Integrating food security and biodiversity conservation in Ethiopia: planning a case study

By Joern Fischer

As recently announced on this blog, in June this year I will start a new ERC-funded research project on possible synergies between food security and biodiversity conservation. The project will have a global component, but will also feature a detailed case study in Ethiopia. Ethiopia will make an interesting case study, I think, because it has high rates of endemism (and hence high conservation values) as well as a large and growing rural population. How to feed this growing population in the future is a real concern for the country.

Before getting into any more detail though, it’s important to point out that many people somewhat unfairly associate Ethiopia with severe famines – because some such famines did indeed occur in the not-so-distant past, and were prominently covered in the media. However, most Ethiopians live in the relatively lush highlands. While many people here are poor in terms of their material belongings, and food security (especially for an even larger population in the future) is definitely a real concern, the imagine of Ethiopia being characterized by masses of people facing imminent starvation – which some people have – is quite wrong. (This misconceptuation can be easily explained: In Europe and North America, we don’t hear much in the news about Ethiopia, and the few times we did hear about it in some detail, has been in the case of famines.)

The case study in Ethiopia will be a landscape- to regional-scale study, spanning some tens of kilometers on the ground. I am very fortunate to have two highly experienced collaborators for this case study: Dr. Feyera Senbeta from Addis Ababa University, and Dr. Kristoffer Hylander from Stockholm University. Both have an intimate understanding of Ethiopia’s people and landscapes, and I’m very happy to be working with them.

Near Yayu

Near Yayu

The precise location of the new research project remains to be finalized. At the moment, there are two “favourites” – but other options altogether are still possible, too. Both of the landscapes currently under consideration are in Oromia, which covers much of the highlands of Ethiopia. The first possible landscape is the Agaro-Gera area. The big advantage here is that Kristoffer has already worked extensively in this area. The other possible landscape is the Yayu area. It is quite special because it harbours one of Ethiopia’s two UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. This reserve measures approximately 160,000 ha, and is primarily devoted to the conservation of endemic, natural coffee. Coffee still grows in a largely natural (i.e. unmodified) state in the 20,000 ha core of this reserve. As in all biosphere reserves, the core is surrounded by a buffer (of approximately similar size as the core) and a much larger transition zone. Because this biosphere reserve is only a few years old, and because Feyera has a very good relationship with the NGO in charge of managing the biosphere reserve (The Environment and Coffee Forest Forum), working here could be a great opportunity to contribute science to real-world social-ecological systems management. The downside of Yayu is that it is relatively difficult to get to (a very long day’s drive from the country’s major airport in Addis Ababa), and some of the locally important roads cannot be used after rain, which could pose some logistic challenges further down the line.

Both landscapes are biophysically similar, in that both support a highly complex, heterogeneous mosaic of smallholder agriculture, mixed with forest patches used to grow coffee at various intensities.

As indicated previously, I will be advertising four PhD positions associated with the Ethiopian case study – and I am hoping to appoint a diverse team, including a mixture of Ethiopian students and individuals from elsewhere. Please note I am now seeking expressions of interest (see below; not yet formal applications) for these positions, as well as for related postdoc positions.

Food and biodiversity expressions of interest for PhD and postdoc positions here

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Who we are: Julia Leventon

I’m Julia, and I have been working with Joern’s group at Leuphana since February this year.  I joined as part of a project called MULTAGRI on the governance of multifunctional agricultural landscapes.  In this project I work closely with Joern and with Prof. Jens Newig in the governance working group of the Institute of Sustainability Communication (INFU).  I was asked to introduce myself via the blog, and I thought I would do so by giving 5 facts about myself, loosely related to research:


