Exploring food security and biodiversity in Ethiopia’s Southwest

By Joern Fischer

We’re currently in the starting phase of a new five-year project on how to harmonise food security and biodiversity. Among other things, this project will have a case study in the Southwest of Ethiopia. After a very early “pre-scoping visit” in May (of which I shared some impressions on this blog), we’ve now completed a “real” scoping visit. We visited a number woredas (the second lowest level of government administration) in the Jimma zone of Oromia, walked many kilometres through fascinating landscapes, and informally spoke with many dozens of local inhabitants about biodiversity, food security, and a range of issues related to these.

before the rain ethiopia 040

We took many impressions from this trip, but I just want to touch on a couple of points that I found particularly interesting.

First, the trip provided a good opportunity to reflect on what “food security” means. Ethiopia as a whole is highly food-insecure by international standards. However, within Ethiopia, the Southwest is considered to be among the more food secure locations. I was very curious to hear from local people about food insecurity – what does it mean to them? How serious or otherwise is the issue of food insecurity in this quite productive part of the country? The outcome cannot be rated as “scientific research”, because we only had informal conversations, and did not follow a strict research protocol. However, our preliminary scoping suggests that food insecurity affects at least every second household, even in this part of the country. The level of food security is relatively mild, compared to some other locations – but quite a few individuals reported reducing the size of their meals during certain months of the year, or skipping some meals because there was insufficient food.

Second, conversations with officials and also some other researchers left me feeling that much of the existing research on livelihoods and food security in this part of the world is highly production-oriented. Typical goals may be, for example, to improve crop production through improved varieties, increase coffee and honey yields, or market products more effectively internationally. All of these are sensible goals in a food insecure environment, provided they are implemented in a way that actually benefits local people. However, I was left wondering what was being done (if anything?) about the other evident problem in this area: population growth. Many families we met had four or more children. I strikes me that unless this problem is addressed with the same level of urgency as that of increasing agricultural productivity, the growth in people may still outpace the growth in agricultural productivity.

our campsite ethiopia 155

Third, it was fascinating – if somewhat disheartening – to see how much local people are negatively affected by some aspects of biodiversity. The biggest problem is posed by baboons who regularly raid crops, especially near the forest edge. But a range of other forest animals also can cause problems, including monkeys, pigs, hyeanas, and less often leopards, and even lions. Of course, biodiversity (and the forest more generally) also provides many benefits (e.g. space to grow coffee, honey production), but those benefits come hand in hand with heavy costs.

Our new project will add a systems perspective to this part of the world. A lot of very good research has already taken place in this area, but trying to bring things together in a social-ecological context appears to be a relatively new endeavour in this part of the world. Hopefully this means our work can contribute new insights that are not only of academic, but also practical value.



5 thoughts on “Exploring food security and biodiversity in Ethiopia’s Southwest

  1. Hello Joern, Good to know you are back. Reading your trip report really brings into perspective the task ahead of natural resource professionals on how to incorporate biodiversity concerns into the production landscape.

    I am sure the situation as you described is just like what we find in other areas in West Africa where cash crops like cocoa and coffee are produced. Poverty is high, population density high, low productivity and unsustainable removal of natural resources. Another issue which may be present (but you did not mention) is the pressure on land.

    I am sure this project will be appropriate because it will be able to bring into perspective an array of issues and possible causes that will tackle the complex nature of food security, biodiversity and establish the human-ecosystem interactions that could be improved to enhance the ability of these landscapes to sustain the human populations there and beyond.

    Congrats Joern for a successful scope

    • Hi Vincent, I agree with you that pressure on land is also an important issue — driven by population growth primarily. Thanks for your feedback and encouragement!

  2. Dear Jörn,
    These are very interesting points you are pointing out, My personal (although somewhat brief) view on Ethiopia matches this quite well, especially concerning a more holistic approach for the government of food security and rural livelihoods. I have experienced During the recent years, sustainable land use management has tremendously improved and is now applied throughout different regions, a development which is supported by a centralized agricultural development approach. Production diversification, the recognition of costs and opportunities of different ecosystem service utilization within the social-ecological system and a widened set of implemented policy sets could help to change this situation. Thus, I am looking forward to hear more about your research project.
    Best wishes,

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