Analyzing antifragility among smallholder farmers in Bihar, India: An assessment of farmers' vulnerability and the strengths of positive deviants
Farmers around the world are increasingly vulnerable: climate variability is identified as the primary stressor, but unfavorable biophysical circumstances and disturbances in the socioeconomic domain (labor dynamics and price volatility) also affect farm management and production. To deal with these disturbances, adaptations are recognized as essential. Antifragility acknowledges that adaptations and volatility are inherent characteristics of complex systems and abandons the idea of returning to the pre-disturbance system state. Instead, antifragility recognizes that disturbances can trigger reorganization, enabling selection and removal of weaker system features and allowing the system to evolve toward a better state. In this study, we assessed the vulnerability of different types of smallholder farms in Bihar, India, and explored the scope for more antifragile farming systems that can ‘bounce back better’ after disturbances. Accumulation of stocks, creation of optionality (i.e., having multiple options for innovation) and strengthening of farmer autonomy were identified as criteria for antifragility. We had focus group discussions with in total 92 farmers and found that most expressed themselves to be vulnerable: they experienced challenges but had limited adaptive capacity to change their situation. They mostly made short-term decisions to cope with or mitigate urgent challenges but did not engage in strategic planning driven by longer-term objectives. Instead, they waited for governmental support to improve their livelihoods. Despite being confronted with similar challenges, four positive deviant farmers showed to be more antifragile: their diverse farming systems were abundant in stocks and optionality, and the farmers were distinguished in terms of their autonomy, competence, and connectedness to peers, the community, and markets. To support antifragility among regular farmers, adaptations at policy level may be required, for example, by shifting from a top-down toward a bottom-up adaptation and innovation regime where initiative and cooperation are encouraged. With a more autonomous orientation, farmers’ intrinsic motivation is expected to increase, enabling transitions at the farm level. In this way, connected systems can be developed which are socioeconomically and biophysically adaptive. When practices, knowledge, and skills are continuously developed, an antifragile system with ample stocks and optionality may evolve over time.