New article: Indigenous and local knowledge in sustainability transformations research: a literature review

By David Lam

Our new study investigated the role of indigenous and local knowledge in sustainability transformations research. Sustainability transformations entail fundamental alterations of how people interact with nature.

In sustainability science, indigenous and local knowledge has been acknowledged to make vital contributions, for instance, for biodiversity conservation and environmental resource management. Furthermore, global sustainability research initiatives, such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) specifically include indigenous and local knowledge into their assessments because of its in-depth local, and place-based character.

Our comprehensive study reviewed 81 peer-reviewed articles on transformation, transition, and change that include indigenous and local knowledge.

Our results show that this body of literature often applied indigenous and local knowledge to confirm and complement scientific knowledge in contexts of environmental, climate, social-ecological, and species change. This research can be clustered according to the environments in which researchers as well as indigenous peoples and local communities observe change: Arctic, terrestrial, coastal, as well as grass and rangelands environments.

Most important, we also conclude that research on sustainability transformations neglects to understand transformations from the perspective of indigenous peoples and local communities.

Indigenous and local understandings of transformations can be vital keys to reach a more sustainable society. In sustainability transformations research, we have very scientific, positivistic, and Western understandings of how we can make our society more sustainable. We focus a lot on new cleaner technologies, carbon reduction, and renewable energies. But recent studies highlight that it is our connection and values to nature that need to change. Indigenous peoples and local communities have very different connections to nature and can therefore complement our scientific understanding of what we can do to foster transformations towards sustainability.

Finally, we propose future research endeavors that could yield a plural understanding of transformations and hence, provide an enriched picture of how we could foster inclusive transformations in times of pressing sustainability challenges. Collaborating with indigenous peoples and local communities for transformations has the potential to substantially enrich and question scientific approaches to transformations by providing, for instance, alternative and complementary goals to sustainability, such as Buen Vivir or Ubuntu. Sustainability transformation research needs to avoid the risk of neglecting nonscientific knowledge systems and the risk of perpetuating the supremacy of Western scientific knowledge systems as we endeavor to foster transformations toward just, equitable, and sustainable futures.

Link to our new article:
Lam, D. P. M., E. Hinz, D. J. Lang, M. Tengö, H. von Wehrden, and B. Martín-López. 2020. Indigenous and local knowledge in sustainability transformations research: a literature review. Ecology and Society 25(1):art3.


Alternative discourses around the governance of food security: A case study from Ethiopia

A summary of our new paper in Global Food Security, available here.

By Tolera Senbeto Jiren

Many existing studies on food security focus on either global scale discourses or on local level practices, or pay little attention to other sectors that are closely linked with food security, such as biodiversity conservation. For instance, questions related to how the global discourses play out locally, how local approaches could be scaled-up to national and global level discourses, and how food security approaches influence the environment remain largely unaddressed. Beyond the normative contribution, addressing these questions helps to avoid incompatibility in problem framing and solutions to food security at different governance levels, to identify pathways towards a sustainable outcome, and to harmonize the goals of food security and environmental management.

Screen Shot 2019-11-27 at 09.44.35

Fig A: Scoreboard. The statements at the top (+) represents the most important statement for the stakeholder, with a value of +4. The statement at the bottom (e.g., 9 in the above picture) represents the least important statement for the stakeholder and assumes the value of -4.

In our recently published paper, we addressed these questions, that is, we uncovered how existing global food security discourses play out at the national and sub-national level, and how different food security approaches might influence biodiversity conservation in an empirical case study in Ethiopia. Because the concept of food security is intricately interdependent with biodiversity, we first defined food security— slightly broadening the definition provided by the World Food Summit in 1996—as universal access to sufficient, safe, and culturally acceptable food, without negative effects on biodiversity.

For this study, we applied the Q-methodology by following five key steps:

1) Framing the concourse— we first identified global food security discourses from various sources, and our search produced four competing global food security discourses that relate to Green revolution, Agricultural Commercialization and efficiency optimization, Food sovereignty, and Resilience.

