Past Futures: Historical perspectives towards coupling within social-ecological systems

By: David Anderson and Jono Jackson:

Within the discipline of History the theme of ‘coupling’ has obvious utility, connecting as it does mutual interactions and feedbacks between ecological, social, and economic factors.  Indeed, we would argue that a historical perspective offers unique opportunities to truly discern the processes of coupling, de-coupling and re-coupling within complex social, ecological and economic systems. A historical approach also provides a crucial complement to projects within both the natural and social sciences, enabling the all-important interdisciplinary bridge that is vital to the success of collaborative research of the kind being undertaken in the African Rural Futures programme.



Our project, ‘Past Futures: micro-histories of rural development in Kilombero, Tanzania’ considers the plans laid out in past development initiatives, examining the goals and aspirations those plans imagined, and assessing the extent to which such visions were realised.  To do this we must reflect upon environmental changes in the valley, understand social changes in people’s settlement, production and consumption, and assess the changing character of the valley’s economy over time. The analysis and understanding of past couplings of these factors and their continued legacies will bring greater clarity on present conditions in Kilombero, and a more astute awareness of future possibilities too.  Our methodology involves the triangulation of archival and documentary resources, extensive interviews with local actors, and researchers’ observations, enabling us to then reconstruct coupling, de-coupling and re-coupling processes in the past with a level of insight that is often more difficult to achieve in the present.

\"\"A recurring theme in the history of the Kilombero valley region is the failure of coupled infrastructures to effect positive economic transformation. This is apparent in spite of the area being viewed as a remarkably fertile area with high agricultural potential. However, the environmental risk factors specific to the region – i.e. the unpredictability of the river flow, flood levels, early or late rains, drought – play a considerable role in the mutual interaction and feedbacks that are central to coupling mechanisms, this severely restricting the adaptive capabilities of the social and economic systems.

The ineffectiveness of market and transport infrastructures have also proved a recurrent theme in the history of the Kilombero Valley.  The dependency of economic growth on these central infrastructures and market networks demonstrate the extensive coupling of systems. This is by no means unique to the Kilombero valley, of course, but the distinctive history and aspects of the area offer a rich, deep and varied research base for studying the complex patterns and processes of coupled socio-ecological systems.

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