Chronic uncertainty and momentary opportunity: A half century of adaptation among Zambia's Gwembe Tonga

Lisa Cliggett, Elizabeth Colson, Rodrick Hay, Thayer Scudder, Jon Unruh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


In Zambia's Southern Province, where a history of climatic and political fluctuation have played out in peoples livelihood choices and ecological impacts, the Gwembe Tonga people have learned to respond to uncertainty by expecting the worst. This outlook emerges from at least 50 years of experience. The building of the Kariba Dam on the Middle Zambezi River in the late 1950s resulted in the forced relocation of Gwembe people. Since resettlement in 1958, Gwembe people have lived under conditions of increasing uncertainty, both environmental and sociopolitical, that have enormous implications for environmental change. Understanding environmental change in this region demands an exploration of the social, political and economic context of Gwembe Tonga lives. In looking for broad patterns of adaptation and response, one point emerges clearly. For the Gwembe Tonga, the most recurrent pattern, and most reliable response to living in conditions of extreme uncertainty, is an increasingly opportunistic use of the environment and other resources. This article presents ethnographic data collected over more than 50 years (through the Gwembe Tonga Research Project) in Southern Zambia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-31
Number of pages13
JournalHuman Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2007


  • Africa
  • Food security
  • Land cover change
  • Livelihoods
  • Longitudinal studies
  • Poverty
  • Risk
  • Zambia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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