2) Generating Q-set—we prepared eight distinctive statements (see Table 1 in the paper) around each of the four discourses, which were later ranked by the stakeholders.

3) Selection of stakeholders, P-set— we purposively selected 50 stakeholders with diverse perspectives regarding food security, from multiple policy sectors and governance levels (see the supplementary material of the paper).

4) Q-sorting— we translated the 32 statements into Afaan Oromo, individually laminated the Q-set (statements), and stakeholders ranked all statements on a previously prepared scoreboard (see Fig. A above) according to their perceived importance (see Fig. B below). The scoreboard represented a quasi-normal distribution with ranking from +4 (most important) to -4 (least important).

5) Analysis and interpretation— multivariate analysis through principal component analysis (PCA) followed by the varimax rotation in the “qmethod” package in R software produced distinct factors, that is, distinct food security approaches. Content analysis was applied through the help of NVivo software to analyze the qualitative data resulting from stakeholder interviews.

Screen Shot 2019-11-27 at 09.44.00

Fig B. Pictures that depict district level stakeholders ranking the statements on the scoreboard. The left picture was taken in one of the offices in Gera Woreda and the picture on the right side was taken in one of the offices in Setema woreda.

We found four distinctive food security approaches in southwestern Ethiopia, namely:

1) Smallholder commercialization, a technological-economic discourse that prioritizes smallholder economic growth through intensive production of commercial crops, and which was supported by food security sector stakeholders at all levels of governance.

2) Agroecology and resilience, a social-ecological discourse that argues for the application of agroecological methods for improving food production and social-ecological resilience as a pathway to food security, supported by green niche actors.

3) Local economy and equity, a social-economic discourse that places a strong emphasis on local development and equity as a means to achieve food security, supported by stakeholders at all levels.

4) Market liberalization, a neoliberal macroeconomic discourse that primarily sees smallholders’ integration into the global market as a means of achieving food security, supported by many different types of stakeholders, except at the regional level.

The main findings include:

  1. Global food security discourses unfold into multiple and partly overlapping approaches at local levels, such that local approaches involved a mixture of properties of several of the global discourses.
  2. Some of the emerging global food security discourses, for instance, the Food sovereignty discourse were not a priority for stakeholders in southwestern Ethiopia, possibly because policy influencing stakeholders widely supported a belief that ‘food precedes human rights and democracy.’
  3. Smallholder centered development pathways were the common denominator of all approaches, i.e., private investment or Foreign Direct Investment were generally viewed as not important for attaining better food security.
  4. All approaches called for the government to not overly interfere within agricultural market.
  5. Agricultural intensification, commercialization, and profit were widely considered important, while only green niche actors supported the agroecology and resilience approach.
  6. In all approaches except the agroecology and resilience approach, biodiversity was either considered a secondary priority or only important if directly linked to food security.

Key insights and recommendations

  • Given the complexity inherent to the problem of food security and given the multiplicity of stakeholders involved, the existing plurality of approaches needs to be appropriately acknowledged.
  • The focus on intensive production, commodification, and income as a pathway to food security has been widely accepted—and also will continue to dominate the institutions around food security in Africa, mainly due to support from national and international philanthropic organizations. However, to ensure equity, social-ecological resilience and sustainability, it appears important to further strengthen the institutional base of the agroecology and resilience approach.
  • Acknowledging the multi-layered interdependence between food security and biodiversity, keeping an appropriate balance between ecological and social resilience is essential for a sustainable outcome.
  • Harmonizing contradictions between alternative approaches is essential, and this could be achieved through systematically integrating aspects from all approaches that are compatible with local conditions.

Join Leuphana University for a postdoc … or more

By Joern Fischer and Berta Martín-Lopez

We’re writing this post to highlight some of the options for people who already have their PhDs to join us at Leuphana University. We’d particularly like to encourage expressions of interest with direct relevance to our existing research priorities in the area of social-ecological systems (including but not limited to these). Especially for people from outside Germany there are some really good options to join us for a postdoc or “more” … we’ll outline four possibilities below. (Follow the links to check the specific rules!)

