Food and biodiversity: a research update

By Joern Fischer

As many readers of this blog know, the primary focus of my research group at present is on the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation. How can these two societal goals be harmonized? A major part of this work is a detailed case study in southwestern Ethiopia. Here, I summarize a bit where things are at with this research. All materials I refer to below can be found on the project website, linked here, or if you have trouble finding something, you can email me.

book cover

The most exciting news is that we’re planning a visit to our study area in November this year to systematically communicate our findings to key stakeholder. Some years ago, my research group organized a similar “outreach tour” in Transylvania, Romania – some videos and other materials documenting that event can be found on the website for that project. Things in Ethiopia will run a bit differently, obviously, but the basic idea is the same: to use a range of different materials in order to “give back” some of our findings to stakeholders in the study area.

We’re planning activities at three levels – the kebele level (these are rural municipalities where we worked in depth), the woreda level (administrative districts, where one woreda is comprised of several kebeles), and the policy level.

At the kebele level, we have invited community members we previously interviewed or otherwise engaged with, as well as the rest of the local community to join an open information session. Here, we will report back on what we found. We will use illustrations of various sorts – drawings on a flipchart, posters, and many hundreds of postcards showing artwork of what the landscape may look like in the future, under different scenarios. The idea here is that we make ourselves available and accessible to all local people, including the least powerful groups or individuals, who usually do not get heard. We’ll see how well this works, but we expect quite a turnout in the six communities where we previously worked.

At the woreda level, we are dealing primarily with government officials who are in charge of implementing various policies developed at higher levels. These officials often have a very good idea of local challenges, but are heavily constrained by the both policy content and administrative red tape, both of which are largely beyond their control. Here, our empirical research findings will be of particular interest, as well as scenarios about the future. Which livelihood strategies are best for food security? Who suffers most from crop damage caused by wild mammals? What is biodiversity like in managed coffee forest, as opposed to more natural forest? – And importantly, what can be done to create a future that works for both biodiversity and people?

At the policy level, we’re running a two-day conference, discussing themes on biodiversity conservation, food security, ecosystem services and disservices, governance, and scenarios of the future. We expect more than 50 participants – importantly, including local government representatives, but also higher level policy makers from Addis Ababa. Our previous work showed that people rarely communicate across administrative levels, and so this will be an exciting opportunity to create conversations that do not happen very often.

Some fun facts? We’re travelling with more paper than ever before!! We’ll be carrying many hundreds of books depicting scenarios of what the future might look like – you can access this book here as a PDF, it’s in English and Aafan Oromo. We’ll also carry thousands of postcards with us, depicting the scenario pictures of what the future might look like in southwestern Ethiopia. These are primarily to be handed out to (mostly illiterate) local community members. A given postcard shows the status quo landscape, a possible future landscape, and on the back (for those who can read), includes simple guiding questions to stimulate discussions. We’ve also prepared posters to show the scenario artwork, and will be carrying hundreds of those (designed by Jan Hanspach — beautiful as ever! …I mean the artwork, but you’re allowed to find Jan beautiful, too…) And then … 26,000 pages of printed scientific papers for participants at the policy level workshop! A list of our scientific papers so far is available on our project website, with quite a few more to come over the coming months.

In total, we’ll reach a diverse set of stakeholders, hopefully in ways that empower them to approach their future proactively, with consideration for key interlinkages between social and ecological phenomena in mind. I’m excited about the upcoming trip … and hope to report more on how it went later on!

