Sharing research findings in Ethiopia (continued)

By Joern Fischer

In my last post, I shared some impressions of our efforts to communicate our research findings to policy makers and other actors at relatively “high” levels of governance. Today, I’ll say a few words on our efforts to reach people on the ground — farmers.

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We tried to visit the six kebeles (municipalities) where we had previously worked. We succeeded in four of the six… unseasonably muddy weather meant we were unable to get into the other two places. Instead, we sent out materials via government officers, so at least those would eventually reach local communities.

For those places where we did manage to get in, we had organised meetings with local farmers, at which they would be served coffee and lunch, and discuss with us our research findings, and what these might mean for the future of their communities. We outlined findings on biodiversity, ecosystem services, ecosystem disservices, livelihoods strategies and food security and governance — and we showed them four different scenarios of what the future might look like. (The scenarios will receive more attention in a future blog post — stay tuned!)

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(… for those with a sense of humour, check out the T-shirt of one of the farmers…)

The reactions were mixed, depending on the community we visited. Close to a major town, people engaged in a very focused way, and many immediately grasped the usefulness of our findings to their lives. In a small village, to which we had to walk for 1.5 hours because of poor road conditions, things went a bit differently – initially, farmers challenged quite directly how this would be of any use. One farmer said – “You showed us which bird lives where, but we know all these birds! They are new to you, but not to us!” – Reactions such as this, when you’re standing there trying to do something useful, are scary, and wonderful, I find. They challenge us scientists, in a beautifully direct, brutal way. And then … it’s up to us to see how we navigate this. What can we do, and what can’t we do? What can science do for such communities and what can it not do?

Following the above reaction and a few more similar comments, we explained our position on this once more (it’s not something you do just once!). And in short, it is that we’re here to help make explicit what many people already know, plus find out a few new things; we’re here to link the social and the ecological, which is rarely done; we take serious our responsibility of sharing our findings with decision makers; and especially through the scenario work, we can help people link ideas in ways they never had before.

Following this explanation, the mood shifted, with a local leader expressing enthusiasm that this gave them an opportunity to think about their future. Break-out groups followed, and discussions as to what government should do – and what local communities themselves could do to get to the future they aspire to.

Research in these kinds of settings is not easy, and generating meaningful “impact” is not obvious. But personally, I’d rather leave a sense of empowerment, good information, and more “systemic” thinking behind as a legacy than some kind of “quick fix” that ignores the complexity of actual social-ecological inter-relations. A cop-out? … I guess each scientist needs to judge this for her- or himself.

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3 thoughts on “Sharing research findings in Ethiopia (continued)

  1. I’m following the study that you are conducting in the Western part of Ethiopia – around Jimma. Thank you for sharing such interesting findings. I understand going deep into the rural poor is very difficult particularly with research findings related to your topic. You took a very interesting quote from one of the participants. Great to devise your own strategy to communicate your findings as a scientist. I really appreciate your commitment to conduct the study in the area characterized by complex challenges of sustainability. Yet, I am critical of the word ‘farmers’ you have used in your findings. I don’t think the people at the grassroot level (as shown in the pictures) considered farmers. If I am not mistaken, these people are poor peasants.

    • Thank you very much for this comment! You are of course right — these are “typical” villagers, which in this part of Ethiopia means, they are materially quite poor, have relatively little land, and work this land without modern machinery. I am sorry if this means you find the word “farmers” inappropriate — I understand why you would say this! Personally, my sense is that this is partly a matter of definitions. Some people speak of “smallholder farmers”, others of “peasants”. Some people take pride in being peasants, while to others it sounds like peasants are “simple” people with little know-how. At the end of the day, it is perhaps a matter of preference which term we use — farmers or peasants. But I certainly agree with you that we are speaking of people who typically do not own a lot in terms of material resources! I hope this explanation makes sense to you.

      • Dear prof. Joern Fischer,

        Thank you so much for the reply.

        Sure, it definitely makes sense. It is the way we chose to define as you have said. By the use of that specific term I just want to imply the convergence of challenges these group of people face in countries in the Global South: poverty, small holding, substance, low social status, traditional farming (which is considered as ‘inefficient’ by some), threat from large-scale investors etc.

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