Congratulations, Dr. Girma Shumi Dugo!

By Joern Fischer

About a week ago, our project on food security and biodiversity conservation culminated in yet another completed PhD! Girma Shumi Dugo successfully defended his thesis. Congratulations Girma!

Girma’s thesis had an emphasis on biodiversity conservation, but also included several social-ecological aspects. The overall focus of the thesis was on woody vegetation, including its conservation values but also its values to local people.

Following a synthesis chapter, Girma’s first data chapter investigated woody vegetation in forest sites. This work found that many forest sites were highly species rich, especially in undisturbed locations deep within the forest. Historical effects and edge effects appeared to influence species richness and composition. This first data paper was published in Biological Conservation.

The second data paper is also published already, namely in Diversity and Distributions. This paper looked at woody species composition and richness in farmland areas. It found there was a significant effect of landscape history — and possibly an immigration credit. That is, sites in long-established farmland locations had a higher number of pioneer and generalist species than sites in recently established farmland.

The third data chapter in the thesis is currently in revision; it examines the relationship between the diversity of woody vegetation in plots throughout the landscape with the diversity of ecosystem services generated by woody vegetation in those plots. The findings suggest that woody species diversity leads to landscape multi-functionality, and that all land use types in the study area (farmland, coffee forest, forest without coffee) are essentially multifunctional.

Finally, the last chapter contains a detailed inventory of which species are used by local people for which different purposes. Nearly 100 species of woody vegetation are used by local people for 11 different purposes — this chapter thus demonstrates that woody vegetation is vital to the lives of local people. The chapter is in the final round of minor revisions for publication in Ecosystems and People.

A big congratulations to Girma for a well-rounded thesis!

New paper – Capital asset substitution as a coping strategy: practices and implications for food security and resilience in southwestern Ethiopia

By Aisa Manlosa

Smallholder farmers in various parts of the world often have to cope with a range of livelihoods-related challenges. These challenges may be associated with a lack in the capital assets they need to implement their livelihoods, or to food shortage. How farmers cope with these challenges has an impact on their food security and resilience. We investigated farmer’s coping strategies using capital asset substitution as an analytical lens. We sought to address the following questions: (1) How do smallholder farming households cope with shortage in capital assets and shortage of food?; (2) What role does capital asset substitution play in coping strategies?; (3) How do different types of capital asset substitution influence a given household’s state of capital assets, and what are the implications for their resilience and food security? The paper which is newly published in Geoforum, is available here.

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A common view of the landscape in southwest Ethiopia showing people’s homes, gardens, and livestock in a farm field. (Photo taken by Jan Hanspach)

The study was conducted in southwestern Ethiopia where our team has been doing research since 2015. The analysis was based on qualitative data from an open-ended section of a survey with over 300 respondents and from semi-structured interviews with a subset of 30 interviewees. Data from the survey provided information about the common livelihood challenges in the study area, while semi-structured interviews provided substantive narratives concerning how people coped with the challenges, and the outcomes of their coping strategies.

In sum, the study revealed that “most commonly identified challenges were related to the natural capital such as crop raiding, and land scarcity. Households coped in various ways and most of their strategies involved drawing on the capital assets they had access to in processes of capital asset substitution. Coping strategies that involved drawing on social and human capitals which were very common tended to maintain the capital asset base of households. For example, a collaborative scheme called didaro helped augment labour input needed to guard the fields from wild animals. On the other hand, those that involved a liquidation of physical and economic capitals without commensurate returns tended to erode capital asset base. The erosive effect of certain coping strategies was found to result in reduced resilience or reduced abilities to maintain livelihoods and be food secure.” The paper concluded that “policies which seek to leverage smallholder agriculture for food security need to expand their focus beyond increasing production, and better integrate the aspect of resilience. In actionable terms, institutional investments are needed to support non-erosive coping strategies and to develop alternatives for erosive coping strategies. Since non-erosive coping strategies are likely to differ across contexts, identifying what these strategies are at the local level and building on them will be key to increasing resilience and supporting food security in specific geographies. Given the pervasiveness of challenges associated with natural capital, policies for prioritizing non-erosive strategies over erosive ones will need to be complemented with a sustained effort to reduce challenges associated with natural capital.”

