Promoting resilience of subsistence farming to El Niño events in Papua New Guinea: an integrated social-ecological approach

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Zoology


More than a quarter of the global human population depends on small-scale subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods. As these farmers rely on crops from a small cultivated area, they are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events. One such event is El Niño, a periodic reversal of ocean currents in the Pacific Ocean with pronounced global impacts on weather. Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a lower middle income country in the western Pacific, which is particularly hard hit by El Niño events. Since 85% of the population depend on subsistence farming in family "food gardens", El Niño can cause widespread damage to crops and livelihoods, directly through drought and frost; and indirectly through crop pests and diseases. Farmers can respond partially, by changing the crops they grow and where they grow them, or by collecting alternative foods from surrounding forest. When extreme events like El Niño occur they set off a series of related effects across ecological and social systems. For example, crops subjected to drought may be more susceptible to pests and thus suffer greater damage, leading to lower yields and reduced food. In turn, people may use forest products to supplement their food, which could degrade the forest, reducing its ability to buffer the village against future drought.

Our project will develop an integrated approach to investigating linkages between ecological and socioeconomic impacts of the 2015 El Niño on subsistence farming in PNG. We will focus on food gardens from 200m to 2700m elevation on Mount Wilhelm. We will compare ecological and social changes caused by the El Niño in villages at different elevations, and whether people with different abilities to cope with droughts (e.g. those with larger/smaller gardens) were affected differently. We will collect data on how the current El Niño is affecting crops through drought and frost, and by altering the number of insect pests and the severity of crop diseases. We will assess how El Niño might cause increased reliance of farmers on food collected from surrounding forests, how this affects forest biodiversity, and the ability of the forest to support resilient food gardens by providing pest control.

We will gather villagers' perceptions of the impacts of El Niño on their livelihoods and wellbeing, and on how they coped. For example, we will ask whether there are things they would like to have done to cope, but were unable to do (e.g. changing to drought-resistant crop varieties), and discover the barriers to employing these coping strategies. Together with local villagers and our PNG collaborators, we will develop options to help support villagers and surrounding ecosystems during future El Niño events. We will ask villagers which option they prefer, and how they would change their behaviour under different future scenarios. For example, if El Niño events became more frequent, would they change their crops permanently? If the forest was reduced due to logging, would this change their response to El Niño? Using our results we will build a model of how the forest, food gardens and people's livelihoods interact, and use it to talk to villagers and the government about the likely impact of different interventions to support villagers. We will then propose ways to make their livelihoods more sustainable and resilient, for future El Niño events.

Our project builds on a long-term collaboration with the New Guinea Binatang Research Center, in which local research assistants are trained to collect ecological data. The project extends our research to include social dimensions. We will train the assistants to collect information about people as well as insects, to build a long-term project that can support villages to become more resilient to future climate change and build scientific capacity within PNG. It will also help researchers globally to understand better how El Niño events affect social-ecological systems and how to make these systems more resilient

Planned Impact

Our project will benefit people at the local, national and international scales. Beneficiaries include:

Local: directly during the project

1. PNG nationals working at the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre (BRC): will benefit from training in socio-economic data collection, which will help with future employment and build capacity within PNG.
2. Villagers living in the study site of Mt. Wilhelm: will benefit directly from our better understanding of the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of the El Nino, and recommendations on food production and forest conservation interventions that could increase resilience for future extreme events.

National: through VN and BRC's existing active connections

3. NGOs working in PNG (including PNG Institute for Biological Research, UNDP, WWF-PNG, Wildlife Conservation Society, The Nature Conservancy): our results will provide ideas for interventions to increase resilience to extreme events that NGOs could use to achieve their goals in sustainable development and conservation.
4. Government research institutes and agencies (specifically National Agriculture Research Institute; Forest Authority; Forestry Research Institute; Department of Environment and Conservation; National Agriculture Quarantine and Inspection Authority; Research, Science and Technology Secretariat): will benefit from advice on how best to improve the ability of rural people to withstand the impacts of El Niño events.
5. Subsistence farmers across PNG: will benefit from the study, with interventions leading to increased resilience for future extreme events, via the NGOs and agencies listed above.
6. PNG Vision 2050: we will contribute to the implementation of the goals of the National Government's Strategic Directional Statements, in particular, "Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change", specifying "critical measures to prevent the erosion of climate security, including viable food production" and to the objective "Sustainable development measures developed in all sectors to increase resilience to the impacts of climate change and environmental changes".
7. PNG National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan: our research will directly contribute to the sustainable development of the country's biological resources, through investigating the ability of natural forest to provide additional food sustainably when crops fail during an El Niño.
8. Sustainable Development Goals: our research may help PNG achieve its commitments to the post-2015 SDG agenda, by contributing to promoting sustainable communities, wellbeing and responsible consumption and production.

International: through the research team's wider collaborations

9. International NGOs (including the International Institute for Environment and Development, UNDP and UN FAO): who require case studies on the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of extreme weather events and will benefit from applying our project's integrated research framework elsewhere.
10. International Governmental Organisations, specifically the Department for International Development (DFID): will similarly benefit from our case study.
11. Subsistence farmers from other countries: may benefit from our research, via NGOs and agencies applying our recommendations to similar situations, or advocating for wider use of our integrated framework.
12. Convention on Biological Diversity: our research will provide a case study for the Aichi Targets and specifically Strategic Goal B (Enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystem services) and target 14 (By 2020, ecosystems that provide essential services.., and contribute to health, livelihoods and well-being, are restored and safeguarded, taking into account the needs of...the poor and vulnerable) and how to implement it in the face of extreme events (Strategic goal C).
Description INSPIRE PhD studentship (University of Southampton)
Amount £80,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2021 
End 03/2025
Description INSPIRE PhD studentship (University of Southampton)
Amount £76,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2020 
End 03/2024
Description Sustainable Agriculture for Smallholder Farming Communities in Papua New Guinea
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Funding ID 1757782 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2016 
End 09/2021
Description Dissemination workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact The Building Resilience to the Impacts of El Niño event held at The Royal Society shared the lessons learned from this large, multi-institution programme; bringing together policy makers, practitioners, and researchers to ensure these findings contribute to the development of practical approaches to building resilience to future El Niño events. The event included themed discussions which led to new networking opportunities and are being synthesized by programme researchers and policy makers to contribute to academic literature and policy briefs. Participant input has further fed into blog posts, articles, and multimedia outputs, to share the event's discussions with a wider audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018