  1. A fellowship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This option is open to people with a PhD at all stages of their scientific career who live outside Germany; or who have only arrived in Germany very recently. For people within the first four years of the PhD, you can apply for postdoc positions of up to 2 years; if it’s been longer, you can still apply for fellowships up to 18 months (and these can even be divided into multiple stays). In all cases, there is a comfortable living stipend as well as some funds to do actual research.
  2. A Georg Forster fellowship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This is very similar in terms of the conditions to Option 1 outlined above, but specifically targeting applicants from a list of less developed countries.
  3. A Marie-Curie Fellowship. This is a competitive programme by the EU that provides funding for a 2-year postdoc.
  4. A Sofja Kovalevskaja Award by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This is a very competitive programme, and it remains to be seen when the next call comes out for it. But … if and when there is a new call, it’s a great programme that can truly transform your research career. In short, it’s five years of funding to set up your own research group; it’s open to people within six years of the PhD.

There are, of course, other options as well — for example Jan Hanspach leads a BMBF junior research group, and Jacqueline Loos is a Bosch Junior Professor — but the above are some of the most accessible ones for people from outside Germany who finished their PhDs in the not too distant past. So, if you have a strong track record relative to your career stage, and you’re interested in pursuing your social-ecological research amongst a bunch of nice colleagues, we’d be happy to hear from you, and discuss your ideas and a possible application.

Creating pockets of sanity: an ecosystem analogy

By Joern Fischer

In my previous post, I argued that academia had gone increasingly insane. Here, I will draw an analogy to degraded ecosystems – in fact, I’ll draw an analogy with scattered trees in agricultural landscapes. Such trees have been termed “the living dead”, in the sense that they are the remnants of forest patches but in many frontier landscapes they are not regenerating. Are pockets of sanity in the academic system the living dead?

By pockets of sanity, I mean safe spaces in which reflectivity, focus and shared commitment to a greater good is valued; essentially I mean healthy academic environments. Just like with scattered trees, such healthy academic environments persist in only a few places, while the majority of the academic landscape has been converted to intensive, intellectual mass production.

So in this sense, scattered trees are the living dead, and pockets of sanity in the academic system could similarly be thought of as the living dead – they are not able to reproduce in an evolutionary environment that selects against their traits.

But … there’s also an upside to this. Many years ago, Adrian Manning pointed out that scattered trees could also be a “lifeline to the future”. That is, in a world beyond the initial wave of ecological destruction for the sake of industrial agriculture, scattered trees hold the genetic potential to re-build some of what was destroyed.

And in just the same way, the pockets of academic sanity that still persist become disproportionately more important as the world around them gets more and more “intensified”. There’s one big difference though: trees have no agency; humans do. And thus, we have a choice to keep some pockets of sanity, to keep pushing back against insanity, and to thus maintain pockets of focused and meaningful academic work, in environments that care about the people involved.

Of course, this analogy can be extended infinitely to the world at large… especially for those of us expecting some kind of societal collapse, it’s important to maintain some kind of hope. Perhaps not the hope that everything will be alright: but instead, the hope that we can maintain pockets through the current storm of insanity that can serve as a lifeline to the future … eventually.


By Joern Fischer

Many years ago, I published “Academia’s obsession with quantity”. Similar arguments about unhelpful trends have been made in many places, including recently in a nice piece by Paasche and Österblom. My sense is increasingly that many university systems are deeply broken already. Arguably, we have a new wave of “crowding out” unfolding: Just like many visionary and talented people don’t get into politics (because what you need there is not just talent and vision but a thick skin and a big ego), I’d argue that we are seeing many of the truly talented people dropping out of academia (for much the same reasons).

In the past, I argued there were changes needed from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Re-reading that analysis from years ago, I still think it mostly holds. I reproduce a key part of the 2012 paper here:


So, are we moving in the right direction, or if not, why not?

Unfortunately, I believe there are very few academic institutions in the world that are moving in the right direction. The societal pull towards insanity is strong, and not even the most wonderful institution is immune to the forces towards “more” which so dominate our era at large. Moreover, there are truly dangerous undercurrents that suck academia ever more deeply into the depths of insanity. One of the most dangerous undercurrents is of an evolutionary nature: those who “make it” to positions of decision-making power in academia are increasingly not those who value the kinds of things I highlighted in the roadmap above.