This study furthered showed that the concept of capital asset substitution can be applied in livelihoods analysis to unpack interlinkages between different types of capitals. The application of the concept highlights that some capital assets such as natural capital, are elemental to the construction of livelihoods, and as proponents of strong sustainability have argued, are not fully interchangeable. The distinctive importance of different types of capital assets and interlinkages between them should be incorporated in livelihoods analyses for better understanding of the dynamic preconditions underlying smallholder farming.

 

Congratulations, Dr. Aisa Manlosa and Dr. Tolera Senbeto Jiren!

By Joern Fischer

Today was a big day for our research group: two of four PhD students on our project on food security and biodiversity conservation defended their PhDs! Congratulations, Aisa and Tolera – you made it!

The four PhD theses in this project cover aspects of biodiversity, ecosystem services, livelihoods and governance. Two theses are social-science oriented, and two are ecologically oriented. And this time … the social scientists were faster!

Aisa’s thesis covers local livelihood strategies, including their links to food security and access to capital assets; it covers coping strategies and household resilience; gender dynamics and institutional dynamics; and finally, the role of social norms in relation to equity.

Tolera’s thesis addresses governance issues in relation to food security and biodiversity conservation. It starts with an assessment of current discourses on food security (and biodiversity), which range from food sovereignty to produtivist framings; it assess the land sparing/sharing framework from a (local) governance perspective; includes a social network analysis of governance actors; investigates various types of process-related governance mismatches; and concludes with a chapter on scenarios of the future for the study area.

The two theses are written as papers, such that everything that is not publically accessible yet will become accessible in the foreseeable future. Some papers are published already, and you can find them in standard databases and on our project website … or email Aisa or Tolera for reprints, if you need a pdf of the papers!

A big thank you from me, at this point, to both Aisa and Tolera, for their hard work, great team spirit, and for doing a wonderful job in filling with life and substance what, once upon a time, was just a project idea! And thanks also to the examiners who contributed to getting these two theses marked: Julia Leventon, Kate Brown, Victor Galaz and Jens Newig.

Not far behind are two excellent theses on the ecology of southwestern Ethiopia … stay tuned!

New paper: woody plant conservation in SW Ethiopian forests

By Girma Shumi Dugo

Tropical forest ecosystems harbor high biodiversity, but they have suffered from human-induced disturbances. The main purpose of this post is to share with you the findings of a new paper we’ve published in Biological Conservation, where we’ve looked into the effects of these disturbances, that is, the conservation value of moist evergreen Afromontane forest sites across gradients of site-level disturbance, landscape context and forest history in southwestern Ethiopia.

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In order to examine the effect of forest degradation, we surveyed woody plants at 108 randomly selected sites and grouped them into forest specialist, pioneer, and generalist species. First, we investigated if coffee dominance, current distance from the forest edge, forest history, heat load and altitude structured the variation in species composition using constrained correspondence analysis. Second, we modelled species richness in response to the same explanatory variables. A total of 113 species of trees and shrubs, representing 40 families, were recorded from all sites. Our findings show that woody plant community composition was significantly structured by altitude, forest history, coffee dominance and current distance from forest edge. Specifically, (1) total species richness and forest specialist species richness were affected by coffee management intensity; (2) forest specialist species richness increased, while pioneer species decreased with increasing distance from the forest edge; and (3) forest specialist species richness was lower in secondary forest compared to in primary forest. These findings show that coffee management intensity, landscape context and forest history in combination influence local and landscape level biodiversity. We suggest conservation strategies that foster the maintenance of large undisturbed forest sites and that prioritize local species in managed and secondary forests. Creation of a biosphere reserve and shade coffee certification could be useful to benefit both effective conservation and people’s livelihoods.