New paper: Leverage points for improving gender equality and human well-being in a smallholder farming context

By Aisa Manlosa

How can factors that create and entrench gender inequality change? Approaches range from targeting visible gender gaps, changing formal institutions, and focusing on deeply entrenched social norms. In a recently published paper, we unpack gender-related changes in southwest Ethiopia and emphasize the importance of interactions between domains of changes (Fig. 1). We highlight the utility of a leverage points perspective for systems-oriented gender research.

leverage points and gender

Conceptual framework of leverage points for improving gender equality and household well-being

In the agricultural development sector where gender has been found to influence access and control of resources, participation in livelihood activities, and benefits from livelihoods, researchers who apply the gender transformative approach have called for greater focus on the factors that underlie gender inequality including formal and informal structures such as gender norms, and power relations. Gender equality is a highly pertinent issue in southwest Ethiopia. In many areas, social practices continue to be patriarchal. However, policy reforms by the government aimed at empowering women are facilitating changes. To analyze the changes that have been occurring, we applied the concept of leverage points, which are places to intervene to change a system. Dave Abson and other colleagues at Leuphana identified four realms of leverage namely paramaters, feedbacks, design, and intent. The parallel between Abson et al.’s four realms of leverage and common areas of focus in gender research including visible gender gaps (reflecting parameters), formal and informal institutions (reflecting design), and attitudes (reflecting intent) is striking. At the onset, this parallel suggested that applying leverage points as an analytical lens, can generate important sights that could contribute to ongoing conversations around facilitating and supporting gender transformative change.

Our analysis drew on qualitative data from key informant interviews, focus group discussions, and semi-structured interviews with women and men. We examined gender-related changes in southwest Ethiopia, factors driving the changes, associated household well-being outcomes, and importantly, the interplay of different types of leverage points leading to the range of changes (some clear, many tentative, nevertheless in existence). The findings section in the linked article details the range of changes identified by local residents. For example, in terms of visible gaps, the majority reported an improvement in women’s participation in public activities such as trainings and meetings. In terms of community norms which we considered as an informal institution, decision-making practices at the household level had begun to change. In terms of attitudes, we found evidence that there is an emergent positive perception concerning women’s capacities. This is significant in a context where women were traditionally viewed as lacking capacities men have. The findings section contains quotes that best convey local residents’ views. But perhaps the most important take-away message from the study stems from the overwhelming importance attributed by local residents to the government’s actions to promote gender equality. This suggested that while community norms and attitudes are deeply entrenched and therefore important areas to focus on, formal institutions in the form of policies, priorities, and programs by the government play a similarly important role. In the context of southwest Ethiopia, the changes in formal institutions related to gender are beginning to open and expand the horizon for what is possible and legitimate in communities. Therefore the interplay between different leverage points (e. g. formal and informal institutions) cannot be discounted and should be considered in facilitating processes for gender transformative change.

 

NEW PAPER: Navigating protected areas networks for improving diffusion of conservation practices

Ecosystem Services Laboratory of Sapientia University

Circa one year ago we had a phone talk with Laurentiu Rozylowicz where he presented his idea to approach the Natura 2000 network through network analysis; within such an approach the protected areas could be the nodes and the shared species are the edges (connections) between them. If we consider species as ecological information about a given biological entity, then addressing the protected area network of a country through network analysis could help in identifying those protected areas which are ecological information hubs (protected areas which are best positioned for an efficient knowledge transfer and diffusion of information within the network). If a protected area is such a hub, this could represent challenges and opportunities for the administrators of these sites as well as for the local communities (e.g. for brand, landscape labeling).

Quite fast after that talk, the manuscript was developed by analyzing 389 Sites of Community Importance (SCI…

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University leadership: why I`m not good at it

Ponderings on university leadership positions by Tibor Hartel.

Ecosystem Services Laboratory of Sapientia University

In the recent past I was proposed for leadership position in an academic institution. The proposal came from colleagues and the actual leader of that group, therefore I felt honored. Below I mention the main arguments used by colleagues to convince me to accept the invitation, and also my responses to them for why I will not accept it. I share them here with the hope that these can be helpful to someone, in whichever sense.

Argument 1.’ You have many publications therefore you know how science works.’

