A relational understanding of social-ecological restoration: New perspectives for restoration research, policy, and practice

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Jessica Cockburn

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There is increasing recognition that restoration is embedded in complex social-ecological systems (SES), and that a clearer focus on social processes and outcomes is needed to build resilience through restoration programmes. This is echoed in calls for social-ecological restoration. Seeing restoration as situated in SES is a particular way of understanding the nature of restoration, i.e. an ontology. Adopting this ontology has implications for managing and researching restoration programmes. To consider some of these implications, we focus on one of the key characteristics of complex SES: they are relationally constituted, meaning that system characteristics emerge out of dynamic relations between system components. To illustrate how a relational understanding shifts the way we approach restoration and sustainable landscape management, we present two cases: the Tsitsa River Catchment and the Greater Langkloof Region (both in Eastern Cape, South Africa).  We emphasise inter-personal and social relations between the many actors involved in landscape restoration. A relational understanding of restoration can help programme developers and implementers gain deeper insights into the texture of multi-stakeholder processes in social-ecological restoration. We draw on the notion of ‘relational agency’ to propose a new perspective on multi-stakeholder collaboration, which is widely regarded as a key success factor for social-ecological restoration. From this perspective it becomes apparent that dialectical, transformative learning processes are also key to the social-ecological change processes which restoration initiatives inherently are.  We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of a relational understanding and ways in which transformative learning for social-ecological restoration programmes can be fostered.

Resource Type:
Audio/Video, Conference Presentation, SER2019

Society for Ecological Restoration