Our food and biodiversity research: an update

By Joern Fischer

Things have been a little quiet on this blog, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes! With this post, I thought I’d give a short update on where things are at with our work on food security and biodiversity conservation.

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Following a big first field season in Ethiopia about one year ago, the four PhD students involved in this project have all been busily analyzing their data and have started to write up results. We can expect forthcoming papers on birds in the forest and the farmland, as well as some nice findings on the mammals living in the forests of southwestern Ethiopia. This work – on birds and mammals – will be led by Patricia Rodrigues. Girma Shumi has, in the meantime, analysed his data on woody vegetation in farmland; there are some very nice findings, which show that farmland is more than what it might seem to be at first (in review…). Girma’s work on forest biodiversity is also underway. Aisa Manlosa has investigated food security and livelihood strategies at the household level, both quantitatively and qualitatively. And finally, Tolera Senbeto has worked his way through hundreds of pages of transcripts to analyse governance structures and processes influencing food security and biodiversity conservation. All four are gathering more data over the next few weeks — on issues such as the uses of trees, demographic changes, gender, equity and power, and preferences for land use governance.

Preliminary findings of the above as well as other work (by Ine Dorresteijn and Jannik Schultner, in particular) have been presented at various conferences – the presentations are available on our project website.

The global component of our work is also moving along. We’ve made progress on a social-ecological conceptual framework to tackle food security and biodiversity conservation (e.g. here, and there’s more on this in press). A series of workshops have also been conducted in various countries around the world, including Indonesia and Burkina Faso – and these, too, have yielded interesting insights that are now being written up. And finally, our questionnaire of global experts – which some of the readers of this blog may have completed – has been analysed. The resulting paper is currently undergoing revision following a first round of peer review.

And last but not least, we have started to share our findings with stakeholders, for now, with those in southwestern Ethiopia. We have produced a series of factsheets summarizing key findings, and have put together a couple of illustrative posters. The factsheets are being shared with community members as well as with government officials. The posters have been shared with government offices and local schools.

To keep up to date with our upcoming publications, continue to read this blog; and you might also want to check out our project website. The latter is not always fully up to date, but certainly will be updated as time goes on!

Sparing, sharing, sparing, sharing …

The Food Climate Research Network just posted a new online discussion on land sparing and land sharing. This discussion, in turn, was triggered by Elena Bennett’s comment on land sparing/sharing in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

I am reproducing my own response here — please take a look at the full discussion, too, where you will find other, contrasting perspectives also. And of course, consider if you would like to submit a response on the discussion website yourself.

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When I first came across this online debate, I thought “Oh no, another discussion on land sparing – do we really need this?” And my intention was to ignore it. It’s only after several colleagues encouraged me to contribute that I changed my mind. I think there is a whole range of reasons why it is indeed time to “move on”. The framework on land sparing versus land sharing has perhaps given us some useful insights – most importantly it has put back in focus the fundamental importance of strictly protected areas for biodiversity conservation, especially for rare or range-restricted species. But as I argue below, beyond this message I think the framework has reached its potential.

So, what about protected areas? In theory, we have known the importance of protected areas for many decades. But, let’s give some credit to advocates of land sparing – perhaps the vital importance of protected areas had occasionally got lost in the 1990s, when the focus increasingly shifted to biodiversity conservation in farmland. Especially in frontier landscapes – where land clearing is rampant – the message that we must ensure there are sufficient protected areas needs to be heard. I think this is an important point that we can take from the sparing versus sharing framework.

What about beyond this message? Beyond this, I argue that the sparing versus sharing framework leads us astray for at least three reasons.

First, the land sparing framework focuses on food production, not food security. However, food production and malnourishment are weakly linked. “Meeting rising demand” (which is often mentioned hand in hand with a focus on land sparing – though not by the more reflected advocates) therefore is not a meaningful goal. Especially when global commodity crops are involved, it often feeds the wants of the wealthy (including those of us already overweight), not the needs of the poor.

Second, the land sparing framework depends on a link between intensification and protected area establishment. Such links rarely exist, although admittedly they can, and perhaps should, be actively fostered.

And third, the land sparing framework represents a simplification of reality into two dimensions – production and biodiversity. This over-simplifies real-world complexity to a point that is analytically elegant, but of doubtful practical value.

From my perspective, much would be gained by employing a social-ecological systems perspective, and by moving beyond a dichotomous framing of black versus white. We don’t need sharing or sparing. We quite evidently need both. The question is how much of which will work best in which context – and this is a question that cannot be answered by simple analytical models, but only by contextualized, interdisciplinary studies that take into account the complex social-ecological realities in different settings.

