Resilient Socio-Environmental Systems: Indigenous Territories in the Face of Change

NSF grant awardees share details on their upcoming 4-year study

Resilient Socio-Environmental Systems: Indigenous Territories in the Face of Change

July 15, 2021
by Dr. Robert Walker, Principal Investigator; with Dr. Miguel Acevedo, Co-Principal Investigator; Dr. Joel Correia; Co-Principal Investigator; Dr. Michael Esbach; Co-Principal Investigator; and Dr. Cynthia Simmons, Co-Principal Investigator - NSF Grant Awardees for Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems Program

Humans have long interacted with their environment, thereby shaping a variety of integrated socio- environmental systems whose natural and human components share iterative relations and sustain feedbacks that modify and influence one another. This project focuses on a type of socio-environmental system we refer to as the Indigenous territory. Indigenous territories are produced and maintained via biocultural heritage: the language, knowledge, and practices used by Indigenous communities to sustain their relationships with the environment.

Unlike extractive socio-environmental systems dependent on disruptive resource extraction, Indigenous territories generate ecosystem services by virtue of a balanced integration of their natural and human components. Many Indigenous communities have kept their territory’s environment intact despite encroachments by an extractive socio-environmental system. The goal of the research is to understand how this happens. We seek insight into the dynamic responses of Indigenous territories in the face of disintegrating forces. At what point does an Indigenous territory’s resilience attenuate, leading to the disintegration of biocultural heritage and ecosystem degradation? How do Indigenous territories sustain system integration despite disturbance intensification?

The proposed project will answer such questions for a sample of Indigenous territories in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where disturbances are similar to those now impacting the entire Amazon Basin. Our project integrates ecology, socio-environmental modeling, human geography, and the spatial sciences to study sustainability across a set of discrete territories that vary in size, degree of encroachment, and integrity of biocultural heritage.

The intellectual merit of the project resides in its contribution to systems theory and to our understanding of processes impacting the sustainability of Indigenous territories. The study will contribute to systems theory by conceptualizing system dynamics as governed by the interplay of integrating and disintegrating forces, both internal and external, and by showing how equilibrium and resilience arise from decision-making about the management of system feedbacks.

The project will enhance our understanding of the sustainability of Indigenous territories  by revealing the conditions under which system resilience is undermined, and by demonstrating modes of adaptive response. It will also illuminate how biocultural institutions are capable of sustaining the intergenerational provisioning of ecosystem services.

Project Duration: 2021-2025; Award amount: $998,682