CIFOR Working Paper: Assessing current social vulnerability to climate change: A participatory methodology

Submitted by Anneli Sundin | published 3rd Mar 2015 | last updated 9th Mar 2015


Executive summary

This paper describes a participatory methodology used to assess the current vulnerability of local communities in the Congo Basin. Vulnerability has been studied through the lenses of different dimensions: system and exposure units, dynamic processes, multiple threats, differential exposure, social capital and collective action. The purpose of this framework is to grasp the social (and ecological) dynamics in the system over the past decades, in order to identify future actions for reducing vulnerability and to enhance adaptive capacity.

To understand each vulnerability dimension, a combination of participatory and analytical methods and tools was used. An assessment of the differential exposure and the dynamic processes as contributors to current vulnerabilities was carried out by examining a range of actors, activities, livelihoods and resources and how they were affected by a number of identified hazards. The dynamic aspect defines the complexity of vulnerability as it encompasses many attributes or multiple stresses (social, economic, cultural, environmental) that may change at different speeds. Climate change is an added stress to these already existing and alarming stresses. As there are differences in the sensitivity and responses to climate variability within local communities and the system in which they live, it is not possible to capture the vulnerability of the system per se at any point in time.

The assessment was designed using participatory and holistic approaches to enable interaction with communities and to allow community members to discuss common concerns and negotiate a common vision. Participatory field exercises were used to characterize each vulnerability dimension as defined in this document. Methods were defined by the type of exposure unit thought to be vulnerable (e.g. natural resources, community, region), the nature of the hazard leading to that vulnerability, and the specific aspect of the vulnerability being described. Participatory exercises included: village profile analysis; resource mapping and land-tenure analysis; seasonal calendar, deforestation and forest degradation analysis; forest–people interaction analysis; flows analysis; trade system analysis; historical disturbance analysis; climate-related disturbance analysis; product importance and revenue distribution analysis; forest use and benefits analysis, disturbance-impact analysis; social capital, social network mapping, institutional and social infrastructure analysis; and adaptive capacity analysis. Each field exercise was modified to suit the different local conditions and specificities of the study sites.


Study sites in the COBAM project landscape.

Lessons learned from this methodology

Advantages and benefits of this approach

A participatory approach for vulnerability assessment has many benefits when implemented in collaboration with local partners and as the first step for a longer term process of capacity building and adaptation planning.

The first advantage of this approach is its degree of flexibility. Activities considered in the methodology can be selected and adapted to the context and refined to best suit the local realities and fieldwork capacities. In the pilot studies, for example, activities were refined and modified to fit the specifics of each site and to account for the time, financial and human resources available for the fieldwork. It is recommended that the exercises are tested with a group of stakeholder representatives first, so that activities can be improved based on their feedback before implementation in the field.

Another important benefit is the trust and empowerment this approach can build with local partners if the collaboration is successful and partners become involved in the implementation of activities as part of the field research team. This depends on the preparation phase and time spent with partners in refining the methodology. Training in facilitation, transcript writing and analysis also helps empowerment. Giving local partners the opportunity to contribute to the methodology and the selection of communities and stakeholders also creates ownership of the process and contributes to capacity building.

Another positive aspect of this methodology is the collective learning. Through the series of activities implemented with local communities, it is possible to enable a process of learning, particularly if a space for reflection is created and multiple meetings are planned to allow for an iterative process. A closing workshop to provide feedback and validate results with local actors can also contribute to reflection and learning. This can be even more beneficial if it is combined with pilot activities aimed at increasing the adaptive capacity of local communities.

This approach provides the advantage of capturing different perspectives from different actors on the ground. This is important to gain a clear understanding of differentiated vulnerabilities at the local level. This approach recognizes that the personal understanding and experiences of different local actors determine their perceptions and the way they respond to different climatic conditions. To identify effective adaptation measures for the future, different perceptions from local communities, social associations and public institutions should be considered and combined. In addition, involving different local actors in the process helps to address, to some extent, the subjectivity inherent in the results generated with this methodology.

Challenges and limitations of this approach

While there are important advantages and benefits to this methodology, it does have its limitations and challenges. The first limitation is its subjectivity. The qualitative nature of this approach to elicit local knowledge through discussions at community level can provide rich information about different local perceptions to assess social vulnerability. However, the assessment of local perceptions could be deepened if complemented with other streams of information, such as analyses of climate data, land cover and land- use change, carbon and ecological dynamics.

Another important challenge of this methodology is its high demand of time and resources for implementation. Time, human and financial resources need to be invested in traveling to the sites, testing and refining the activities with local partners, training local field research assistants and working with local communities over a period of time to conduct the different activities tailored to local realities. Ideally, a workshop can be implemented at the end of the process to provide feedback to local stakeholders on the results, validate and complement them.

Finally, there is no guarantee that effective adaptation responses can be promoted by taking into account local people’s perceptions (Weber 2010; Nyanga et al. 2011). This methodology is appropriate to understand local current vulnerabilities for a baseline assessment, but it is only the first step to plan for climate adaptation. This first step needs to be complemented with studies of future vulnerability and impact studies based on scenario analysis that help to identify possible adaptation options under different possible future conditions. These further steps will require integrating both social and biophysical information, as well as qualitative with quantitative data. 

The methodology was developed through collaboration between Stockholm Environment Institute Oxford Centre and CIFOR Cameroon for the Climate Change and Forests in the Congo Basin: Synergies between Adaptation and Mitigation (COBAM) project

Suggested citation

Tiani AM, Besa MC, Devisscher T, Pavageau C, Butterfield R, Bharwani S and Bele MY. 2015. Assessing current social vulnerability to climate change: A participatory methodology. Working Paper 169. Bogor, Indonesia: CIFOR.