Socio-ecological resilience to global challenges

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


A small village on the slopes of Mount Wilhelm, PNG © K. Sam

Background – the global problem of climate change

As climate change takes hold, the world will become subject to increasingly extreme weather events. In 2015 there was a particularly severe El Niño event which caused droughts, floods and unusual temperatures the world over. Although it is not possible to state that the severity of this particular event was due to climate change, projections suggest that this type of event is going to be more frequent, and more severe, in the future.

Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) rural population is highly dependent on small-scale agriculture for its food security. This is potentially threatened by severe weather like the 2015 drought, both directly through crop failure, and indirectly through increases in insect pests. Forest-dwelling communities rely on forest products in times such as these, but the degree of this reliance, and its impact on the forest ecosystems, is not clear. Following the 2015 El Niño, we have an opportunity to better understand people’s responses to extreme weather events, and support the government and local communities of PNG to plan for the future by assessing how ecological and social systems interact to influence people’s livelihoods and food security.


The Project

Our research aims to provide evidence to support actions to improve the resilience of PNG’s rural communities to extreme weather and climate change. We will improve understanding of how natural ecosystems support people at times of need, both directly (e.g. through using forest resources) and indirectly (e.g. through pollination of crops). We focus on an area of Mount Wilhelm where long-term ecological studies by the New Guinea Binatang Research Center give us a strong foundation for this new research.

The project combines both social and an ecological elements. On the social side, we will explore villagers’ perceptions of the impacts of the El Niño on their livelihoods, and of how they would change their behaviour under different future scenarios of climate change. On the ecological side, we will collect data on crop yields and pest pressure, to help us understand the ecological impacts of, and responses to, the El Niño. Furthermore we will investigate whether natural forests can buffer the negative impacts of the El Niño on rural food production, either directly or indirectly.

Our study site covers villages at different heights up Mount Wilhelm, allowing us to understand how elevation (which influences how cool and rainy an area is) influences the relationships between people and their natural environment.

Our aim is to improve the environmental and socio-economic evidence of the impacts of the 2015 El Niño event on our study site and suggest strategies to improve the resilience of PNG subsistence farming to future extreme weather events, ultimately enhancing societal well-being and local development.



Steep food gardens on the slopes of Mount Wilhelm © K. Sam

Project impact

We aim to provide evidence which will be useful for stakeholders such as government bodies and NGOs working on improving social and ecological resilience in PNG. Ultimately, we hope to support decision-making in policies and projects related to PNG’s Sustainable Development Goals (Zero Hunger, Climate Action, Life on Land, and Responsible Consumption and Production), the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (Sustainable development of the country’s biological resources), and the PNG Vision 2050 (Environmental sustainability and climate change).

We will share our findings with local villagers at our study site and organise a disseminate workshop to promote discussion amongst key stakeholders to identify key areas for actions and further research. Furthermore our findings will be transferable to other parts of rural PNG, and to other developing countries, thereby improving global understanding of how to improve social-ecological resilience to climate change.


Project team

Dr Rebecca J Morris (project leader) is a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. She will coordinate the project and lead the ecological data collection and analysis, and the scientific publications.

Emilie Beauchamp (project researcher) is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford. She collect and analyse socio-economic data, build capacity for social data collection and support the dissemination of results to local, national and international end-users.

Dr Sofia Gripenberg (co-investigator) is a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. She will provide expertise on the ecological data collection and analysis.

Professor Owen T Lewis (co-investigator) is Professor of Ecology at the University of Oxford. He will provide expertise on ecological data collection and analysis.

Professor E. J. Milner-Gulland (co-investigator) is Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Oxford. She will advise on the social data elements of the project.

Professor Vojtech Novotny (project partner) is Head of Ecology and Conservation Biology at the Czech Academy of Sciences, Professor of Ecology at University of South Bohemia, and Director of the New Guinea Binatang Research Center. He will lead the field research element of the project.

The New Guinea Binatang Research Center is a non-profit organisation in PNG devoted to biodiversity research. See:



Research assistants trained by BRC collecting insects feeding on plants © Tim Cockerill


Get involved

If you would like to find out more about the project please contact Emilie Beauchamp:


This project is funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Department for International Development (DFID) through their Understanding the Impacts of the Current El Niño Event research programme.