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Adaptation between resilience and transformation. A Colombian case study

Short project description | Breve descripción del proyecto

(English. Español abajo)

Climate change and market liberalization often affect peasants in poor countries simultaneously. While adaptation to such ‘double exposure’ is needed, it is usually approached as a techno-scientific problem, without a thorough understanding of the social root causes of vulnerability (e.g. social, political, and economic processes), and of the potential for autonomous adaptation that lies in informal social institutions that co-evolve with the changing environment. In the Colombian Andes, farming communities have co-evolved with their environment for centuries, and a dynamics system of informal social institutions (e.g. land inheritance rules, reciprocity, labour mobilization, or intergenerational sharecropping) has evolved to insure a low, but rather stable livelihood. However, it is uncertain whether this system of norms is adapting to the unprecedented multiple pressures of climatic change and the governmental attempt to transform agriculture towards market-based, industrial models in the name of economic development and modernization. 

vereda Las Cañas

Against this backdrop, this study sets out to investigate the dynamics of institutional change in a sample of smallholding farming communities in the Colombian Andes. Institutions are usually studied from a static perspective, e.g. to assess their functioning and outcome, rather than dynamically, to explain their adaptive aspects, or how they came to exist in the form they do. Furthermore, the research most often addresses formal and informal institutions whose purpose is environmental governance, but little evidence exists regarding non-environmental institutions, which can often be more significant than environmental ones in influencing the forms of social organization and consequently the human-environment interactions in social-ecological systems.

Key informant interviews and farmer oral histories are used to uncover changes in the informal social institutions that characterise the household economy in the study region. The study aims to explain the social-ecological mechanisms by which variations of informal institutions are selected, as well as the relation between such emergent adaptation of formal institutions and the formal structures (e.g. land rights) that constrain, or marginalise, smallholders. Thus, this study contributes firstly, to the theory of adaptability and transformation of social-ecological systems, with a focus on informal social institutions under multiple simultaneous pressures, and, secondly, to a critique of development from the perspective of rural communities ‘at the margin’.

Keywords: Agriculture, Smallholders, Adaptation, Resilience, Transformation, Informal Institutions, Colombia

Summary of results

This study makes four main contributions to knowledge and understanding.

First, it challenges the government-led, top-down, techno-scientific dominant discourse on agricultural adaptation to climate change in Colombia. This discourse largely overlooks the root causes of vulnerability of Colombian agriculture, and of smallholders in particular. This study uncovered some of the hidden assumptions underpinning this discourse. More specifically, it showed that while technical measures may play an important role in the adaptation of Colombian agriculture to climate change, these actions alone may not represent priority issues, especially for smallholders. The study’s findings suggests that by i) looking at vulnerability before adaptation, ii) contextualising climate change as one of multiple exposures, and iii) truly putting smallholders at the centre of adaptation, i.e. to learn about and with them, different and perhaps more urgent priorities for action can be identified. Ultimately, the study’s findings support the claim that what is at stake is not only a list of adaptation measures but, more importantly, the scientific approach from which priorities for action are identified. In this respect, I propose that transformative rather than technical fix adaptation represents a better approach for Colombian agriculture and smallholders in particular, in the face of climate change (Feola 2013 in Climatic Change; Feola et al. 2014 in Climate and Development). 

Second, in this study I developed a framework to analyse and compare theories of societal transformation in response to global environmental change. The study of societal transformation in response to environmental change has become established, yet little consensus exists regarding the conceptual basis of transformation. The framework developed in this study (Feola 2014 in AMBIOprovided structure to the dialog on transformation, and allowed to reflect on the challenges of social research in this area. Concepts of transformation were identified through a literature review, and examined using four analytical criteria. It was found that the term ‘transformation’ is frequently used merely as a metaphor. When transformation was not used as a metaphor, eight concepts were most frequently employed. They differed with respect to (i) system conceptualization, (ii) notions of social consciousness (deliberate/emergent), and (iii) outcome (prescriptive/descriptive). Problem-based research tends to adopt concepts of deliberate transformation with prescriptive outcome, while concepts of emergent transformation with no prescriptive outcome tend to inform descriptive-analytical research. This study therefore suggests that dialog around the complementarity of different concepts and their empirical testing are priorities for future research. 

Third, this study allowed to explain why peasant communities in the Andes persist as cultural entities, but are showing signs of lack of adaptability and resilience to  multiple economic, environmental and social disturbances. This study showed that economic pressures on peasant communities in the Andes may supersede climate change as main disturbances. Importantly, this study contributes to the debate around adaptability of Andean peasant communities by uncovering the social mechanisms that determine the lack of adaptability of these communities. These include selective out-migration, inter-generational transmission, and practices of everyday resistance. This study also showed how the lack of adaptability is rooted in a history of marginalization that permeates cultural, geographical, economic, political and social spheres of Andean rurality.

