Piecing together complexity: the co-evolution of agroecosystem patterns & natural resource management

Mark E. Caulfield

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


The agroecosystems of the Ecuadorian Andes are threatened by severe land degradation processes and the risks associated with climate change. These agroecosystems are not only critical to the livelihoods of the farming families that live in them, but also for broader society through their role in watershed protection, carbon storage and the conservation of regional biodiversity. The mountainous nature of these Andean rural landscapes creates an additional level of complexity in the relationships between management and agroecosystems in these contexts. The elevation-induced climate gradients drive many different environmental niches moulding agroecosystem patterns and shaping farm and land management practices, often resulting in feedback loops and non-linear responses to landscape gradients. Understanding such complex socio-ecological relationships between farm and land management practices and landscape agroecosystem dynamics is paramount to the development of more successful developmental and natural resource conservation management and intervention strategies.

Based on a framework of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) for the purposes of understanding critical environmental challenges within a social context, the recently emerging Socio-Ecological Systems (SES) framework represents great promise in better understanding these inter-relationships and therefore providing greater insight for the development of more contextualised management and interventions strategies. The PhD project was therefore designed to contribute to the understanding of some of the main relationships between land and farm management, agroecosystems and socio-ecological variables, shed a new light on how farm and land management and agroecosystems patterns have co-evolved within this particular socio-ecological context in the Ecuadorian Andes, and to provide an empirical case-study as to how the SES and CAS frameworks could be used to inform more contextualised natural resource management.

The use of the CAS and SES frameworks in the research provided a profound insight into how farm and land management and agroecosystem patterns in the Ecuadorian Andes co-evolve from multiple socio-ecological interactions and feedbacks. Moreover, the SES and CAS frameworks facilitated the co-development of more contextualised options for improved natural resource management as well as identifying the main constraints within the broader socio-ecological context to adopting these more sustainable pathways.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Tittonell, Pablo A., Promotor
  • Groot, Jeroen, Co-promotor
  • Sherwood, Stephen, Co-promotor
Award date17 Sep 2019
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463950688
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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