Julia Leventon

  1. I started out as a natural scientist.  I am now on the more social side of interdisciplinary, but I did my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science at the University of Manchester in the UK.  Its provided me with a great overview of some fundamental concepts in ecology, geology and chemistry.  In every research project since, I have been grateful that I can begin to understand the physical processes that I am dealing with.
  2. I run.  My favourite thing to do with a free day is to spend it running through hills and mountains.  In northern Germany, I have to make do with flat forests, but that’s not really something to complain about.
  3. I like to define my research by concepts rather than by topic.  I am a governance researcher; I examine how diverse interests come together to manage natural resources.  For example, how interests around mineral extraction, climate change mitigation, community development, agriculture and biodiversity compete over the same area of forest for conflicting interests, whose interests are represented (how and why) and what impact this has.  The resources (topics) I have worked on include groundwater, forests, soils and biodiversity.
  4. I’m nomadic (and have a nomadic cat).  After finishing school at 18, I went to Peru for a few months and stayed for a couple of years, and I’ve had ‘itchy feet’ ever since.  After doing my BSc and MSc at Manchester (UK) I went to Budapest for my PhD, including secondments in Greece and Italy. I’ve also lived in the Czech Republic, then time back in the UK working at University of Leeds, with fieldwork in Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania.  Now I’m in Germany.  The cat has been moving around with me since the Czech Republic.
  5. I’m scared of snakes.  I know they aren’t slimy, and I’m sure they are very beautiful, but I would rather never make contact with a snake.  Unfortunately, there have been a few snake close encounters… including an anaconda in the Amazon, a puff adder in Malawi (that I narrowly avoided running over on a mountain bike) and a spitting cobra in Zambia.

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Who we are: Friederike Mikulcak

Hi everyone! Even though I am part of Joern’s Sustainable Land Use Group since October 2011, I obviously managed to hide pretty well from this blog – completely unintended and rather due to unpleasant developments in my personal life.


Anyway, being one of Joern’s PhD students in this project, I wish to briefly introduce myself to you. To start with – as my name is rather long, I’d suggest just calling me Frieda. Within the project, I am dealing with the impact of the EU common agricultural policy (CAP) on smallholder farming and biodiversity conservation in Romania (click here), with barriers to rural development, and overall with formal and informal institutions governing natural resource usage in the region. What made me join this project? I have long been interested in human-environment interactions, rural development, and in particular institutional aspects, but my (academic) career prior to this PhD position wasn’t perfectly straightforward.

My research activities started with a Bachelor in European Studies at Chemnitz Technical University, where I focused on European law and politics. Because the study program specialized on Eastern EU member states, I became quite familiar with this part of Europe and joined a student association organizing (political) seminars with students from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). I wrote my Bachelor thesis about the EU’s human rights policy in non-EU countries, using the example of Russia. Besides, I did a four month internship at the European Parliament (MEP) in Brussels and Strasbourg.

I soon realized that the EU wasn’t the end of the story for me; I wanted to become familiar with other institutions and international (development) politics. I became a student research assistant with the “Business and Biodiversity Initiative” of the German organization for development cooperation (GIZ) and chose to study the Master program “Globalization, Environment and Social Change” at Stockholm University, focusing on human geography. As part of the research project “Human dimensions behind the greening of Sahel” in cooperation with the Stockholm Resilience Centre I conducted 2 months of field work in the West African Republic of Niger and wrote my Master thesis on “the implications of formal and informal institutions on the conservation of on-farm trees”.

During my time in Sweden I became acquainted with political ecology, resilience theory and systems thinking, which to me served as ‘eye-openers’ and useful approaches to understand and analyse social-ecological relations. I finally joined Joern’s project as it just fitted perfectly the way I had gone by then – combining my interest in the role of institutions in sustainable (rural) development, framed by systems thinking, and focusing on Eastern Europe.

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Doing research in Estonia: 10 out of 10

Last summer I did my research on wood-pastures in western Estonia (counties Saaremaa and Läänemaa)[1] as visiting PhD student at the Eestii Maaülikool (Estonian University of Life Science) in Tartu. As the 2014 field season begins, I was looking back and discussing with colleagues about the advantages and disadvantages of different countries in the way they can support or hamper your research. Of course it’s highly subjective, but I recognized I was quite lucky being in Estonia, and on a scale of 10 points I would give 10. Here is why:

