Social Resilience

Mulutseribu Seaweed Farms, Indonesia. Photo © Kevin Arnold

Social resilience is defined as the ability of a human community to cope with and adapt to stresses such as social, political, environmental, or economic change. ref  Because humans can anticipate and prepare for future conditions, managers need to consider working with reef-dependent communities to understand their vulnerability to changes in reef condition and to support adaptation efforts. Healthy and prosperous people have more options available to them, and thus, are more capable of ensuring their activities are supporting, rather than eroding, ecosystem resilience. Management programs that value sustainability of coastal communities are also more likely to benefit from stronger community support, reduced transaction costs, and increased compliance. In short, coral reef managers that invest in supporting social resilience through ecosystem-based adaptation are more likely to achieve their long-term conservation goals. ref

Social Resilience in Madagascar’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

Using socioeconomic monitoring data, Cinner et al. (2009) examined aspects of social resilience at the scale of the social-ecological system in an MPA that encompassed several communities. They gathered information using household surveys and interviews with key informants and community leaders. Several aspects of local-level social resilience in Madagascar’s MPAs appeared quite desirable. Flexibility in both livelihood strategies and the formal institutions governing marine resources in the form of resource-habitat taboos appeared to provide some ability to adaptively manage marine resources. Involvement in community organizations and decision making was high relative to other countries in the region.

Malagasy fishermen, Andavadoaka. Photo Credit: Ida Vincent

Malagasy fishermen, Andavadoaka. Photo: Ida Vincent

Several apparent weaknesses in social organization, if addressed, could help move the social-ecological system of the sites toward a more desirable configuration. Both households and communities lacked assets. Poor feedback of scientific information to communities was a key factor contributing to low levels of trust between park staff and communities. Low levels of formal education inhibited both the recognition of the mechanisms that affect marine resources and the perception of ways to improve the condition of those resources. There were also poor links between local and larger-scale institutions.

Understanding Social Vulnerability and Resilience

Social vulnerability and resilience are related concepts that are important to coral reef management. Social vulnerability is a measure of the ability to withstand shocks and stresses to livelihood or wellbeing. Vulnerability is usually considered to comprise three components: exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. ref  Exposure and sensitivity determine the potential impact that a system could experience, while adaptive capacity moderates potential impact to determine total vulnerability. Resilience can be characterized as the components of vulnerability ref that determine how a system copes with exposure to change. In other words, resilience is a combination of sensitivity and adaptive capacity. Often resilience and vulnerability are viewed as opposites of each other, and this holds true for any particular exposure scenario. However, resilience is best seen as the properties of the system that determine its ability to cope with exposure, and vulnerability is the outcome for a system with a particular resilience if it is subject to a specific exposure.


Reef-dependent communities and industries are affected by changes in coral reef ecosystems. The type and amount of change is variable in space and time, meaning that different communities and sectors will vary in their exposure to ecosystem change. The amount of exposure determines the amount of resilience required to achieve a reduction in vulnerability. Coral reef managers and researchers are important sources of information on predicted changes to reef ecosystems, and can be key contributors to efforts to assess vulnerability. For fishers, exposure may take the form of reduced stock of targeted species, while for a tourism business it may be decreased aesthetics of coral reefs at key tourism sites.

Sensitivity to Change

Communities and individuals that are more dependent on the goods and services provided by reefs are more sensitive to change in ecosystem condition. An understanding of dependency provides an indication of the sensitivity of the social system, which when combined with knowledge of exposure (i.e., predicted changes in resource condition/availability) can help managers assess potential impacts. People can be dependent on coral reefs because of social (e.g., place attachment, occupational identity, family circumstances, employability and extent and quality of networks), economic (e.g., income, size of business, and business approach) and environmental (resource use, specialization, values, attitudes, perceptions and understanding of threats) attributes.

Potential Impact

Potential impacts describe the vulnerability of a system in the absence of adaptation. For example, the potential impact on a fishery of predicted declines in stocks of targeted species might be complete economic collapse if businesses do not adapt.

Adaptive Capacity

Adaptive capacity relates to the ability of people to convert resources (including financial, natural, human, social or physical) to adapt to an exposure scenario given their sensitivity to change (i.e., their resource dependency). For fishers, this might translate into their ability to invest in alternative fishing gear, acquire new skills through learning, and form a cooperative to diversify catch composition and increase profit yields to compensate for reduced stocks of target species. Key attributes associated with adaptive capacity are: ref

  • Ability to manage risk and uncertainty
  • Possession of skills for strategy, planning, experimenting, learning and reorganizing
  • Buffers for absorbing change
  • Interest in change

Components of social vulnerability and examples of characteristics that can influence exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity of reef-dependent social systems. Source: Adapted from opens in a new windowWongbusarakum and Loper 2011opens PDF file

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