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​The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach

​The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA) provides a framework for analysing individual and community livelihoods and the factors influencing those livelihoods, including unplanned events and changes such as adverse climatic events. It also provides a way of thinking about the objectives, scope, and priorities for environmental, community, social and economic adaptations that may build resilience.

Understanding and describing the assets and capitals allows institutions to better design effective adaptations that either build from existing strengths and assets by addressing environmental challenges such as climate change or by addressing weaknesses that may be eroding resilience.

A livelihood refers to the means by which an individual, whanau or hapu obtains the things necessary for their existence and presence in a geographic space.

A livelihood therefore does not simply refer to sources of income or employment. We are not only interested in the means of peoples’ existence, but also the extent to which they are or can be made sustainable without undermining the assets and capabilities on which they are built.

The assessment of different capitals that contribute to livelihood at the level of the individual, household, group, or community is central to the SLA. These capitals or assets can be classified as:

  • Natural captial  is the resources and services provided that are available from the biophysical environment, including water, land, plants, minerals, energy, animals, and environmental/ecosystem services etc;

  • Physical captial is the ‘hardware’ of people’s lives, such as infrastructure (roads, bridges etc.), facilities (schools, meetings houses, houses etc.), equipment (cars, implements etc.) and technology;

  • Social captial is the social relationships that people have, including their social networks, organisations, affiliations and obligations;

  • Human capital is people’s skills and education, physical and mental capabilities: to think, communicate, labour, etc., good health, i.e. the capabilities that are embodied in human beings;

  • Financial captial includies cash or equivalent, savings, and credit.

  • Cultural capital refers to the unique attributes and values such as language, traditions, arts, customs, knowledge system, special places and ways of doing things

The ‘vulnerability context’ within the SLA refers to the risk (and opportunity) environment in which people exist. Its consideration draws analytical attention to complex influences that directly or indirectly impact on livelihoods. It is the aspect of life that lies furthest outside people’s control.

In the short-to-medium term, less can be done at an individual, group or community level to alter it directly. In such circumstances, the role of institutions, organisations and agencies may become critical.

'Shocks' (or sudden happenings), seasonality, and critical trends over which people have limited or no control may significantly affect people’s livelihoods and the wider availability of assets and capitals. While such changes most often represent risks to people’s livelihoods, they can also provide opportunities.

‘Shocks’ destroy or damage assets or access to them as in the case of floods and storms and sometimes force people to abandon or dispose of assets prematurely or to change their overall livelihoods strategy.

‘Trends’ are more predictable and, while they may or may not be more benign, they have a marked influence on the success of a chosen livelihood strategy.

‘Seasonal changes’ in production, food availability and associated employment opportunities may undermine livelihood potential and represent hardship for some people.

 In each of these types of vulnerabilities, historical factors may be very important and there may be cumulative risks, for example, the flooding of productive fields due to on-going upstream catchment erosion.


SLMACC Report: Climate change and Community Resilience in the Waiapu Catchment



Case Study - Climate Change and Community Resilience in the Waiapu Catchment


Recent research by Scion and Ngati Porou researchers used the sustainable livelihoods framework and innovation systems to further community resilience and cultural sustainability. 

Whilst aware of climate change as a potential threat to the community, it was difficult for many to envisage how they could usefully plan for likely impacts given the everyday reality of making a living from the land. This prioritisation is not unusual amongst communities struggling to deal with a range of pressing social, environmental and economic challenges.

The research demonstrated how the livelihoods framework can be extended using community developed indicators for each of the capitals and as assessing the impacts of climate change on social, cultural and human capital is difficult over either a medium or long-term horizon a planning tool was been developed to aid future planning, policy development and deliberation.

This tool may be used to assess or consider the extent to which climate change may influence livelihood capitals and the potential role of policy in mitigating impacts and in building resilience. The tool was run for two scenarios: under current climatic conditions, and under climate change.

The planning process was:

  • Outlining climate change trends that will be the most significant for the Waiapu Catchment and its community.

  • Describing the range of livelihood strategies, community capitals and the vulnerability context of the Waiapu community.

  • Design indicators that quantify community capitals and assets and measure improvement in community wellbeing/resilience over time against policy interventions.

  • Work alongside the community to identify locally generated and preferred livelihood strategies using forests and other land use options.

  • Analyse the role of key agencies and institutional networks with a direct interest in the Catchment and building resilience.

  • Develop strategies to build community resilience within the Catchment and to transfer this knowledge to key institutions and individuals.

SLMACC Report: Climate change and Community Resilience in the Waiapu Catchment  

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