When and how to (not) make a difference

By Joern Fischer

Studying the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation in a place like Ethiopia brings up a whole lot of challenging moral and emotional dimensions (some of which were previously discussed here). When we speak to local people, they ask us almost every day about the solutions we will bring. How can we deal with this?

First, I think it’s worthwhile to understand this sentiment a bit more, of wanting us to bring solutions. By definition, it is only people who themselves feel powerless who wait for outsiders to improve things. Both knowledge systems, and systems of taking action, have for a long time been very top down in Ethiopia. The sense of awe for “those who know better” permeates throughout the country – government experts are eager to absorb western knowledge on modern farming technologies; model farmers are eager to absorb knowledge presented by government development agents; and poor people look at all these knowledgeable people and seem to feel that they don’t know enough – nor have enough – to get out of their misery. Action, similarly, is expected to come from “the government” if you’re a community member, or perhaps through international investors if you’re the government.

So that’s the first point – in a culture where everyone looks to someone “more knowledgeable” to find solutions for their respective dilemma, it is natural that we would be asked for solutions. Knowledge in this context seems to be seen as a thing you have: when you have it, all is good, and indeed, obtaining it sometimes seem to be seen as all that is needed to bring about change. (None of this is to discount the possible importance of outside knowledge or action; I’m simply stating that it is valued extremely highly here, sometimes perhaps at the expense of local knowledge or action.)

Second then, having understood a bit more what the role of knowledge is, we can perhaps understand our role a little bit better. As sustainability researchers, we can engage with real-world problems in two main ways.

On the one hand, we can build an understanding of the complexity of the challenges in the system. That is what we came to do in this study. To maximize its real-world usefulness, we can generate information, and we can try to widely share this information. We can also invite stakeholders to re-conceptualise some of the problems, or we can bring problems to the fore that they had perhaps not considered very much. This approach – providing knowledge, and sharing it widely – is essentially what we did in our previous work in Romania. The aim here is not to provide ready made solutions, but to provide new ways of thinking about problems at hand, perhaps in a more holistic fashion, or from a different perspective.

On the other hand, we could try to solve an actual problem at hand. This kind of problem solving is often what people have in mind when they think of sustainability science; they think that being of use implies there being tangible, immediate benefits. Perhaps a community might install solar panels, or be introduced to a new farming technique. This type of sustainability science is certainly valuable, but it’s not always as powerful as it might first seem: ultimately, many of the changes that are required for sustainable development are deeper than anything that could be addressed quickly; plus, of course, you need certain formal governance structures in place to effectively work with communities, which simply aren’t there in many parts of the world.

From all this, I usually take with me two thoughts of how I hope our work can make a difference. On the ground, we do our best to share our findings with authorities at different levels, and in different formats, much like we had done in Romania. But the bigger contribution, I think, happens at a more abstract level – through publishing work with a certain “flavour” on the topic of biodiversity conservation and food security, we help to shape a global discourse, hopefully nudging it away from highly technocratic towards more holistic. This will take a lot of nudging… but ultimately, shedding light on spots not adequately lit is probably all that science ever does. The question is largely one of which spots we choose to shine a light on.

Our food and biodiversity research: an update

By Joern Fischer

Things have been a little quiet on this blog, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes! With this post, I thought I’d give a short update on where things are at with our work on food security and biodiversity conservation.

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Following a big first field season in Ethiopia about one year ago, the four PhD students involved in this project have all been busily analyzing their data and have started to write up results. We can expect forthcoming papers on birds in the forest and the farmland, as well as some nice findings on the mammals living in the forests of southwestern Ethiopia. This work – on birds and mammals – will be led by Patricia Rodrigues. Girma Shumi has, in the meantime, analysed his data on woody vegetation in farmland; there are some very nice findings, which show that farmland is more than what it might seem to be at first (in review…). Girma’s work on forest biodiversity is also underway. Aisa Manlosa has investigated food security and livelihood strategies at the household level, both quantitatively and qualitatively. And finally, Tolera Senbeto has worked his way through hundreds of pages of transcripts to analyse governance structures and processes influencing food security and biodiversity conservation. All four are gathering more data over the next few weeks — on issues such as the uses of trees, demographic changes, gender, equity and power, and preferences for land use governance.