To stylise the current predicament, one might argue we have four types of academics: (i) those who can actually keep up and do an amazing job; (ii) those who think they can keep up and think they do an amazing job (but they do not); (iii) those who realise they can’t keep up but don’t know what to do; and (iv) those who simply collapsed and are functioning well below their actual capacity.

If we were to put percentages onto these groups of people, those who actually do really well in terms of the quality of what they do are very, very few. Those who think they are doing great things, in turn, are more, and it’s this group who manages to climb university ladders because they “perform” so nicely. It’s only when you speak to their students, see their actual input into papers, and so on that you realise that all is not well at all—you have to look deeply to uncover such instances because on paper the performance of many in this group looks very compelling.

It’s not uncommon then, for example, that senior professors get together, sell their science as inter- and transdisciplinary in order to get project funding; and then put in little time into either inter- or transdisciplinary collaboration, and sometimes not even into supervision (what are postdocs for, after all?). It’s not uncommon for the students involved in such projects to be deeply lost and disappointed by the process; and it’s not uncommon for the whole thing to then be sold back to the funding body as a “big success”. This story is something that repeats itself over and over at not just one university.

If I’m right, this is a self-enhancing process of maladaptive evolution: university institutions will increasingly become mediocre mass producers of scholarly “stuff”, produced on the backs of not yet over-committed PhD students and postdocs, whose products are used as highly prized chess pieces in political games among senior professors. The students and postdocs who stay and continue the climb up university ladders are not the brightest, but the toughest.

The situation raises serious questions about whether to engage or escape. With many other systems equally sick, escaping is not necessarily a feasible option. I see an urgent need for those who truly want to change things to stick with our academic institutions for a little longer; keep challenging the status quo; and bring about better ways of working from the bottom up.

Why am I writing this post? Because in an era of widespread insanity, I believe there is a need for solidarity among those who are not interested in simply keeping up with what I called earlier an “ever-faster treadmill to intellectual nowhere”. As a colleague of mine said a few days ago: just because everyone else is running increasingly fast to fall off the cliff like a lemming, that in itself is hardly a good justification to join the crowd. And hence my plea is to walk the tightrope between engaging with a sick system, while trying to uphold different norms within small pockets wherever we can …

to be continued in the next blog post ….

The impacts of social-ecological system change on human-nature connectedness: A case study from Transylvania, Romania

A new paper by Ágnes Balázsi, co-written with people from Leuphana. Our empirical work on “reconnecting” people and nature is beginning to come out, yay!

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Ágnes Balázsi

How were social and institutional shifts of the last century perceived by communities of rural areas in Transylvania and how have those changes influenced the connectedness of locals with nature and their landscapes? – These were the starting research questions in our case studies carried out in 2017 in Erdővidék and Aranyosszék. The answers were revealed to us because locals shared stories about their perceptions on landscape changes and confessions about inner connections to nature.

In our recently published paper we distinguished four major governance eras that have influenced human-nature connections:

(1) formal and informal institutional governance after the World Wars and before socialism (before 1947), (2) top-down governance during socialism (1947–1989),

(3) during sovereign state governance and transition to European Union (1990–2006), and

(4) multilevel governance since European Union accession (after 2007).


The two areas were similar at the beginning of the 20th century, but developed…

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Congratulations, Dr. Girma Shumi Dugo!

By Joern Fischer

About a week ago, our project on food security and biodiversity conservation culminated in yet another completed PhD! Girma Shumi Dugo successfully defended his thesis. Congratulations Girma!

Girma’s thesis had an emphasis on biodiversity conservation, but also included several social-ecological aspects. The overall focus of the thesis was on woody vegetation, including its conservation values but also its values to local people.

Following a synthesis chapter, Girma’s first data chapter investigated woody vegetation in forest sites. This work found that many forest sites were highly species rich, especially in undisturbed locations deep within the forest. Historical effects and edge effects appeared to influence species richness and composition. This first data paper was published in Biological Conservation.