New paper: Livelihood strategies, capital assets, and food security in rural southwest Ethiopia

By Aisa Manlosa

Livelihood strategies are vital to the ability of households and individuals to be food secure. But what types of livelihood strategies promote better food security, and how can these strategies be supported? We explored this question through empirical research in a semi-subsistent smallholder farming context in southwestern Ethiopia. In a new paper published in Food Security, we applied multivariate statistical analyses to determine types of livelihood strategies in a way that allowed these strategies to emerge from data, rather than through pre-determined categories. This enabled us to tease out fine differences between livelihood strategies in a predominantly smallholder farming setting. We then investigated capital assets that were associated with the different strategies. Using the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale as a measure of a household’s food (in)security, we also determined which livelihood strategies were associated with different levels of food security outcomes.

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Fig 1 Ordination plots of livelihood strategies with associated capital assets and food security outcomes. Underlying all four panels are the combined principal component analysis (PCA) and the cluster analysis of livelihood variables with each data point representing a household and a corresponding livelihood strategy indicated by a symbol. The x-axis always depicts the first principal component (26% explained variation) and the y-axis the second principal component (23% explained variation). 1a) Distribution of households by livelihood strategies in the ordination space of the PCA. 1b) PCA plot of livelihood activities highlighting the variables that most strongly correlated with the first two axes. Longer arrows suggest stronger correlations with PCA axes. 1c) Asset variables that are significantly correlated with the PCA axes at p<0.01 (permutation test). Longer arrows also suggest stronger correlations with PCA axes. 1d) Gradient of food security (measured by HFIAS scores) corresponding with the livelihood strategies.

Our research findings indicate that households in the area studied mainly relied on diversified smallholder farming. The combination of food crops and cash crops was the distinguishing characteristic of the livelihood strategies. Food crops such as maize, teff, sorghum, wheat, and barley were primarily used for household consumption; while cash crops such as coffee and khat were produced for the market. Other livelihood activities were undertaken, for example production of milk and honey, diverse home gardens, and wage labor. However, most of the variation in the data on livelihoods was explained by the types of crops produced. Five livelihood strategies were identified namely ‘three food crops, coffee, and khat’, ‘three food crops and khat’, ‘two food crops, coffee, and khat’, ‘two food crops and khat’, and ‘one food crop, coffee, and khat’ (Figures 1a and 1b). The ability of households to undertake these strategies was influenced by the types of capital assets that they had access to (Figure 1c). For example, households undertaking the strategy ‘three food crops, coffee, and khat’ had larger aggregate farm field size and learned new information on farming techniques from other farmers more frequently. Households undertaking the strategy ‘three food crops and khat’ more commonly had farms that were sharecropped and had more livestock. Through a generalized linear model, we established that the type of livelihood strategy households undertook in southwest Ethiopia was significantly associated with their food security. The more diverse the food crops in the strategies were, the better the households’ food security (Figure 1d). Furthermore, educational attainment and gender of the household heads were also significantly associated with better food security outcomes.

This paper contributes evidence to the important role of diversification in promoting food security amongst smallholder farming households. It calls attention to the need to understand local livelihood strategies and to build on what works for local farmers. We highlighted how farmers complemented food crops with cash crops, and how the benefits that farmers generate from these complementarities should be protected and maintained as governments formulate policies and interventions to support farming livelihoods. In the Ethiopian context where coffee is an important cash crop that is considered to play a role in ending poverty and hunger, our findings re-situate coffee as one of a range of important crops, rather than as the single commodity whose production should be intensified for higher income. The paper is open access and can be downloaded here.