Preliminary findings of the above as well as other work (by Ine Dorresteijn and Jannik Schultner, in particular) have been presented at various conferences – the presentations are available on our project website.

The global component of our work is also moving along. We’ve made progress on a social-ecological conceptual framework to tackle food security and biodiversity conservation (e.g. here, and there’s more on this in press). A series of workshops have also been conducted in various countries around the world, including Indonesia and Burkina Faso – and these, too, have yielded interesting insights that are now being written up. And finally, our questionnaire of global experts – which some of the readers of this blog may have completed – has been analysed. The resulting paper is currently undergoing revision following a first round of peer review.

And last but not least, we have started to share our findings with stakeholders, for now, with those in southwestern Ethiopia. We have produced a series of factsheets summarizing key findings, and have put together a couple of illustrative posters. The factsheets are being shared with community members as well as with government officials. The posters have been shared with government offices and local schools.

To keep up to date with our upcoming publications, continue to read this blog; and you might also want to check out our project website. The latter is not always fully up to date, but certainly will be updated as time goes on!

Sparing, sharing, sparing, sharing …

The Food Climate Research Network just posted a new online discussion on land sparing and land sharing. This discussion, in turn, was triggered by Elena Bennett’s comment on land sparing/sharing in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

I am reproducing my own response here — please take a look at the full discussion, too, where you will find other, contrasting perspectives also. And of course, consider if you would like to submit a response on the discussion website yourself.

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When I first came across this online debate, I thought “Oh no, another discussion on land sparing – do we really need this?” And my intention was to ignore it. It’s only after several colleagues encouraged me to contribute that I changed my mind. I think there is a whole range of reasons why it is indeed time to “move on”. The framework on land sparing versus land sharing has perhaps given us some useful insights – most importantly it has put back in focus the fundamental importance of strictly protected areas for biodiversity conservation, especially for rare or range-restricted species. But as I argue below, beyond this message I think the framework has reached its potential.

So, what about protected areas? In theory, we have known the importance of protected areas for many decades. But, let’s give some credit to advocates of land sparing – perhaps the vital importance of protected areas had occasionally got lost in the 1990s, when the focus increasingly shifted to biodiversity conservation in farmland. Especially in frontier landscapes – where land clearing is rampant – the message that we must ensure there are sufficient protected areas needs to be heard. I think this is an important point that we can take from the sparing versus sharing framework.

What about beyond this message? Beyond this, I argue that the sparing versus sharing framework leads us astray for at least three reasons.

First, the land sparing framework focuses on food production, not food security. However, food production and malnourishment are weakly linked. “Meeting rising demand” (which is often mentioned hand in hand with a focus on land sparing – though not by the more reflected advocates) therefore is not a meaningful goal. Especially when global commodity crops are involved, it often feeds the wants of the wealthy (including those of us already overweight), not the needs of the poor.

Second, the land sparing framework depends on a link between intensification and protected area establishment. Such links rarely exist, although admittedly they can, and perhaps should, be actively fostered.

And third, the land sparing framework represents a simplification of reality into two dimensions – production and biodiversity. This over-simplifies real-world complexity to a point that is analytically elegant, but of doubtful practical value.

From my perspective, much would be gained by employing a social-ecological systems perspective, and by moving beyond a dichotomous framing of black versus white. We don’t need sharing or sparing. We quite evidently need both. The question is how much of which will work best in which context – and this is a question that cannot be answered by simple analytical models, but only by contextualized, interdisciplinary studies that take into account the complex social-ecological realities in different settings.

PhD position on butterflies in a social-ecological context (with Jacqueline Loos)

By Joern Fischer

A little while ago, Jacqueline Loos finished her PhD research in my lab. Among other things, she worked in agricultural intensification and butterfly conservation — both in a context of social-ecological systems thinking, or if you like, landscape sustainability science. Jacqueline has now moved on to bigger and better things, and is setting up an exciting new research project on butterfly conservation in South Africa. Like her past work, this work will have a strong foundation in ecology, but will strongly link with the social context, including socio-economic issues and questions of what is valued by local landholders.

The position will be based in Goettingen, Germany.

For this new research, Jacqueline has just advertised a PhD position. The due date is 28 February 2017. The details are described in the PDF that I provide below. (Please do not contact me about this position, but Jacqueline, whose contact details are in the PDF!)