The second data paper is also published already, namely in Diversity and Distributions. This paper looked at woody species composition and richness in farmland areas. It found there was a significant effect of landscape history — and possibly an immigration credit. That is, sites in long-established farmland locations had a higher number of pioneer and generalist species than sites in recently established farmland.

The third data chapter in the thesis is currently in revision; it examines the relationship between the diversity of woody vegetation in plots throughout the landscape with the diversity of ecosystem services generated by woody vegetation in those plots. The findings suggest that woody species diversity leads to landscape multi-functionality, and that all land use types in the study area (farmland, coffee forest, forest without coffee) are essentially multifunctional.

Finally, the last chapter contains a detailed inventory of which species are used by local people for which different purposes. Nearly 100 species of woody vegetation are used by local people for 11 different purposes — this chapter thus demonstrates that woody vegetation is vital to the lives of local people. The chapter is in the final round of minor revisions for publication in Ecosystems and People.

A big congratulations to Girma for a well-rounded thesis!

New paper – Capital asset substitution as a coping strategy: practices and implications for food security and resilience in southwestern Ethiopia

By Aisa Manlosa

Smallholder farmers in various parts of the world often have to cope with a range of livelihoods-related challenges. These challenges may be associated with a lack in the capital assets they need to implement their livelihoods, or to food shortage. How farmers cope with these challenges has an impact on their food security and resilience. We investigated farmer’s coping strategies using capital asset substitution as an analytical lens. We sought to address the following questions: (1) How do smallholder farming households cope with shortage in capital assets and shortage of food?; (2) What role does capital asset substitution play in coping strategies?; (3) How do different types of capital asset substitution influence a given household’s state of capital assets, and what are the implications for their resilience and food security? The paper which is newly published in Geoforum, is available here.


A common view of the landscape in southwest Ethiopia showing people’s homes, gardens, and livestock in a farm field. (Photo taken by Jan Hanspach)

The study was conducted in southwestern Ethiopia where our team has been doing research since 2015. The analysis was based on qualitative data from an open-ended section of a survey with over 300 respondents and from semi-structured interviews with a subset of 30 interviewees. Data from the survey provided information about the common livelihood challenges in the study area, while semi-structured interviews provided substantive narratives concerning how people coped with the challenges, and the outcomes of their coping strategies.

In sum, the study revealed that “most commonly identified challenges were related to the natural capital such as crop raiding, and land scarcity. Households coped in various ways and most of their strategies involved drawing on the capital assets they had access to in processes of capital asset substitution. Coping strategies that involved drawing on social and human capitals which were very common tended to maintain the capital asset base of households. For example, a collaborative scheme called didaro helped augment labour input needed to guard the fields from wild animals. On the other hand, those that involved a liquidation of physical and economic capitals without commensurate returns tended to erode capital asset base. The erosive effect of certain coping strategies was found to result in reduced resilience or reduced abilities to maintain livelihoods and be food secure.” The paper concluded that “policies which seek to leverage smallholder agriculture for food security need to expand their focus beyond increasing production, and better integrate the aspect of resilience. In actionable terms, institutional investments are needed to support non-erosive coping strategies and to develop alternatives for erosive coping strategies. Since non-erosive coping strategies are likely to differ across contexts, identifying what these strategies are at the local level and building on them will be key to increasing resilience and supporting food security in specific geographies. Given the pervasiveness of challenges associated with natural capital, policies for prioritizing non-erosive strategies over erosive ones will need to be complemented with a sustained effort to reduce challenges associated with natural capital.”

This study furthered showed that the concept of capital asset substitution can be applied in livelihoods analysis to unpack interlinkages between different types of capitals. The application of the concept highlights that some capital assets such as natural capital, are elemental to the construction of livelihoods, and as proponents of strong sustainability have argued, are not fully interchangeable. The distinctive importance of different types of capital assets and interlinkages between them should be incorporated in livelihoods analyses for better understanding of the dynamic preconditions underlying smallholder farming.