New concept in sustainability science: Reverse transdisciplinarity

BY JAN HANSPACH

(Health Warning: this is to be read with your sense of humour switched on.) As you can see from Aisa’s very nice last post on this blog, we are currently in the second year of field work for our project on food security and biodiversity conservation in southwestern Ethiopia. So far, we have done hundreds of interviews, dozens of focus group discussions and workshops on a wide range of topics through which we involve stakeholders in the research process. This involvement of stakeholders in sustainability science is usually referred to as transdisciplinarity and it is meant to enrich the research process, to co-create knowledge, to increase relevance and finally to facilitate joint problem solving.

As opposed to this concept, this blog post introduces the concept of reverse transdisciplinarity, which is completely new to sustainability science. Reverse transdisciplinarity means the active involvement of researchers in real world processes, as for example in farming activities (see Fig. 1). This involvement truly empowers local stakeholders and I am pretty confident that it promises to become a key method in sustainability science in the very near future.

I am looking forward for many examples of how to implement it posted in the comments section below.

Fig. 1: Girma, one of our PhD students, demonstrates the concept of reverse transdisciplinarity in SW Ethiopia. While just a few minutes earlier he was trying to find interviewees for a survey, he spontaneously switched his role and started to actively improve food security in our study region. His ploughing saved important calories for local farmers and also helped to build trust among the local people. (Unfortunately, it didn’t help to find participants for the survey and we had to go somewhere else afterwards. Maybe it was because he didn’t plow in a straight line.)

Recognizing and learning the rhythms of local life

A reflection from the field by Aisa Manlosa

I’m nearing the end of my stay here in the southwestern part of Ethiopia for the second field work of my PhD. Lovely highlands. Rich culture. Great coffee. During this field work, one of the important lessons I have been learning is the value of recognizing and learning the rhythm of local life. By rhythm of local life, I simply mean the way things are done by local residents, in the pace they are done. Here I reflect about how this idea had influenced the way I thought and moved in the field and the way I engaged with local residents. This may speak more to researchers in the social sciences but perhaps, the increase of multidisciplinary projects and collaborations, makes this more broadly relevant.

As a background, I’m doing my PhD focusing on livelihood strategies of farming households under Joern’s SESyP project. Methodologically, I consider the mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches particularly suited for building understanding of the dynamics and nuances of local livelihoods and its relationship to the broader social-ecological system. Last year, I conducted the first field work for three months to characterize livelihood strategies and explore how these link with capital assets and food security at the household level. The method for data collection was mainly quantitative survey, supplemented by a small number of semi-structured interviews. Building on that, my second field work now investigates gender norms and power relations which mediate individuals’ access to capital assets and how differentiated access influences well-being outcomes. I am presently applying an open-ended, qualitative approach using focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews. My reason for choosing the qualitative approach is its capability to capture local voices, build rich narratives and engage with complexities from the perspective of the local residents. This shift I’ve described from a mainly quantitative approach in the first half of my PhD to a qualitative approach at this stage involved a change in the level of structure and boundedness in the design of the study. It has also required a different set of skills. Inevitably, the change in approach made me ask myself about the ways that I can effectively implement a qualitative study. This precipitated the thought about rhythm.

The rhythm of local life – the beat or cadence if you like, is part of the character of the place and its people. It expresses itself in many ways and we could name a few. In the hour of the morning when people get up and start their day. When the first cup of coffee is served (unthinkable to miss). The interval between ordering breakfast at the mana nyata (eating place) and when that order is served. What most women do at noon time – prepare lunch for children returning from school. What men do in the fields at this time of the year – plow the soil as the first rains of the arfasa season fall. The small markets that happen every afternoon called golit. The larger markets that happen weekly called gaba. The pingpong of greetings people serve to and fro upon meeting, before they begin their substantive conversations. And perhaps more relevant to me, is the time of day the focus group participants can be depended on to arrive. The rhythm is everywhere, because ways of doing and paces of doing permeate daily living. Even in the slow walking of the cows across the street, stopping our car and making us wait.

The rhythm is perceivable because it has a regularity over certain times of a day, over the days of a week, and over the seasons of a year. But it wasn’t so much the regularity that made me notice and think about rhythm, but the existence of my own rhythm.