My reaction: Having several scientific papers is not a guarantee for good leadership (I am tall but am not a good basketball player).
Within the Romanian academic context, having a formal leadership position such as being department director or dean or similar, requires an increased administrative activity. For example if I am in an administrative type of meeting I loose…

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The Anthropocene and how suddenly, we don’t care

by Joern Fischer

A set of recent discussions inspired me to write this very simple post. I’m basically just highlighting an observation: that some trends of the Anthropocene, we try to fight, and others we accept as a given. What’s fascinating is that this can switch quite suddenly — something we wanted to fight yesterday, we accept as a given today — and it seems like the choice of things we fight versus take as given is quite “random”, or at least not grounded in anything particularly useful or intelligent.

great-acceleration

Source: Future Earth

So, first of all — let’s be clear what I mean by the Anthropocene here. To be precise, I mean the “great acceleration” aspect of the Anthropocene. As shown above, for example, this is characterised by well known exponential increases in a wide range of social, economic, and environmental phenomena.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist (nor a system scientist) to guess that probably, when a bunch of stuff increases all at the same time, something is going on. And probably, these different trends are not independent but related. Similarly, it doesn’t take a lot of analysis to then realise that to address this stuff, you probably need to deal with the WHOLE, rather than with just a few trends in isolation.

And: it seems obvious you can’t just randomly accept some of these exponential growth curves while trying to fight the others. Or at least, that seems obvious to me… and this is where the observation begins.

Some trends, many sustainability scientists routinely argue against. Examples of this are climate change and biodiversity loss. We haven’t given up yet on these ones, and we argue that we must halt climate change! We must stop biodiversity loss!

But others, we take as given. My two favourite ones are urbanisation and food production. Large numbers of sustainability scholars accept urbanisation as an unchangeable and value-neutral phenomenon; and similarly, large numbers of scholars argue that “we must double food production” because demand “will” double.

The choice of accepting these as given while desperately fighting some of the others seems quite arbitrary to me, and frankly, illogical. What if urban lifestyles are part of the package of increasing un-sustainability (e.g. because they contributed to disconnectedness from the natural world and longer food chains)? What if increasing demand for food is a symptom of un-sustainability (e.g. because it is driven by increasingly unhealthy diets related to industrial food systems)?

My suggestion is that we either fall in love with exponential growth, and then we do it for everything. Then we can argue, and some people do, that it’s all not so bad, and we will innovate our way around planetary boundaries. Or alternatively, you can sign the ecomodernist manifesto, and argue vehemently that we can have our cake and eat it, too.

Or … well, or we have to address the great acceleration as a whole, not just a couple of the hockey sticks, but all of them.

Perhaps ever increasing urbanisation is not actually what the world needs. Perhaps doubling food production is not what the world actually needs.

Perhaps we need to keep the big picture in mind more routinely — and that is, that these trends are parts of a package of unsustainable, exponential growth. When you have a system of interlinked, reinforcing feedbacks, you can’t just choose a couple of variables and address those. It’s got to be the whole package.

 

Can a transdisciplinary PhD contribute to transformative change?

Social-ecological systems Scholars

This is the fifth post in the series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’.

My name is David Lam. I am a PhD student at Leuphana University Lüneburg Germany in the research project ‘Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformations’ and currently a guest PhD researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden.

I am doing research in a transdisciplinary case study in Southern Transylvania, Romania. I aim to make my research in Transylvania useful in two ways: First, to better understand a sustainability problem in a specific context. Second, to contribute to possible solutions. We are working with a network of approximately 30 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which try to foster sustainable development in the region by, for instance, supporting small-scale farmers, conserving the cultural heritage, or protecting the unique landscape with its  high biodiversity value. With my PhD research, I want to understand how these inspiring NGOs increase their impact…

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Governing food security and biodiversity: a network analysis from Ethiopia

