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Adaptive strategies

Adaptive strategies

Adaptive strategies is a term used to describe ways in which individuals, households and communities have changed their mix of productive activities, and modified their community rules and institutions over the long term, in response to economic or environmental shocks or stresses, in order to meet their livelihood needs. Adaptive strategies are a mix of traditional livelihood systems, modified by locally or externally induced innovations, and coping strategies that have become permanent. They arise from the "dynamic interaction and mutual interdependence between human agency and the ecosystem" (Titi and Singh, 1994b). Adaptive strategies are conceived not only in human socio-economic systems, but in nature. The ecosystems in which traditional livelihood systems evolved are also dynamic, and interactive.

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Adapted from: Human response system models and adaptation strategies
(C. Berhe-Tesfu, Human Adaptations,
1993, p.22)

In contrast to long-term adaptive strategies, coping strategies are short-term responses in secure livelihood systems to periodic stress. Households use a mix of coping strategies to deal with stress and shocks. These include:

  • reducing current consumption or shifting to lower quality food (stint)
  • accumulating and storing food and other assets (hoard)
  • protecting and preserving the asset base necessary for the recovery and the reestablishment of the livelihood (protect)
  • drawing upon livelihood stores of food; pledge or sell assets (deplete)
  • seeking new sources of food, i.e. wild foods, wild animals; diversify work activities and source of income (diversify)
  • making claims on relatives, neighbors, patrons, the community, NGOs, the government (claim)
  • dispersing family members, livestock, and assets and/or migrating (move)

As the severity of the challenge increases with time, so does the commitment of domestic resources and the degree of irreversibility. Thus, over time, coping strategies may evolve into adaptive strategies. More importantly, the continued availability of coping strategies and options is necessary for adaptive strategies to work.

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Adaptive strategies have an historical or time dimension. A "traditional" livelihood system represents a set of adaptations to the environment, and responses to stimuli, that have taken place sufficiently far back in time - perhaps several centuries, and sometimes millennia - for remembrance of the innovation to have been lost to contemporary memory. The reconstruction of such changes may be the subject of specialized historical investigation.

A normal practice may change in the face of stress or shock to become a coping strategy; when the stress is removed, normal practices are resumed. Alternatively, stress (change, pressure, opportunity) may lead to a pervasive change in practice, which then becomes an "adaptive strategy". Practices and adaptive strategies may be positive, functional, sustainable, and thus lead to sustainable livelihoods. Or they may be dysfunctional, leading to non-sustainable livelihoods - depletion of the environment or human resources, or continued external support, for example. In turn, sustainable livelihoods may be vulnerable or open to pervasive change, or may become stable and culturally assimilated and, in effect, become a new practice.

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