There are some things one can wish to proceed faster in the course of a field work – the drives on potholed roads, the waiting for public officials, the waiting for focus group participants and others. I began to be aware of the stark difference between my rhythm and the rhythm of the local life when I caught myself wishing for some things to proceed faster. I am an outsider and the “field” where I study is their home. I am trying to understand people’s livelihoods and ways of living; and they are, simply living their lives. My agenda for the day is to research, but it is not theirs. My rhythm and theirs are dissimilar. But what if I could suspend mine and take on theirs? Will that enable me to enter with a bit more depth into the fabric of local life and learn more about the lived realities of the communities where I am undertaking the study? The questions I am asking immediately bring to mind the idea of positionalities (Chacko 2004) between researcher and researched. I find it an important idea to engage with because awareness of positionalities – of myself as outsider and them as insider, of the distinctiveness of my agenda and theirs, of my rhythm and theirs, can be the starting point for moving forward responsibly.

Being aware of the rhythm of the local life has a number of advantages. Certainly not the least, is how it eases the stress that may arise from logistic glitches. No, it may not change the fact that some participants of focus group discussions would not arrive on time, or that it would be very hard to conduct interviews when there is a wedding in the vicinity and people are celebrating. But yes, it helps one develop patience with things not working as planned. And patience finds its root in the understanding that one has entered a different reality. And this reality is that, my agenda for the day is mine, and they have theirs and mine must be subsumed under the truly more important matter of their lives simply unfolding as I try to follow and seek to understand. Recognizing the rhythm of local life, and respecting this as an outsider, also helps one plan activities around people’s availability – considering market days, prayer hours, work times and others.

The awareness of my position as outsider-researcher led to the early realization that some of the questions I prepared for the group discussions and interviews may be insufficient. Rather, these could function as starters for meandering conversations, made more substantive by follow up questions that are actually my responses to their response. And then, a more coherent picture of gender norms and power relations may begin to appear. The whole process had involved a great deal of willingness on my part to cull out from the list of FGD questions, retain a few key ones, and provide space for conversations to take a shape of their own. This is of course, not new, and is a well-known way of working in qualitative research. But I found that process to be more easily facilitated by my awareness of my limitations as outsider. As outsider, I may be unaware of a different logic running through the rhythm of local life – a logic that underpins why local residents do the things they do at the pace the things are done. I may be unaware of underlying meanings and reasons behind some of their ways of responding to questions. As an outsider who is aware of a different rhythm and a different logic, I may exert effort to discover the other logic and respond with sensitivity.

Recognizing and easing into the rhythm of local life also helped me see and understand people a little better. I see this learning of local rhythm as primarily about recognizing that some of the things I face while doing field work are the daily realities that people live day in and day out. And what to me could be a slowing down of the plan, things that we easily describe as “not working” are the constraints that people face and cope with everyday. It has meant to pause, and notice opportunities when one can come remotely come close to wearing the shoes of the local residents if only in walking up and down slopes with a heavy burden on one’s back, or walking under the glaring sun with very little water to drink. If only that. But there must be more. Perhaps this way of thinking and of experiencing makes the importance of a milling station nearby more real than just a good idea. The whole manner of practicing empathy may or may not change the solutions eventually arrived at, nor is it strictly necessary for good science. But for researchers genuinely wishing to arrive at a depth of understanding about the lives of other people, households and communities, it is known that the process is often as important as the outputs.

The whole experience of staying in the field can contribute to a better understanding of places and its people. And it is in the manner of perception and insight that social science stands with a lot to contribute to efforts for charting the future we want and tackling such wicked problems as poverty, food security, equality, climate change, biodiversity loss, among many others.

New paper: A fresh perspective on food and biodiversity

By Joern Fischer

I’m writing to share new paper of ours that just appeared online in Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Following from our earlier work, this is our most concrete attempt yet to show what a social-ecological approach to the food-biodiversity nexus might look like. The PDF is available here.

SES food and biodiversity

In a nutshell, we argue to conceptualise the food-biodiversity nexus via four archetypical outcomes. Hypothetical outcomes regarding food security and biodiversity conservation could be win-win, win-lose, lose-win, or lose-lose. We then argue that all of these outcomes can be observed in the real world, and that – importantly – they are not entirely idiosyncratic. Rather, each has typical system characteristics associated with it. These characteristics are (i) features of the system (e.g. the kinds of capital stocks and governance arrangements in the system); (ii) drivers of the system (external influences that push the system in a certain direction); and (iii) feedbacks that maintain the system (the things that keep it going).