Please help distribute this nice opportunity through your various channels! Thank you!

For details, see this advertisement (PDF): butterfly-phd-position-with-jacqueline-loos

Preliminary findings: Importance of cultural landscapes in SW Ethiopia for bird conservation

By Patricia Rodrigues and colleagues

The following is the third of a series of summaries of preliminary findings from our ERC funded research. Details are subject to change.

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Tropical landscapes are changing rapidly as a result of human activities, including widespread deforestation for large-scale agricultural expansion. Heterogeneous landscapes that encompass different levels of forest cover, small-scale farming and human settlements are therefore becoming increasingly important for biodiversity conservation. Birds play important functional roles in ecosystems. For example, birds that feed on fruit disperse seeds across the landscape and thus contribute to forest regeneration. We assessed the conservation value of heterogeneous landscapes for bird diversity in 6 kebeles in Jimma zone, southwestern Ethiopia. We sampled 150 points distributed across pastures, homegardens, farmland fields and forests. We detected a total of 129 bird species, of which 76 occurred in forest and 112 in farmlands, grazing areas and homegardens. In forest, bird community composition varied with the intensity of coffee management: plots with more intensive management typically supported fewer bird species (10 species on average in intensively managed plots; 12 in lots with low management intensity; 14 in plots without coffee management). Undisturbed forests hosted species like the Abyssinian Groundthrush, White-cheeked Tauraco and Hill Babbler. Homegardens, farmland fields and grazing areas had similar numbers of species (on average 13, 12 and 12 species), and bird community composition varied with the amount of woody vegetation surrounding the sampling plots. Common species were the Baglafecht weaver, Common Bulbul and Variable Sunbird. Our findings highlight the importance of heterogeneous landscapes for birds. Some species are farmland specialists, whereas others only occur in undisturbed forests. Coffee forests that are managed at low intensities also contribute to the conservation of forest bird diversity.

Take-home messages

  • Undisturbed forest patches are key to conserving forest birds such as the Abyssinian Groundthrush or the Hill Babbler.
  • Coffee forests managed at low intensity also contribute to bird diversity conservation.
  • Bird diversity was high within the heterogeneous farmland mosaic, including grazing areas, live fences and scattered woody vegetation.

Preliminary findings: the governance of food security and biodiversity in SW Ethiopia

By Tolera Senbeto and colleagues

The following is the second of a series of summaries of preliminary findings from our ERC funded research. Details are subject to change.

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We investigated the governance of food security and biodiversity conservation in Jimma Zone, southwestern Ethiopia. We conducted 24 focus group discussions in six kebeles belonging to three woredas (Gumay, Setema, Gera), and interviewed over 200 stakeholders from kebele to federal levels. Ensuring food security without harming biodiversity has been central in Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plans, and stakeholders reported improvements in both areas. Food security improved due to increased production, improved agricultural extension, expansion of services such as cooperatives, health and education, awareness creation in the community, and shifts towards market oriented production. Biodiversity conservation improved due to better forest protection, law enforcement and community awareness, and the recognized importance of the forest for coffee production. Further improvements may be possible by addressing the following issues:

  • We found examples of insufficient interaction both within and between sectors (e.g. between the Bureau of Agriculture and the Oromia Forest and Wildlife Enterprise; or between experts and leaders).
  • We found a near-complete lack of communication among woredas, and among kebeles.
  • There were mismatches between community interests and sectoral services (e.g. on the use of inputs, choice of land use, and centralized forest governance)
  • Development strategies did not sufficiently account for differences between kebeles and farmers
  • There were some sectoral mismatches in goals and implementation (e.g. Land Administration & Environmental Management vs. Oromia Forest & Wildlife Enterprise vs. Investment Office)

Take-home messages

  1.  Services have improved, as have outcomes related to food security and biodiversity conservation.
  2. However, coordination among stakeholders needs to be strengthened for further improvements.
  3. Development activities should account for differences between locations and different community members.

Book recommendation: Resilience, Development and Global Change

By Joern Fischer

I would like to warmly recommend Katrina Brown’s new book entitled “Resilience, development and global change”. I found it a thoughtful, authoritative book that links and transcends several deeply entrenched ideas and discourses. As such, I think it is an excellent input (or even entry point) for people working on social-ecological systems – especially, but not only in the Global South.