 Fourth, this study showed the usefulness of evolutionary approaches to the study of informal institutions’ persistence, or change, over time. Theories of institutional change have for a long time been divided between rational choice and evolutionary approaches. This study shows that evolutionary approaches may be more appropriate for the study of informal institutions, while rational choice theories may be more appropriate to study the change or persistence of formal institutions. Furthermore, this study shows that evolutionary dynamics are not necessarily exogenous, but rather endogenous, whereby institutions and cultural elements themselves act as forces to select institutional and cultural variations that are more consistent with existing ones. These findings thus provide arguments against materialistic interpretations of evolutionary institutional change. Finally, the study highlights that institutional change, or persistence, is place based, and that place identity can itself play a role of “social attractor” in selecting particular consistent institutional variations.


El cambio climático y la liberalización del mercado a menudo afectan a los campesinos de los países pobres simultaneamente. Si bien la adaptación a tal "doble exposición" es necesaria, generalmente esta se plantea como un problema técnico-científico, sin un conocimiento profundo de las causas sociales de la vulnerabilidad (por ejemplo, los procesos sociales, políticos y económicos), y del potencial de la adaptación autónoma que se encuentra en instituciones sociales informales, que co-evolucionan con los cambios del ambiente. En los Andes Colombianos, las comunidades agrícolas han coevolucionado con su medio ambiente durante siglos, y un sistema dinámico de las instituciones sociales informales (por ejemplo, normas de herencia de tierras, la reciprocidad, la movilización de mano de obra, o la aparcería intergeneracional) se ha desarrollado para asegurar un bajo, pero un nivel bastante estable de subsistencia. Sin embargo, no está claro si este sistema de normas se está adaptando a las múltiples presiones sin precedentes del cambio climático y el intento gubernamental para transformar la agricultura, hacia modelos industriales basados ​​en el mercado en nombre del desarrollo económico y la modernización.

En este contexto, este estudio se propone investigar las dinámicas del cambio institucional en una muestra de comunidades agrícolas minifundista de los Andes Colombianos. Las instituciones suelen estudiarse desde una perspectiva estática, por ejemplo, para evaluar su funcionamiento y resultados, en lugar de un enfoque dinámico, para explicar sus aspectos adaptativos, o cómo llegaron a existir en la forma que lo hacen. Por otra parte, las investigaciones con frecuencia aborda instituciones formales e informales que tienen por objeto la gobernanza ambiental, pero existe poca evidencia sobre instituciones no ambientales, que a menudo pueden ser más importante que las ambientales, para influir en las formas de organización social y en consecuencia, en interacciones humano-ambiente en los sistemas socio-ecológicos.

Se utilizan entrevistas con expertos e historias orales de agricultores para descubrir cambios en las instituciones sociales informales que caracterizan a la economía familiar en la región de estudio. El estudio tiene como objetivo explicar los mecanismos socio-ecológicos por los cuales se seleccionan las variaciones de las instituciones informales, así como la relación entre dicha adaptación emergente de instituciones formales y las estructuras formales (por ejemplo, derechos a la tierra) que limitan o marginan a los pequeños agricultores. Por lo tanto, este estudio contribuye en primer lugar, a la teoría de la adaptación y transformación de los sistemas socio-ecológicos, con un enfoque en las instituciones sociales informales bajo múltiples presiones simultáneas, y, por otro lado, a una crítica del desarrollo desde la perspectiva de las comunidades rurales ‘en el margen '.

Palabras clave: Agricultura, Pequeños productores, Adaptación, Resiliencia, Transformación, Instituciones Informales, Colombia


British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Small Research Grant


Related publications

Feola, G. 2017. Campesinos enfrentando cambios económicos, políticos y climáticos: adaptación o transformación en los Andes Colombianos? Resumen de Investigación. University of Reading.

Feola, G. 2017. Peasants facing economic, political and climatic changes: Adaptation or transformation in the Colombian Andes? Research Brief, University of Reading.

Feola,G. 2017. Adaptive Institutions? Peasant Institutions and Natural Models facing climatic and economic changes in the Colombian AndesJournal of Rural Studies, 49:117-127.

Feola, G. 2015. Societal transformation in response to global environmental change: a review of emerging conceptsAMBIO, 44(5): 376-390[Open access here]

Feola, G., Agudelo, L.A., Bamon, B.C. 2015. Colombian agriculture under multiple exposures: a review and research agenda. Climate and Development, 7(3):278-292. [Open access here | Resumen en Castillano aquí] [Open access here | Resumen en Castillano aquí]

Feola, G. 2013. What (science for) adaptation to climate change in Colombian agriculture? A commentary on "A way forward on adaptation to climate change in Colombian agriculture: perspectives towards 2050" by J. Ramirez-Villegas, M. Salazar, A. Jarvis, C. E. Navarro-Valcines. Climatic Change, 119 (3-4):565-574. [Open access here]

Feola, G., 2013. Trade liberalization, rural development, and the future of Colombian peasantry. The Forum, University of Reading.


Giuseppe Feola



Feola, 2017 [here]

Feola et al. 2015 [here]

Feola, 2014 [here]

Feola, G., 2013 [here]