In the paper, we look at the four archetypes with respect to these three sets of system characteristics. Drawing on examples, we then generate hypotheses for what typical lose-lose systems look like; or what typical win-lose systems look like, and so on. This new framework provides a dynamic way of thinking about food security and biodiversity conservation. That is, it provides first indications of what needs to be done to change a situation for the better – for example, to turn a lose-lose system into a better state, it would be important to activate drivers of a more desired state; and overcome the feedbacks that currently maintain the system in its lose-lose dynamics. Once the undesired feedbacks are broken, and new drivers are activated, the system is “ready to go” in a more desirable direction.

A key challenge for the future will be to more carefully consider what all this means in a teleconnected world. Near the end, we cite a paper by Crona et al. on social-ecological syndromes – constellations of globally connected factors influencing a particular system – and indeed, this idea could be fruitfully explored further in a context of food and biodiversity conservation.

Finally, a small anecdote: When writing this paper, we had gone to great lengths to not again “bash” the popular framework on land sparing versus land sharing. Our intention, very simply, was to provide a genuine alternative, instead of continuously complaining that the dominant framing is not good enough. During peer review, this approach backfired. One reviewer felt we had unduly “ignored” existing science, thereby forcing us to put back explicit discussion on the sparing/sharing framework. This is how Box 1 came about – our attempt to succinctly summarise why a new framework is needed. Perhaps it strengthens the paper… but a big part of me would have preferred to simply provide an alternative, without yet again having to go over the various arguments why we think it’s time to move on from the currently dominant framing.

When and how to (not) make a difference

By Joern Fischer

Studying the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation in a place like Ethiopia brings up a whole lot of challenging moral and emotional dimensions (some of which were previously discussed here). When we speak to local people, they ask us almost every day about the solutions we will bring. How can we deal with this?

First, I think it’s worthwhile to understand this sentiment a bit more, of wanting us to bring solutions. By definition, it is only people who themselves feel powerless who wait for outsiders to improve things. Both knowledge systems, and systems of taking action, have for a long time been very top down in Ethiopia. The sense of awe for “those who know better” permeates throughout the country – government experts are eager to absorb western knowledge on modern farming technologies; model farmers are eager to absorb knowledge presented by government development agents; and poor people look at all these knowledgeable people and seem to feel that they don’t know enough – nor have enough – to get out of their misery. Action, similarly, is expected to come from “the government” if you’re a community member, or perhaps through international investors if you’re the government.

So that’s the first point – in a culture where everyone looks to someone “more knowledgeable” to find solutions for their respective dilemma, it is natural that we would be asked for solutions. Knowledge in this context seems to be seen as a thing you have: when you have it, all is good, and indeed, obtaining it sometimes seem to be seen as all that is needed to bring about change. (None of this is to discount the possible importance of outside knowledge or action; I’m simply stating that it is valued extremely highly here, sometimes perhaps at the expense of local knowledge or action.)

Second then, having understood a bit more what the role of knowledge is, we can perhaps understand our role a little bit better. As sustainability researchers, we can engage with real-world problems in two main ways.

On the one hand, we can build an understanding of the complexity of the challenges in the system. That is what we came to do in this study. To maximize its real-world usefulness, we can generate information, and we can try to widely share this information. We can also invite stakeholders to re-conceptualise some of the problems, or we can bring problems to the fore that they had perhaps not considered very much. This approach – providing knowledge, and sharing it widely – is essentially what we did in our previous work in Romania. The aim here is not to provide ready made solutions, but to provide new ways of thinking about problems at hand, perhaps in a more holistic fashion, or from a different perspective.

On the other hand, we could try to solve an actual problem at hand. This kind of problem solving is often what people have in mind when they think of sustainability science; they think that being of use implies there being tangible, immediate benefits. Perhaps a community might install solar panels, or be introduced to a new farming technique. This type of sustainability science is certainly valuable, but it’s not always as powerful as it might first seem: ultimately, many of the changes that are required for sustainable development are deeper than anything that could be addressed quickly; plus, of course, you need certain formal governance structures in place to effectively work with communities, which simply aren’t there in many parts of the world.

From all this, I usually take with me two thoughts of how I hope our work can make a difference. On the ground, we do our best to share our findings with authorities at different levels, and in different formats, much like we had done in Romania. But the bigger contribution, I think, happens at a more abstract level – through publishing work with a certain “flavour” on the topic of biodiversity conservation and food security, we help to shape a global discourse, hopefully nudging it away from highly technocratic towards more holistic. This will take a lot of nudging… but ultimately, shedding light on spots not adequately lit is probably all that science ever does. The question is largely one of which spots we choose to shine a light on.

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.