The resilience and sustainability of small farms

We're analysing the ways farmer organisations influence cooperation among smallholders and the implications for sustainability and livelihood resilience to shocks and stresses.


Enhancing smallholder’s capacity to adapt in the face of climatic vulnerabilities in the marginal mountainous areas (MMA) is crucial for achieving the SDGs. Smallholders’ ability to adapt to the change, however, is enabled and hindered by their ability to act collectively. Existing policy and practice to enhance their adaptive capacity focuses on three conceptual approaches - natural hazard mitigation, social vulnerability and social-ecological resilience.

However, actions supporting each approach entail inherent synergies and trade-offs in terms of scales, goals and outcomes. Despite the evidence on the role of collective action in facilitating adaptive capacity and SDG achievement in the context of global environmental change, how specific actions interact with SDGs remains unclear, particularly in the context of MMA.  We explored these trade-offs and synergies between actions for sustainable development  in MMA using the following question: How do livelihood capitals, diversified strategies, and sustainable land management practices facilitated by collective actions influence adaptive capacity?   

This project investigates how farmer organisations (FOs) influence:

  • smallholder utilization of different forms of cooperation to access the resources necessary to support their livelihoods in the face of rapid social and environmental change
  • the barriers and opportunities to participate in different forms of cooperation
  • rural social-ecological system dynamics.

Providing insights into how FOs influence cooperation among smallholders in the face of rapid global change aligns with the aims of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) to inform sustainable policies and practices, in this case to promote sustainable rural livelihoods, food security and biodiversity conservation. This is crucial for tackling the intractable global challenge of feeding a growing population within the context of climate change and biodiversity loss.

  • Sustainable Development Goals

    This project examined the following SDGs:

    SDG 1 – No Poverty
    SDG 2 – Zero Hunger
    SDG 5 – Gender Equality
    SDG 8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth
    SDG 12  Responsible Consumption and Production
    SDG 13 – Climate Action
    SDG 15  Life on Land

    Find out more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Project description

The project design comprises an interdisciplinary framework and mixed methods approach to integrate the economic (financial and commercial viability of smallholder enterprises), environmental (the agro-ecological performance of smallholder farms) and social (the networks and relations of local communities) dimensions of sustainability and resilience. The project focussed on South Asia as 83% of farms are small and they employ more than 50% of the population, including many groups vulnerable to price spikes and other shocks and stresses.

The PDRA designed and conducted the research, employing a mix of participatory methods, household surveys and semi-structured interviews with key informants, with the support of an interdisciplinary team of Sussex researchers combining natural and social science expertise. Fieldwork was conducted between February and December 2018 in Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh, India, in cooperation with the People’s Science Institute (PSI, Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India). PSI is a non-profit research and development organisation that works with rural communities vulnerable to shocks and stresses, supporting them to develop practical solutions.

The outcomes of the research include: capacity building of the PDRA and in-country partners, PSI; academic publications; development of funding proposals; conference presentation; and interdisciplinary integration within SSRP. The intended impact of this research was to inform rural policy and practical actions by highlighting the potential of smallholders to build the resilience and sustainability of rural communities, livelihoods, and biodiversity in a context of rapid global change.

Timeline and funding


September 2017-March 2019




The research focused on four villages in the Bageshwar district, Uttarakhand, located in the fragile mountain system of the CIHR (Figure 2). 

The villages were selected on the basis of interventions by two external agencies: a local NGO, the People’s and Science Institute (PSI), and a state-level organisation, the Watershed Management Directorate (WMD). Baret has been the focus of PSI, Supi the focus of WMD, Sumgarh the focus of both PSI and WMD, and Guler was not targeted by any external intervention.

The data collection (229 household surveys, four focus group discussions, and 15 semi-structured interviews) focused on livelihood capitals and strategy, interaction with collective action groups (CAGs), sustainable land management (SLM) practices, and the nature and characteristics of CAGs.


The level of interventions influenced the types and combinations of CAGs in each village with distinctive interests. Despite the four villages facing similar challenges, climatic and non-climatic, Baret and Sumgarh displayed greater overall levels of livelihood assets, and the highest levels of on-farm livelihood diversity and SLM inputs and activities. This suggests that collective action facilitates cooperation and sharing of resources between members, thus increasing access to livelihood capitals, opportunities for livelihood diversification, and SLM practices. Activities facilitated by CAGs, such as the establishment of farmer networks and federations, micro-finance support, physical infrastructure development, knowledge dissemination, improvements of farming systems, and market systems, contributed to the overall improvement. 

While villages with interventions had overall improvement in adaptive capacity, the specific interests and focus of interventions means that there are inherent synergies and trade-offs within the three approaches to adaptive capacity. 

Useful links

The team

Where we worked

Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh, India.