Preliminary findings: Importance of cultural landscapes in SW Ethiopia for bird conservation

By Patricia Rodrigues and colleagues

The following is the third of a series of summaries of preliminary findings from our ERC funded research. Details are subject to change.

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Tropical landscapes are changing rapidly as a result of human activities, including widespread deforestation for large-scale agricultural expansion. Heterogeneous landscapes that encompass different levels of forest cover, small-scale farming and human settlements are therefore becoming increasingly important for biodiversity conservation. Birds play important functional roles in ecosystems. For example, birds that feed on fruit disperse seeds across the landscape and thus contribute to forest regeneration. We assessed the conservation value of heterogeneous landscapes for bird diversity in 6 kebeles in Jimma zone, southwestern Ethiopia. We sampled 150 points distributed across pastures, homegardens, farmland fields and forests. We detected a total of 129 bird species, of which 76 occurred in forest and 112 in farmlands, grazing areas and homegardens. In forest, bird community composition varied with the intensity of coffee management: plots with more intensive management typically supported fewer bird species (10 species on average in intensively managed plots; 12 in lots with low management intensity; 14 in plots without coffee management). Undisturbed forests hosted species like the Abyssinian Groundthrush, White-cheeked Tauraco and Hill Babbler. Homegardens, farmland fields and grazing areas had similar numbers of species (on average 13, 12 and 12 species), and bird community composition varied with the amount of woody vegetation surrounding the sampling plots. Common species were the Baglafecht weaver, Common Bulbul and Variable Sunbird. Our findings highlight the importance of heterogeneous landscapes for birds. Some species are farmland specialists, whereas others only occur in undisturbed forests. Coffee forests that are managed at low intensities also contribute to the conservation of forest bird diversity.

Take-home messages

  • Undisturbed forest patches are key to conserving forest birds such as the Abyssinian Groundthrush or the Hill Babbler.
  • Coffee forests managed at low intensity also contribute to bird diversity conservation.
  • Bird diversity was high within the heterogeneous farmland mosaic, including grazing areas, live fences and scattered woody vegetation.

Preliminary findings: the governance of food security and biodiversity in SW Ethiopia

By Tolera Senbeto and colleagues

The following is the second of a series of summaries of preliminary findings from our ERC funded research. Details are subject to change.

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We investigated the governance of food security and biodiversity conservation in Jimma Zone, southwestern Ethiopia. We conducted 24 focus group discussions in six kebeles belonging to three woredas (Gumay, Setema, Gera), and interviewed over 200 stakeholders from kebele to federal levels. Ensuring food security without harming biodiversity has been central in Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plans, and stakeholders reported improvements in both areas. Food security improved due to increased production, improved agricultural extension, expansion of services such as cooperatives, health and education, awareness creation in the community, and shifts towards market oriented production. Biodiversity conservation improved due to better forest protection, law enforcement and community awareness, and the recognized importance of the forest for coffee production. Further improvements may be possible by addressing the following issues:

  • We found examples of insufficient interaction both within and between sectors (e.g. between the Bureau of Agriculture and the Oromia Forest and Wildlife Enterprise; or between experts and leaders).
  • We found a near-complete lack of communication among woredas, and among kebeles.
  • There were mismatches between community interests and sectoral services (e.g. on the use of inputs, choice of land use, and centralized forest governance)
  • Development strategies did not sufficiently account for differences between kebeles and farmers
  • There were some sectoral mismatches in goals and implementation (e.g. Land Administration & Environmental Management vs. Oromia Forest & Wildlife Enterprise vs. Investment Office)

Take-home messages

  1.  Services have improved, as have outcomes related to food security and biodiversity conservation.
  2. However, coordination among stakeholders needs to be strengthened for further improvements.
  3. Development activities should account for differences between locations and different community members.

Preliminary findings: Woody plant diversity in cultural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia

By Girma Shumi and colleagues

The following is the first of a series of upcoming summaries of preliminary findings from our ERC funded research. Details are subject to change.