  1. The funding. Estonia has a funding for international PhD students (DoRa) to come to Estonia and do some research. Despite the fact that Estonia is a pretty small country, it’s really nice that it invests so much in networking with scientists from other countries.
  2. Almost everyone is fluent in English. Under 30 they are always able to talk to you in English and also older people have at least some basic knowledge. If not English, they often speak German. This makes doing research (especially interviews!) so much more rewarding, and really helped me get a better insight into my study area.
  3. Everyone is really helpful. If you need to find something or figure out something you will always get some help. This counts for my colleagues at the University, for the environmental board in my study area and also for the farmers I worked with. If I couldn’t figure out to whom my site belongs, they would not hesitate to make calls to ask every available person if they knew something, and often they gave me the phone number of the owner in the end. The environmental board was always available for my questions and also gave me the possibility to stay in one of their houses for a while.
  4. Information from the authorities is provided for everyone. For example, all GIS related stuff. All information I was used to having to pay for, or to only get it after a lot of searching, I could find online in a browser based GIS ( – of course also in English). If you are working for a university, authorities or a NGO you can get a connection from your GIS program to a server where all these information are available for you (I think it is worth giving two points for this)
  5. Telephone and internet connection is something you can rarely lose. If you have an internet stick you can be online everywhere. If not, almost everywhere because there are hotspots every two meters.
  6. The roads are just perfect (ok, in Tallinn this is not always true, but this wasn’t my study area). So even if a road is mapped as dirt road, most of the time you can be sure, everything that is mapped you can use without a four wheel drive.
  7. University is important. If you are telling people you are doing your PhD (in Estonian Doktoritöö) that means something. They are willing to talk to you, help you (see 3.) and even tell you that you are doing important things (finally somebody got it :) ).
  8. The bigger supermarkets are open till 11 pm and also on Sundays. You get a lot of ready-made food (really good food) so you don’t even have to cook in the evening. And if there is nothing available close by, we come back to point 3: There are always helpful people providing you with food.
  9. People have a different attitude towards nature and nature conservation. Maybe my sample of people is a little bit biased, but all the people I met (this also includes an accidental bus acquaintance) are very connected to nature and very interested in protecting what is there (by the way, Estonia has one of the highest proportion of protected areas in Europe).

These are my ten points (remember one counts double) why Estonia gets 10 out of 10.

In addition I have to say Estonia has beautiful landscapes, what makes it even better to do your research there.


What about your study area?




[1] blog entry about this will follow soonish

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Inversely proportional interest in nature and the abundance of nature surviving

(by Jacqueline Loos & Paul Kirkland)

After having visited some nature reserves in the UK, and after having talked to some people active in citizen science projects, I realized that they spend a lot of money in getting people involved, raising awareness and informing people about the state of their wildlife. Ironically, in these countries, much wildlife is in a critical condition many of them are seriously threatened. Another example is the huge interest in butterfly conservation in the Netherlands: This country has the highest proportion of extinct butterflies in Europe, and yet simultaneously, they can attract more than 600 people interested in butterflies at their annual meetings (which is more than any other country in Europe can bring together).

The observation that the interest in trying to preserve what is disappearing is inversely proportional to the amount of wildlife remaining present is of course not new.



The question for conservationists is whether the growth in interest is sufficiently fast enough to lead to conservation measures that will prevent further significant losses in wildlife. Sometimes a conservationist gets the impression that no matter how much faster one tries to empty water from a sinking boat, it will still be sinking!

But perhaps there is an explanation for the sinking boat: Conservationists have long been observing that as each generation proceeds, they reset their idea of what the countryside should look like (the “shifting baseline”). As the youth grows up in conditions that lack wildlife, they don´t know what they are missing and hence have no desire or awareness of what the natural environment should be or how it has been before. Linked to this is an increasing lack of contact with nature, a “nature disorder deficit syndrome”. Conservationists in Western Europe are trying to break this trend, especially with young people, by trying to re-establish the connection with nature and wildlife (although this is not necessarily combined with an explicit conservation message). Here, environmental education combined with good data on species trends is crucial to convince the public to act.

This strategy seems successful in countries like the UK and the Netherlands, where increasing interest in wildlife leads to more available resources to foster public engagement. But did the shifting baseline prevent the increasing interest happening soon enough to save wildlife in these countries? And can we learn from this concept to avoid the same scenario in other countries which are still rich in wildlife?


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, The little things that make you think (and feel)

Witnessing evolution: Fast genetic adaptation to climate change in butterflies

Butterflies are extremely rapid range shifters under global warming climate conditions. Unfortunately, for many species, especially for specialized species and those from mountainous areas, there are not enough areas to shift to. For other species, however, completely new areas can become suitable habitat. Hence, butterflies represent a mixed group of winners and losers in areas affected by climate change.

Interestingly, Camille Parmesan showed in her research that butterflies do not only change their range of occurrence, but also change their built-in migratory behavior. At the butterfly symposium she gave an example of Euphydras editha, which is an endangered species in America and a species one would consider a classical loser. One of its subspecies, Euphydryas editha quino, declined drastically due to climate change and habitat loss, from thousands over thousands of individuals that have been observed in the 1940s to two remaining population nowadays. Ongoing human construction activities, air pollution and fire events led to the assumption that this species is effectively extinct, and assisted migration has not even been considered due to lack of suitable habitat containing the host plant of the species, Plantago erecta.


source: wikipedia

Surprisingly, a few years after this sad cognition, new populations of species could be found in locations at higher altitudes in areas where its host plant was not present. The Quino checkerspot butterfly did not only manage to extend its occurrence range upwards, but also shifted its diet onto a different host plant, Collinsia parviflora. And even more exciting, this shift is associated with genetic changes in the butterfly.

