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Autochthonous human adaptation to biodiversity change in the Anthropocene

This Special Issue introduces human adaptation to biodiversity change as a science-policy issue, and Autochthonous adaptation as a concept.
Selecting cacao pods in costa rica


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, 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.

This Special Issue*introduces human adaptation to biodiversity change as a science-policy issue. 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. The research was carried out in different marine and terrestrial environments across the globe. All of the studies consider adaptation among highly biodiversity-reliant populations, including Indigenous Peoples in the Americas and Europe, farmers in Asia and marine resource users in Europe and the Pacific. The concept of autochthonous adaptation is introduced to specifically address adaptation to environmental change in local systems, which also considers that local adaptation is conditioned by multi-scalar influences and occurs in synergy or conflict with adaptations of other non-local agents and actors who enable or constrain autochthonous adaptation options.

*Download the full introductory article of this issue from the right-hand column.

Summary of articles in the special edition

The papers in this Special Issue span a large diversity of marine and terrestrial biomes, and different anthromes, in developed, emerging and developing economies.

  • Several cases focus on Indigenous Peoples in each of these contexts, including in Norway, North and Central America, India, Nepal and the Moluccan archipelago.
  • Non-indigenous but still highly biodiversity-reliant communities in developed countries also figure prominently, including marine-dependent peoples in Brittany, France and Tasmania, Australia.
  • Four papers in this Special Issue focus on adaptation in coastal or marine environments.
  • The other studies in the Special Issue focus on biodiversity change and adaptation in terrestrial systems managed by Indigenous People and other highly biodiversity-reliant populations.

Key findings

Drivers of biodiversity change and human adaptation

There are three reasons for focusing on biodiversity change both as a driver and as a component of human adaptation:

  1. People who depend directly on natural resources for their livelihoods are, as much of the climate change literature attests, 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Biodiversity change is occurring at an alarming rate across all of the earth’s biospheres, in terrestrial, freshwater and oceanic regimes.

Why, and what is, autochthonous adaptation?

The concept of autochthonous is defined as, literally, ‘native to the soil,’ ‘native to the place where found’ and, in biology, ‘native to or produced within a system.’ Autochthonous adaptation has four fundamental dimensions:

  1. It is deliberate;
  2. it refers to individuals and small groups of individuals;
  3. it is specific to the locality—specific environmental, social and cultural conditions that prevail in specific places where people live and act and
  4. it occurs within a local system, which is affected by multi-scalar drivers and feedbacks—thus, it is not independent of ‘external inputs’.

Conceptual frameworks and tools

Researchers formulated numerous innovative approaches and conceptual tools to address this novel theme, which are the most valuable contributions that this volume makes to environmental change research. Several scientists adopted a social–ecological systems approach and applied, elaborated upon or revised concepts from the adaptation to environmental change literature.

Many articles are based on social–ecological systems theory, including the axiom that humans and ecosystems are intertwined. Fundamental concepts include:

  • social–ecological system drivers and feedbacks,
  • resilience,
  • regime shifts and
  • transformation

Does it matter who is adapting?

Many of the case studies in this Special Issue focus on Indigenous Peoples whose adaptation pathways are strongly conditioned not only by their strong reliance on local biological resources and reservoirs of local ecological knowledge, but as well by political marginalisation and external socio-political and economic drivers.

As Thornton et al. note, ‘‘Indigenous Peoples, ethnic minorities, and subsistence populations often have little choice but to ‘adapt’ to the dominant socio-political system and its objectives for growth and ‘progress’’.

Questions for future research and policy

As is the case with research more generally, questions or hypotheses are formulated and explored through research, resulting in new sets of questions or hypotheses.

Those questions and the general questions that guided the case study research and metasynthesis presented in this Special Issue are as follows:

  • How have adaptation processes developed in relation to ecosystem services and human well-being in a historical-ecological context?
  • How quickly can human populations respond to changes in species composition and richness, ecosystem services and to changes in states or regimes, ‘reengineering’ social–ecological systems in ways that are desirable in terms of human welfare, biodiversity and ecosystem services?
  • How should rural and indigenous communities take action to maintain their traditional livelihood adaptations and social–ecological resilience in the face of climate and biodiversity change?
  • How do humans adapt to invasive species?
  • Are changes in biodiversity so rapid and significant that they overwhelm human capacity to respond or are humans, especially those in highly biodiversity dependent societies, highly capable innovators that can provide lessons for humanity at large?
  • What forms of adaptation actions are being undertaken by users (i.e. non-government sector actors) in response to high levels of ecological change in marine systems?
  • Who are the primary actors adapting to biodiversity change?
  • What impairs, and what facilitates, adaptive human responses, 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 respond or adapt to rapid biological and ecological change?
  • What key assets do users have to enable adaptation actions?
  • How do social relations at micro- and meso- scales affect adaptation pathways?
  • What level of access do users have to formal power over marine resources?
  • How dependent is the adaptation action on government cooperation?
  • What are the intended and unintended effects, or emergent properties, of human responses to biodiversity and related ecosystem change and tipping points?
  • What is the geographic scale of adaptation behaviours or actions and expected outcomes?
  • 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?
  • Are there ‘black box’ variables that facilitate or impede adaptation at different scales and can they be illuminated by science?
  • How do adaptation pathways affect social–ecological relations and outcomes at micro- and mesoscales?
  • What are the expected outcomes of the adaptation behaviour for different levels of ecological vulnerability of the marine socio-ecological system and socio-economic vulnerability of affected marine users? What type of benefit is generated?
  • What costs/benefits result for ecosystem services (ES) and well-being from pursuits of specific pathways that support some adaptation processes and not others? Why?
  • How can interventions support autochthonous adaptation strategies that already contribute to ecosystem health and human well-being?
  • What is needed to ensure continued assessment and support for autochthonous adaptation responses to environmental change and its impacts in the future?
  • What adaptation strategies should be facilitated in order to maintain the resilience of coastal social– ecological systems?
  • Under which circumstances should policies and management plans seriously address human adaptation to invasive species as a response option?
  • How may the observed adaptation behaviours potentially interact with planned government efforts and what are the implications for further adaptation planning?
  • How might adaptation processes intersect and play out under future scenarios of social–environmental change and response at different scales?

These questions emerge when considering specific adaptation drivers, contexts and agents, and certainly future research will serve to clarify and formulate new questions, as well as approaches, methods and tools, that add to, refine and reformulate these queries. We believe that, with the publication of this volume, we have gone some way towards conceptualising and illustrating the relevance of human adaptation to biodiversity change as a new terrain for science and policy endeavours.

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