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Journeys, plants and dreams: Adaptive learning and social-ecological resilience

Journeys, plants and dreams: Adaptive learning and social-ecological resilience
Iain J. Davidson-Hunt


Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2, CANADA.


The research reported in this dissertation was undertaken in Canada and Mexico. The work in Canada took place between May and October of 2000 and again between July and October of 2001. Verification workshops were held in January of 2001 and again between January and April of 2002. The work in Mexico took place during the fall of 1999 and again between the months of February and June 2001. The work in Canada was undertaken in the community of Iskatewizaagegan No. 39 Independent First Nation of Shoal Lake, Ontario. In Mexico, the major work was undertaken with the Rarámuri community of Basíhuare.

This dissertation presents a number of linked essays that chronicle my journey to understand the dynamics of social-ecological resilience. I chose an approach that would allow me to move toward a holistic, place-specific and problem-centric research paradigm. This required forming a research team of elders, community leaders, community researchers and scientists with an appropriate delegation of authority and power within the team. This approach to research reflects insights from ecological anthropology, sustainability science and resilience literatures. The Resilience Alliance has proposed that the resilience of social-ecological systems has three defining characteristics: (1) the amount of change the system can undergo and still retain the same controls on function and structure, or still be in the same state, within the same domain of attraction; (2) the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization; and (3) the ability to build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation.

This dissertation focuses on the last of the characteristics noted by the Resilience Alliance: the ability to build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation. The central problem addressed by this dissertation is the process of adaptive learning as a process of social-ecological systems. The resilience literature has identified adaptive learning as a key characteristic of resilience and hence of social-ecological resilience. However, the literature does not provide a mechanism in which individual creativity can respond to feedback of social-ecological systems and lead to change and development of social institutions and memory. The primary purpose of this dissertation is to address this gap in the literature by suggesting a model of adaptive learning that situates individual learning into a social-ecological environment structured by institutions of knowledge and leading to institutional change.

The central problem and purpose of this dissertation leads to a number of secondary research questions summarized below.
  • What theories can be drawn upon to understand the process of adaptive learning for social-ecological resilience?
  • What research models and methodologies can contribute to adaptive learning and social-ecological resilience?
  • What are the historical processes that influenced the social-ecological learning environment of Anishinaabe people?
  • What are the historical processes that influenced the social-ecological learning environment of Rarámuri people?
  • How do institutions of knowledge situate memory and creativity within social- ecological environments so that learning becomes adaptive?
  • How do institutions of knowledge frame social-ecological learning environments so that learning becomes adaptive?
The above research questions correspond to Chapters II through VII of the dissertation. In Chapter II I begin the dissertation with a discussion of the theory that provides a theoretical framework for adaptive learning and social-ecological resilience. In Chapter III, I present the cooperative research approach that I developed with Iskatewizaagegan people and the research methodologies for fieldwork. In Chapters IV and V, I present two narratives which link technology, history, memory and institutions from the perspective of social-ecological resilience. In Chapter IV I look at the Anishinaabe use of fire in northwestern Ontario while I consider the Rarámuri use of fire in northwestern Mexico in Chapter V. In Chapter VI, I present the ethnoecological research about the spatial and temporal dynamics of the landscape, memory and institutions. I begin Chapter VII, the final chapter of my research results, with my understanding of the ethnobotanical knowledge of Anishinaabe people from Iskatewizaagegan No. 39 Independent First Nation. I address how cognitive memories, such as plant names, become adaptive through learning processes.

In Chapter VIII, I consider the lessons I learned about social-ecological resilience from the Anishinaabe and Rarámuri people. I present some novel insights that I gained regarding my understanding of social-ecological resilience. I suggest that social- ecological resilience is not to be found in the “knowledge” of indigenous people. Rather, social-ecological resilience can be built, along with indigenous people, in the process of answering place-specific problems through research teams. As noted in Chapters II and III, I suggest that this will require some new models to guide research. The material I presented in Chapters IV and V suggests that social-ecological resilience is rooted in people’s adaptive learning processes. I argued in Chapters VI and VII that resilience was not just what people know, but how people go about knowing what they know and how they act on this knowledge.

I propose that adaptive learning as a process of social-ecological resilience is founded upon two key institutions. First, an institution that places learning into a social- ecological environment and requires that knowledge emerges from experience within that environment. These feedback linkages allow individual creativity to respond to the dynamics of social-ecological systems. Second, an institution that authorizes individual creativity. In the cases examined here, elders are authoritative through their experience on the land and can authorize learning processes. It is this institution of authority that provides the mechanism for individual creativity to lead to institutional development and changes in social memory. These two institutions of knowledge provide a mechanism so that adaptive learning can respond to the dynamics of social-ecological systems through individual creativity while leading to changes in social memory. It is adaptive learning that allows indigenous peoples to write their histories into the cultural landscapes that sustain their survival as a people over time.