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Maintaining biodiversity is a global challenge. Some scientists have argued for strictly protected forest areas, while others have suggested that farmland also can have conservation value. To assess the conservation value of farmland and forest for woody species diversity in southwestern Ethiopia, we investigated six kebeles in Jimma Zone. We identified woody plant species in 78 randomly selected 20 m x 20 m sample plots in forest and homegardens; and in 72 randomly selected 1 ha sites in arable land and pastures. We found 96 and 122 plant species in forest and farmland, respectively. In forest, woody plant composition was affected by coffee management practices, current and historical distance to farmland, and the effort required by local people to reach a given site (so-called “cost distance”). Mean species richness ranged from 13 at the forest edge to 20 in forest interior. In farmland, woody plant composition was influenced by the amount of conserved forest, both within the sampled site and in its surroundings. In farmland, woody plant species richness did not differ between land uses (15 in pastures, 16 in teff, 18 in maize, 19 in other crops). Our findings confirm that the cultural landscape benefits not only food production but also biodiversity conservation. Hence, considering the entire landscape mosaic – and not only the forests themselves – should be an important priority in future conservation initiatives.

Some further details are available in the presentation below.

And then … there was a state of emergency

By Joern Fischer

An eventful week in Ethiopia lies behind me. Months ago, protests started in Ethiopia, initially relating to the expansion of the capital, Addis Ababa, into surrounding land. Protesters argued that farmers had been insufficiently compensated. The latest level of escalation was reached yesterday, when the government declared a state of emergency for the next six months.

Ethiopia has long been seen as one of the most stable countries in Africa. Outsiders have often commented that it might not be quite as democratic as it could be, but at least it was stable, and experienced impressive economic improvements.

The latest unrest stems, at least in part, from a sentiment in the population that “development” did not seem to be benefiting everyone equally. Especially in Oromia, more and more people started to protest, initially against further plans to expand Addis, but more recently also for the release of political prisoners, and against government responses to the demonstrations that they perceived as unjustly forceful. Over the last few months, numerous people were killed during demonstrations.

Then, last Sunday was a cultural holiday, and tragic events took place in Debre Zeit, a town a little way out of Addis Ababa. Official sources speak of a stampede killing 50 or more people; unofficial reports speak of many more dead, report the use of tear gas from a helicopter, and speak of shots fired into the crowd.

Following last weekend, protests intensified. In some places, road blocks were erected. Anger was unleashed against the government, cars were burnt, and rocks thrown at vehicles. An American postdoc died when the minibus she was on was attacked by protestors.

With these developments, we were unable to travel by car between our study area and Addis, and had to fly to get over the road blocks. One day after getting to Addis, news reached me that a state of emergency had been declared; and only hours after that, that a number of soldiers had shown up right in our study site. Two of our researchers and two Ethiopian colleagues are still there, in the midst of this. They’ll leave within a few days, and until then, have been assured their safety by local authorities (who had previously received our research findings with genuine interest).

This blog is about sustainability, and I’m not here to put forward a political argument – for those interested in the politics, it’s easy enough to research these issues on the internet and formulate an opinion.

All I want to say here is very simply that it makes me sad. Just days ago, we distributed initial research findings to local politicians and government experts – who, by and large, were very interested in what we had found. But now the country seems to be at a very real risk of slipping into a spiral of conflict. Conflict kills people, research, and many other good initiatives taken by both civilians and government representatives to improve human well-being while also protecting the environment. I hope for all the people of Ethiopia – regardless of political disposition – that the current situation will be resolved with as little pain to the people as possible.

Missing the point or a key step in the right direction?

By Joern Fischer

Recently, I watched the documentary “Dukale’s Dream”, featuring Hugh Jackman and Tim Costello from World Vision. The movie depicts nicely what life in the coffee growing parts of Ethiopia is like, and many of the little details in it reflected closely what I had seen first hand in the field. But what about the approach to development being advocated in the movie — is it a key step in the right direction, or is it simply missing the point?

On the positive side, we can note that Hugh Jackman has been engaged with the issue of development for several years. His engagement went far beyond what many of us have done: donating substantial amounts of money, visiting development projects, speaking at the UN about climate change, and starting a fair-trade coffee company. And it’s clear that the work by World Vision depicted in this particular movie did positively affect the life of a poor coffee farmer and his family. These are all good things.

On the more critical side, we might feel that this movie leaves many important points unaddressed. Jeffrey Sachs is the only academic being interviewed as part of the movie — and he paints a distinctly pro-economic-growth picture of what development ought to look like. (Perhaps this is fair enough: strong economic growth in poor countries does correlate, after all, with improvements in people’s livelihoods. Or is so much missing from this equation that is is dangerously simplistic?) Similarly, the movie somehow leaves us with the notion that if we all drank only fair-trade coffee, development problems would automatically resolve themselves.

But many key questions remain unanswered: It’s nice that development worked for the particular farmer (Dukale) presented. But what about his neighbours? While Dukale is buying more land, is everyone else really benefiting from it, too, via trickle-down effects? Is it good enough to leave aside population growth from the equation, and wait for prosperity to do its thing to reduce fertility rates? Can we leave Western consumerism (and global capitalism?) untouched and still have “sustainable development” for all?

