Adaptive livelihoods? Climate change, agrodiversity, and food security amid development transitions in Rwanda

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Clay, Nathan Jared
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 11, 2017
Committee Members:
  • Karl Stephen Zimmerer, Dissertation Advisor
  • Karl Stephen Zimmerer, Committee Chair
  • Brian Hastings King, Committee Member
  • Heather D Karsten, Committee Member
  • Carolyn Elizabeth Sachs, Outside Member
  • food security
  • climate change
  • agroecology
  • sustainable intensification
  • adaptive capacity
  • environmental governance sub-Saharan Africa
  • development geography
  • political ecology
  • environmental governance
  • sub-Saharan Africa
This dissertation contributes to scholarship in geographical political ecology concerning the intensification and commercialization of agriculture amidst global climatic change. With a case study based on fieldwork in four villages in southwest Rwanda, I investigate agricultural commercialization as a social-ecological process, including the ramifications of related development programs and policies on the vulnerability, resilience, and adaptive capacity of smallholder agriculturalists to climatic uncertainty and acute weather events. This dissertation is the result of long-term fieldwork that relied on quantitative, qualitative, ethnographic, and spatial methods of data collection and analysis. It documents spatial-temporal patterns of climate risk, the uneven distribution of costs and benefits of climatic shocks, and the impact of development interventions on vulnerability. More precisely, this dissertation details how households come to differ (e.g. by class and gender) in their abilities to adaptively manage multiple environmental and social uncertainties. By illustrating how institutions and social-environmental variability interact to shape vulnerability and adaptive capacity, this work contributes to scholarly and policy debates at the interface of food systems, development, and climate change. One key contribution of this dissertation is the evidence that adaptive capacity can be productively considered as a social-ecological process rather than as a static, asset-based, quantifiable variable. I show that adaptive capacity to climatic change is produced through the intersection of household agency (including land use and livelihood decisions) and structural constraints (including agricultural policy as it intersects with subjectivities such as class and gender). I provide a framework for visualizing how adaptive capacity is dynamic and relational. In doing so, this research also presents valuable empirical understanding as to the viability of agricultural intensification policies that are now common throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where development planning now widely seeks to emulate the successes of the Green Revolution in Asia. It demonstrates that large-scale, state-led agricultural intensification may be limited in its success as a pro-poor development strategy—as it is in Rwanda—by high degrees of social and ecological variation. I therefore make the case that development policies must be carefully attuned to risk management processes and must be flexible enough to adapt to changing social-ecological conditions of risk.