegetation practices are, and how much the landscape should be taken into consideration before planning those interventions.

Moreover, all the study sites have reported that soil characteristics (type of soil, rock content, depth) have an important influence on the effectiveness of land management practices.

7. Conclusions

The Resilience Assessment Tool succeeded in the objective of collecting and organizing relevant information to assess the resilience of the study sites. It served as a platform to combine lay and scientific knowledge in a systematic and standardized way. The results of the RAT presented here, together with inputs from study site partners, local land managers and the description of the land management practices trough the WOCAT questionnaire (see »Documented and evaluated natural resource management practices) will constitute the backbone of the guidance for best practices at the center of »Comprehensive guidelines for natural resource managers.

Note: For full references to papers quoted in this article see

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