This is a very positive example for rapid evolutionary changes in invertebrates, and a representation of how quickly they are able to inherent traits to become an integral part of new ecosystems. However, this showpiece was only possible because the butterfly was able to disperse to new “quasi-habitats”. Unfortunately, we must to counteract the massive pressure of anthropogenic development to provide enough corridors and areas for wildlife to disperse to allow them adapting to the changing conditions. This is presumably not new to any of you, but I think it shows again how important it is to consider not only one species or one habitat in conservation management, but also allow space for the dynamics in nature.



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Issues and efforts in protecting Bornean rainforest: insights from a holiday

Visiting the rainforest in Borneo had always been very high on my wish-list since I was young. When I was little we learned about the beauty, the high biodiversity and the importance of rainforest in providing ecosystem services. However, we were also aware of the huge deforestation rates threatening the forests, and I remember wearing a Greenpeace sweater promoting the protection of the rainforest.

Now about 20 years later, I finally got to visit the Bornean rainforest during a holiday in Indonesia. And indeed, the forest was magnificent — well besides the leeches that seemed to attack at every possible occasion. The number of different plants, insects, and birds was amazing and being able to observe wild orangutans was an incredible experience.

However, besides the beautiful forests, we also witnessed the destruction of the forest. Large oil-palm plantations surround the forests, and many primary forest blocks are under concession of logging companies and their persistence is not guaranteed. In addition, coal mining has taken off on the island and open-mine pits are scattered across the island with huge coal-carrying vessels cruising the rivers. Deforestation rates on Borneo are shocking: the island lost over 50% of its forest cover between 1950 and 2012 and deforestation still continues.


This makes me wonder what happened in all those years between a small me wearing my “protect the rainforest” sweater and the current situation with such a high forest loss. Why is still so little of Borneo’s forest under official protection by law and turned into national parks? When we would ask the locals, they often answered that the government is simply not interested. They are not interested in protecting the forest and for example develop eco-tourism. There is too much money involved in mining, oil palm plantations and logging, that eco-tourism just cannot compete with the other activities. This is quite a depressing perspective; nevertheless, good things are happening as well, and we came across two very nice projects that inspire people to protect their forests.

The first project, Wehea Forest (really a must-see if you plan a visit to Borneo!), is a community initiated project to protect the forest on their traditional lands led by the tribal leader of the community. Deforestation of their land caused poverty, loss of agricultural land, increase in severity and frequency of floods, and social tension. The fear of losing their culture and their forest made them take faith into their own hands and they declared 38000 ha of Wehea Forest as protected land. This project highlights that a good understanding by the local community of the importance of natural resources and their motivation to protect them is important to successful conservation. Wehea Forest is one of the few community-led conservation projects in Indonesia, and I hope it will inspire other communities as well. Nevertheless, even though the government now supports the initiative, legally the land is still not fully recognized as a protected area and the Wehea Dayak are working hard to get there. They could use all the support possible to keep this project running, and if you are interested for more information you can go to the website of Integrated Conservation, who cooperate with the Wehea people to achieve the long-term survival of Wehea Forest:


The second project focused on environmental education as a tool to raise awareness for conservation issues. In general, the efforts to increase the knowledge of local people on environmental issues still seem sparse throughout Borneo. One encouraging initiative is the KWPLH (which translates to Environmental Education and Recreation facility) that aims to increase the awareness on forest conservation in East Kalimantan through the use of sun bears as a flagship species. The center is located just outside the largest city of Indonesian Borneo, Balikpapan. On-site, there is a very informative and attractively designed exhibition on Bornean forests and sun bears. A naturalistically constructed sun bear enclosure harbors the highlight of the center, six sun bears that were confiscated from people who illegally kept them as pets. Inhabitants from the modern city of Balikpapan that usually have little contact with the surrounding nature can thus readily encounter and learn about wildlife, hopefully taking some pride and a feeling of ownership for local biodiversity. Activities for children and other visitors help to communicate conservation in a playful manner. Off-site, the project plans to advocate conservation through programs for schools and community groups. If you would like to learn more about this project check their website:




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