The book articulates different, partly conflicting understandings of resilience, both in science and policy arenas. This overview of existing perspectives is useful, simply because resilience is used in so many different ways, by so many different people, that it’s helpful to get an overview of who actually means what. A key point here is that in much of development policy, resilience is employed to argue for status quo approaches to development. Perhaps needless to say, that’s a long way from the paradigm shift some scientists might envisage ought to come with focusing on resilience.

But to my mind, the book got most interesting at the point where it speaks of “experiential resilience”. Here, different case studies from around the world are used to highlight how people experience their own resilience (or lack thereof) in relation to surprises or shocks. Resilience dimensions touched on include winners and losers within and between households, gendered responses, different narratives of change, cultural and political dynamics, and place attachment – to name just a few.

In her conclusion, Katrina Brown argues for a re-visioning of resilience in a development context. Such a re-visioning should include three aspects of resilience. First, resistance denotes the ability to absorb shocks, but in a social context also taking an active stance against threatening outside forces. Second, rootedness denotes the deeply place-based nature of resilience, especially in a social context, but also with respect to human-environment interactions. And third, resourcefulness relates to the capacities and capabilities that people have to absorb and adapt to change.

In summary, this book bridges gaps between disciplines, between theory and practice, and between different discourses on resilience. It thus makes a theoretical contribution — but one that promises to make resilience have greater practical value.

New paper: Many pathways to sustainability, not conflict but co-learning between transition narratives

There is an increasing focus in sustainability science on transitions and transformative change and an increasing number of proposed pathways for transitioning towards sustainability. In a new paper by Chris Luederitz and colleagues we discuss four archetypical transitions narratives (the green economy; low-carbon transformation; Ecotopian solutions and the transitions movement) in terms of the kinds of interventions these different approaches engender and the ‘depth’ and nature of systemic change they seek achieve.

In addition to summarizing critiques of these four approaches to transformative change, we draw on Donella meadows’ ‘leverage points’ concept (see also here) in order to characterize the different narratives in terms of their potential to enable systemic change.  The different transitions narratives seek to act on different system characteristics ranging from system parameters (taxes, incentives, rules) and system dynamics through to challenging the fundamental design, rules, values and goals of the system. We therefore argue that rather than representing competing visions for societal change, there is considerable scope for co-learning between these different approaches. By understand where in a system a given transitions approach does or does not seek to intervene we believe it is possible to combine facets of these approaches to create a more holistic transitions pathways that act on multiple leverage points for systemic change.

Luederitz, C., Abson, D.J., Audet, R. and Lang, D.J. (2016) Many pathways toward sustainability: not conflict but co-learning between transition narratives, Sustainability Science. doi: 10.1007/s11625-016-0414-0

 

Preliminary findings: Woody plant diversity in cultural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia

By Girma Shumi and colleagues

The following is the first of a series of upcoming summaries of preliminary findings from our ERC funded research. Details are subject to change.

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Maintaining biodiversity is a global challenge. Some scientists have argued for strictly protected forest areas, while others have suggested that farmland also can have conservation value. To assess the conservation value of farmland and forest for woody species diversity in southwestern Ethiopia, we investigated six kebeles in Jimma Zone. We identified woody plant species in 78 randomly selected 20 m x 20 m sample plots in forest and homegardens; and in 72 randomly selected 1 ha sites in arable land and pastures. We found 96 and 122 plant species in forest and farmland, respectively. In forest, woody plant composition was affected by coffee management practices, current and historical distance to farmland, and the effort required by local people to reach a given site (so-called “cost distance”). Mean species richness ranged from 13 at the forest edge to 20 in forest interior. In farmland, woody plant composition was influenced by the amount of conserved forest, both within the sampled site and in its surroundings. In farmland, woody plant species richness did not differ between land uses (15 in pastures, 16 in teff, 18 in maize, 19 in other crops). Our findings confirm that the cultural landscape benefits not only food production but also biodiversity conservation. Hence, considering the entire landscape mosaic – and not only the forests themselves – should be an important priority in future conservation initiatives.

Some further details are available in the presentation below.