My own conclusion on this is that this movie does a very nice job of engaging its target audience. And while it leaves many of the more complex questions unanswered, I don’t think we currently have definitive answers or simple recipes. In short: an incomplete story, to me, but one worth listening to nevertheless. If nothing else, I’d highly recommend this movie as valuable food for thought.

Update: Questionnaire on food security and biodiversity conservation

A month ago we launched our questionnaire on food security and biodiversity conservation here on this blog. We have received a lot of positive feedback and support for the questionnaire so far.  We are particularly happy that it has been completed for 143 landscapes from many parts of the world (see map). A big ‘Thank you’ to all of you who have contributed to it by filling the questionnaire or by helping us to distribute it!

 

Map of the number of responses per country that we got in the last four weeks. Ethiopia obviously stands out as we have a case study landscape there as well and we seem to be quite well connected to experts in the country.

Map of the number of responses per country that we got in the last four weeks. Ethiopia obviously stands out as we have a case study landscape there ourselves and we seem to be quite well connected to experts in the country.

For those who had planned to fill the questionnaire, but haven’t done so yet – there is still time. Also, if you have contacts in those parts of the world where our responses are a bit thin so far, please forward the questionnaire to those colleagues. The survey will be open until 31 January 2016.

Again, here are the details.

To fill the questionnaire go to the following page:
https://evasys.leuphana.de/evasys_02/online.php
and enter the password (“TAN/Losung”):
foodbiodiv

More information on the questionnaire can also be found here.

We need your help: survey on food security and biodiversity conservation

We are currently working on the development of a global theory that explains which characteristics of social-ecological systems benefit both biodiversity conservation and food security. Among other project components, we have designed a questionnaire that asks experts to share their insights on a specific landscape that they understand well. We need as many qualified people as possible to fill out this questionnaire – so please complete it and share this blog post widely within relevant networks!

What makes a landscape biologically diverse and its people food secure? We want to answer this question by collecting social-ecological characteristics of farming landscapes through this questionnaire (Photo by Neil Collier on Flores/Indonesia).

What makes a landscape biologically diverse and its people food secure? We want to answer this question by collecting social-ecological characteristics of farming landscapes through this questionnaire (Photo by Neil Collier on Flores/Indonesia).

What is covered by the questionnaire?

The questionnaire consists of four main sections. All of them require the person completing it to think of one specific focal landscape that they are familiar with. The first section asks for a short characterisation of the focal landscape and for a self-assessment of the respondent’s expertise in relation to that landscape. The second section covers the degree of food insecurity in the focal landscape. The third section asks about biodiversity values and conservation issues. The final section covers a wide range of social-ecological system characteristics of the focal landscape.

Who can complete the questionnaire?

Everybody who knows a landscape well and is familiar with issues related to food security and/or biodiversity conservation in that very same landscape can complete the questionnaire. It is not necessary to be an academic or a researcher, but it is important to have relevant local expertise (e.g. as a conservation practitioner, development agent, or NGO worker).

What do we mean by a “landscape”?

We define a landscape as an area measuring tens to thousands of square kilometres, which is characterised by repeated patterns of settlements and different land use types (e.g. fields, pastures, forests). Usually, a landscape is characterised by some unifying features. Such features could be biophysical characteristics (e.g. the landscape could be a particular mountain range or a river delta) but also socio-political characteristics (e.g. a shared history, administrative unit, or ethnic composition). The only two requirements that we have for such landscapes are (1) that the main land use should be some sort of farming (agriculture or livestock grazing); and (2) that its inhabitants should be at least potentially food insecure. We appreciate that urban areas are interesting, and that food systems in wealthy nations also require attention – but our focus is primarily on rural areas in economically less developed countries.

What can you do?

1) Fill in the questionnaire, using the link below.

2) Widely distribute the questionnaire to your friends and colleagues, and through any relevant networks you might be aware of. Feel free to re-blog this post, or share it any other way you like!

Ready to go?

The questionnaire can be found here:
https://evasys.leuphana.de/evasys_02/online.php
and the password (“TAN/Losung”) is:
foodbiodiv

The questionnaire comprises a total of 85 questions. Based on our experience, the expected time to complete it is between 25 and 35 minutes.

We really appreciate your support and are looking forward to being able to present our findings on the blog here (hopefully next year). The more people help to distribute this, and fill it out, the more useful it will be! Thank you!