By Tolera Senbeto Jiren

The sustainable governance of interdependent policy goals such as food security and biodiversity conservation is often facilitated or constrained by the broader political economy of a country. This is true because institutional configurations are shaped by the underlying premises of the chosen political economy. For instance, while numerous countries currently pursue a market based neoliberal institutional arrangement, Ethiopia has adopted Democratic Developmentalism as its paradigm – a developmental state thesis with a strong state dictation both in the human and economic development of the country. While the qualitative study around this unique form of political economy is interesting, it is also important to understand how institutions are aligned or networked to address two pertinent development agendas, namely ensuring food security and biodiversity. Understanding the governance network for these two agendas is important because it lays the foundation for how different interests, policies, and strategies can be integrated.

setema

Under Joern Fischer’s ERC funded project, social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity, I am looking at the governance dimension of food security and biodiversity conservation, looking at the case study in Ethiopia. Here, we want to share the findings of our recent paper published in Land Use Policy that uncovered the governance structural pattern for the integrated governance of food security and biodiversity in a multi-level governance context. For this, using the snowball sampling technique, we identified and collected relational data from 244 stakeholders (a group of individuals and organizations), from the local to the national governance level. Through a social network analysis, we mapped the structural pattern, integration mechanisms and stakeholders’ roles in the integration of food security and biodiversity.

Of the 244 stakeholders, we found that 80% of them were governmental organizations, and 71% were simultaneously involved in the governance of both food security and biodiversity. These stakeholders maintained 1884 collaborations in total, of which approximately half were about food security alone. Concerning the structural pattern, we mapped the stakeholders pattern of interaction in both sectors (see Fig. 2 in the paper). We found that stakeholders were hierarchically structured, with no reported direct interaction spanning two levels of governance, only ever to the same or the nearest level up or down the governance hierarchy. Moreover, despite sharing geographical boundaries, no horizontal linkages were reported between stakeholders in the adjacent three districts (“woredas”). This could create structural gaps and consequently lead to an implementation deficit and institutional misfit.

Importantly, we identified two mechanisms through which stakeholders integrated food security and biodiversity goals. One the one hand, individual stakeholders – mostly at the implementation governance level – integrated the two goals through forming interactions with other partners separately for the food security and biodiversity issues. That means, individual stakeholders held both policy goals but with interaction separately either about food security or biodiversity, which we termed individual integration. On the other hand, few stakeholders – mostly administrative sector stakeholders – had integrated the two policy goals by forming interaction with other partners simultaneously about food security and biodiversity. Here, an interaction between stakeholders simultaneously carried both food security as well as biodiversity issues, which we termed collaborative integration. We argue that individual integration could help a specific stakeholder to pursue their own respective goals in a coherent fashion, while collaborative integration facilitates the system-level integration of food security and biodiversity conservation.

Interestingly, we found that stakeholders with connecting roles (measured in terms of high betweenness centrality, and liaison brokerage) were largely from administrative sectors, who held formal authority, key structural positions, and popularity. While this could help these stakeholders effectively exercise their roles, however, unless properly managed, there is a high risk of power capture by these stakeholders. In general, we concluded that sustainability could be enhanced through multiple horizontal and vertical connections. Thus, a governance network that fosters stakeholders’ multi-level ties across jurisdictions, and enhances multi-sector interaction would likely improve integration outcomes, social learning, and provide opportunities to identify integration problems.

In search of the magic bullet? Working to find leverage points for sustainability transformation

By Maraja Riechers

I am going to tell you a personal story – the story does not end in a clear moral of the story, and it won’t give you insights into the “how to be a good PostDoc”. It is more a reflection of the joy of challenges.

When I was 15/16 years old, my school ended and we all had to decide which path in life we wanted to take. It was a big celebration with fancy clothes and dinner, and it felt very significant. At the time, I forced myself to decide what I would like to do with my life. There were a few things I did know for sure: I love nature, and learning. Hence, I became one of those: Save the World! Change the system! kind-of kids. And ultimately, I decided that this will be the goal of my life. Saving the world. And as I anyway loved learning, I decided to go to high school to learn more on how I could fulfill my new found destiny.

