Where rural societies rely directly on natural resources for their livelihoods, the ecosystem services approach is commonly employed to analyze tradeoffs, identify potential "win-win" scenarios, and generate informed recommendations for more sustainable production and livelihood systems. However, people's capacity to adapt and adopt new resource use regimes is constrained by numerous factors within the social domain, which are rarely incorporated into ecosystem service evaluations. Furthermore, adaptation is a dynamic process, in which different forms of natural, social, and human capital can enable or restrict change at different times. To provide a more nuanced analysis of the dynamics and sustainability implications of transformation in rural livelihood systems, we developed a research framework that couples ecological “supply-side” and social “demand-side” approaches to social-ecological system evaluation. The coupling is based on parallel concepts in ecosystem services and livelihood adaptation scholarship: in both the ecological and social domains, there are pools of capital that present a range of choice of potential assets, which can be jointly or sequentially mobilized to form a livelihood system. We elaborate this coupling into a framework for empirical and modeling research on social-ecological systems in transition, and illustrate how it can be implemented using three case studies.
In the Ecosystem Services - Livelihood Adaptation (ESLA) Framework, abiotic limitations, ecological processes and human activities determine the portfolio of ecosystem services that can be realized from natural capital, while human adaptive capacities are mobilized or constrained through social processes, political factors, and technology to actualize livelihood strategies. As capacities in both domains are mobilized, the cross-domain interactions form dynamic feedbacks. The framework uses natural science, social science, and agent based modeling methodologies for identifying those factors and assessing feedbacks. Our case studies are in Brazilian, Haitian, and Kenyan drylands. In each system, we identify current and potential pools of natural capital and evaluate their contribution to, and feedbacks with, different livelihood strategies. We use ethnographic research to identify factors restricting and enabling adaptation. Household agent based modeling integrates ecological dynamics to evaluate the environmental and social consequences of livelihood transformations. By simultaneously considering both the ecological and social limitations that affect the actualization of livelihood transitions, the ESLA provides an integrative and nuanced approach to identifying the capacities needed for rural livelihood adaptation. Applying the ESLA to our case study systems also helped identify key knowledge gaps and future research directions that would contribute to more robust sustainability evaluations.