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.
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.