That was about 15 years ago. And I admit I have not changed too much. The complexity of the system forced me to reconfigure my teenage pride and be more humble. I am now trying to find my small contribution to maybe set in motion a potential change in this world. But generally, the goal is still similar. And I still love learning. For a while now, I have been a PostDoc in a project called “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation”. As suggested by the title, the project aims to change “the system” by trying to find the best ways to combat the social and environmental crises we are currently in. The narrative of my research and that of my team, gives me the feeling that I am finally in the right place. And that I finally have the right tools at hand. A leverage points perspective gives me a vision of which I can be proud. It forces me to look at deeper causes for change and look above and beyond disciplinary boundaries. Further, we work in transdisciplinary projects – where achievements are not merely measured in papers, but in real-world impact. Maybe through co-production of knowledge, maybe by offering connections at the science-policy interface, maybe by giving the people a vision for a better world: Let’s find ways to change the system, shall we?

Untitled.png

And while I definitively get a high five from my 15-year-old me, I do have one issue. This work is personal. How do you maintain a proper work-life balance, when your work is your source of income, your hobby and ultimately one of the things by which you define yourself? I owe it to my 15-year-old self to use the chances I get, as well as I can. And I still love learning, so new research projects and new ideas intrigue me. The pressure to find a silver bullet solution is on… but yet, one does not simply change the system. One does not even simply understand a system. Neither can I do this on my own, nor together with my amazing colleagues (and we are 25 hardworking souls in the leverage points project). But I still want to change the system. And I do want to find leverage points that foster sustainability. In every project I am leading, in every paper, in all transdisciplinary interactions, I am looking for more meaning, for underlying causes, for actual significant change. And to be honest, this is exhausting. Because it is personal. Because I take it personal.

Being a PostDoc anyway comes with a different set of responsibilities: For example, I have Bachelor and Masters students for which I am primarily responsible. And apart from the usual task to teach them how to be a good scientist, I also want to infect them with my enthusiasm. Research is fun because it is useful! Further, PostDocs are responsible for maintaining good team spirit, integration, being a link between the professorial PIs and the PhD students, responsible for outcome, output and good process. Then a bit of teaching, proposal writing and, well… you know the drill.

This is a balancing act with tough prioritizations. The leverage points project 1) aims to change the system, 2) needs meaningful participatory processes with real-world improvements, 3) while it depends on active and responsible PostDocs, 4) while also being subject to the usual academic drill. And this makes me really, really happy. And really, really exhausted. I try to take failures not too personally (which is hard), and try to leave work at the office (which is even harder, because then I occasionally simply don’t leave the office).

There are two small conclusions to my personal story: One, if you want to change the system, try a leverage points lens. It may give you new hope and tools that we actually can change something in this world. You can use it as analytical tool, metaphorical lens and anything in between (and in alternation). And two, when your goal in life and at work become one and the same, it is immensely exhausting at times, but also immensely fulfilling. But we do not have to do this task all by ourselves.

Let’s change the system, shall we?

Making new connections for transformations: An early-career transdisciplinary research networking day

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

Pre-conference workshop – Tuesday, 5th February 2019

Conference

We are a small group of PhD and early-career researchers involved in transdisciplinary research who have come together to share reflections, insights and strategies for the challenges we experience in our research. We will be hosting an informal networking day (5 February 2019, starting at 9AM) for PhD and early-career researchers involved in transdisciplinary (TD) research as a pre-conference event associated with the Leverage Points Conference to be held at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany (6-8 February 2019).

We recognise that many young scholars are already involved in numerous other networks, and do not intend this day to be the beginning of yet another formalised, structured network. We would rather just create a generative and enjoyable space for people to build interpersonal relationships and share their TD experiences with one another in a creative and meaningful way. We further see the value of…

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