Scenarios for southwestern Ethiopia

By Jan Hanspach

In the previous posts, Joern reported about our outreach tour that we went on in southwestern Ethiopia. An important aspect of that was the presentation of the scenarios that we had developed together with stakeholders from the area. While the details can be taken from our scenario book, I’d like to share a short summary and the scenario illustrations in this post.

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The scenario development was largely based on more than 30 stakeholder workshops in 2015 and 2016, through which we collected information on major social-ecological changes in the past, the present, and the future, the main drivers and main uncertainties and their relationships. From that we collated a causal-loop diagram, which describes the main dynamics of the system.

Based on that systems understanding we developed a scenario logic and draft scenario narratives, which we validated and discussed through six more workshops in 2018. Based on these, we finalized the scenario narratives, and with the help of some ink and watercolors I have put together some illustrations that should give a glimpse of what the future could look like under the different scenario conditions in a “typical” village in the area.

Additionally, I have drawn landscape cross-sections, so that one doesn’t only see how the village and the farmland might change, but also the forest.

Landscape cross-sections for the different scenarios

Based on these visualisations we designed posters, which we handed out to the key stakeholders in the region. Also, we printed 10,000 postcards with the scenarios and distributed them widely in the villages. Posters and postcards can be seen and downloaded here.

 

 

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Piles of postcards – later to be distributed among local people.

We hope that distributing all the outreach material will foster discussions and help people to think about how current decisions and dynamics can shape the future of southwestern Ethiopia.

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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Sharing research findings in Ethiopia

By Joern Fischer

My last blog post spoke of a number of planned activities to distribute our research findings to date in Ethiopia. Let’s start today … with the last of all events during that trip, a mini-conference with government and non-government stakeholders from the zonal, regional and federal levels.

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We had about 50 participants, who we engaged through numerous talks, discussions and in breakout groups. We covered topics of biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services and disservices, human livelihoods, gender and equity, governance, and future scenarios – all based on our original research over the last few years (see our project website).

Together, our findings tell a story of a rapidly changing landscape. The biggest challenges for local people relate to land scarcity (owing to population growth), crop raiding by wild animals (especially baboons; see here) and unhelpful policies around fertilizer use. We learned that especially the poor depend on the integration of conservation and production activities (this paper), and that the forest and also trees in farmland are used widely, in many different ways. We learned that gender equity had improved, but that there was still a long way to go (this paper); and we learned that there is a systematic communication gap between some stakeholders engaged in food security and biodiversity conservation (this paper).

Our small conference went well, and our findings were well received. What was particular interesting was the last session – on the future of southwestern Ethiopia. In this session, we presented multiple scenarios of what the future may bring – depicted in the bilingual book we just published, and distributed at the conference. Here, we were dealing with a mix of attendees, but most of them represented various government bodies.

And … essentially universally, they reasoned the best way forward was a scenario based on diversification of land uses and livelihoods; including strict protection of some forest patches, and modern organic practices throughout the rest of the landscape. This observation is interesting, because it is not reflected in what we heard from stakeholders on the ground … they, too, largely have this preference, but they speak of government policies that push intensification and commercialization, rather than diversification.

So it looks like to me like the people involved in various agencies are further than their policies – when asked as individual experts, their vision for a sustainable future is diversification-based. When we look at what is actually encouraged through policies, however, it’s less clear that diversification takes centre stage – rather, it seems we hear a lot of talk about various new varieties and fertilizers, and surplus production, and trade-offs between conservation and intensification.

This conversation won’t get resolved overnight, but it was interesting to share our findings, and stimulate discussion – including about what is the right direction for southwestern Ethiopia. Our attendants at least, seemed to largely agree with us – we need a systems perspective, bringing together livelihoods and conservation, and likely need diversified livelihoods and solutions.

Our presentations from the mini-conference – a total of 200-300 slides or so – are available on our project website within a few days of this blog post being published; as is the book summarizing the scenarios. Through time, other materials from this last field trip will also be there.

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.

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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.

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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.