Scenario planning in Ethiopia

By Joern Fischer

Looking at our publication list, one would think not much is coming from our work in Ethiopia. But there will be! It’s a sad fact of scientific life that others only get to find out about your work three years after you’ve done it. In this post, I would like to summarise experiences from six days of workshops on scenario planning in southwestern Ethiopia.

Preamble: This work involved many people! It was led primarily by Ine Dorresteijn, with important contributions by Jan Hanspach, Tolera Senbeto, Feyera Senbeta, Jannik Schultner, Birhanu Bekele and Dadi Feyisa.

About two years ago, we individually met with 30 different groups of stakeholders, from the local to the zonal government level. With each group, we uncovered possible social-ecological changes and their uncertainties, and with each group, we developed causal loop diagrams of the local dynamics – particularly around food security and biodiversity conservation. Participants ranged from local farmers (many of whom never had the chance to attend school) to policy experts at the zonal level.

We took the information and synthesized it into four plausible draft scenarios. This is a step that is a bit different from what many people do in scenario planning: many draw up the scenarios directly with stakeholders. We preferred to get a greater range of input (30 individual workshops), then tidy up systems dynamics into a coherent causal loop diagram ourselves; and work with changes and uncertainties we had heard about repeatedly in the initial workshops.

Our draft scenarios were now presented back to the initial stakeholders in six separate workshops, which combined different stakeholders at three governance levels. We asked participants whether the scenarios were plausible, or if not, how could we make them plausible? We also asked them about opportunities and challenges in the scenarios, and how they might be overcome.

Not least due to fantastic organization of the logistics by our Ethiopian colleagues, we had six very constructive workshops. We included a feedback round in the workshops at the end, and aside from minor misgivings by a small number of participants, we received very nice feedback. What I was most excited about is that people really “got it” – from policy level to local community, we could see how discussions between stakeholders in breakout groups revolved around what is good, and what is bad, and why. We had “extracted” local understandings, and given them back in a format that encouraged (and hopefully empowered) people to think about their future; and take steps to work towards desired outcomes.

Our next steps will be to write up this scenario work, both as a scientific paper, and as a small booklet in local languages. We’ll also prepare some materials that are meaningful to local farmers. And then … in some months, we’ll be back in Ethiopia to distribute the final scenarios and discuss these with a wide range of stakeholders. We hope this work can stimulate fresh thinking about a sustainable future for southwestern Ethiopia. This trip certainly gives me hope that our scientific work isn’t just an ivory-tower, self-indulgent waste of everyone’s time!


A landscape approach to sustainability

By Joern Fischer

A few days ago, I was part of an online panel discussion organised by the Global Landscapes Forum.  We discussed questions about what a landscape approach is, and how it might be implemented — and we touched on many interesting topics and identified challenges for the future. The webinar was recorded and is available on youtube; or you can watch it directly here.

New paper: Coffee management and the conservation of forest bird diversity in southwestern Ethiopia

By Patricia Rodrigues


I am Patrícia, one of Joern’s PhD students working on his ERC-project that aims to identify social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity. Very briefly, my background is in ecology and conservation biology and I’ve worked on topics such as the biogeography of Angolan mammals, the effects of cashew expansion on biodiversity in Guinea-Bissau, or on land use changes in a landscape undergoing farmland abandonment in Portugal.

On the way to Guido Bere forest at sunrise

Within this ERC-project I am working on the empirical case study that takes place in the rural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia. In my research, I am assessing the effects of coffee production and forest fragmentation on biodiversity, more specifically on birds and mammals. Also, and taking advantage of our awesome inter and transdisciplinary research group, I am looking at a global driver of change in our planet – population growth. I am doing this using a lens from the social sciences, and trying to understand which factors influence women’s fertility decisions and what promotes or hinders the use of family planning methods in the region.

But let’s move on to the main purpose of this post, which is to share with you the findings of a new paper we’ve published where we’ve looked into the effects of coffee management and landscape context on forest bird diversity in southwestern Ethiopia.

In the landscapes of our study area, coffee is mostly grown under the shade of native trees, and management varies in intensity but it is mostly done using traditional practices (such as the clearing of the understory and thinning and pruning of the canopy). In order to understand if the variation in coffee management had an effect on the bird community we sampled birds (between Nov 2015 and Feb 2016) in a total of 66 forest points that differed in their degree of coffee management and accessibility. Some of the points were located on the forest interior, in nearly undisturbed and very hard to access forest, while other points were located in relatively intensively managed coffee forest.

Overall, we found a diverse community of forest birds (76 species, 6 endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea) and we found no effect of coffee management and landscape context on total species richness and total abundance of birds. However, the richness of forest and dietary specialists increased with higher forest naturalness (a local effect), and with increasing distance from the edge and amount of forest cover (a landscape effect). Wrapping up, our results indicate that conservation measures need to consider both local and landscape scales, and that, on the one hand traditional shade coffee management practices can maintain a diverse suite of forest birds, on the other, the conservation of forest specialists hinges on the maintenance and protection of large undisturbed areas of natural forest.

NEW PAPER: From synergies to trade-offs in food security and biodiversity conservation


Some time ago, we had invited to participate in a survey on food security and biodiversity conservation on this blog. After some months of data analysis, write-up, rejections and revisions, we now we can announce that the main findings from this survey have been finally published. The paper went online just a few days ago on the journal website and will be published the November issue of Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. 

And here are the key findings shortly summarized:

(1) When comparing between landscapes we did not find a clear trade-off between food security and biodiversity.

(2) Synergies in food security and biodiversity were related to situations with equitable land access and high social and human capital. Food security was also high when market access was good and financial capital high, but that was linked to poor biodiversity outcomes.

(3) For the future, most experts expected improvements in food security, but losses of biodiversity in their landscapes.

We received responses for landscapes from a wide range of countries. The map shows the origin of the 110 cases that we used for analysis.


You also can directly download a pdf of the full paper and a pdf of the merged appendices here. Enjoy reading!

Finally, a big thanks to all experts that contributed to the survey!

Livestream, Wed 9 AM Stockholm time: Food security & biodiversity conservation

By Joern Fischer

Tomorrow morning at 9 AM, we’ll be live streaming a session from Resilience 2017. The live stream will be on youtube, namely here. After the event, the session should still be there as a video. We hope we’ll get the technology to cooperate with us!

Reconciling food security and biodiversity conservation in farming landscapes

C1/C2 (250), 09:00 – 10:30, Chair/s: Jan Hanspach, Joern Fischer

Providing food security and safeguarding biodiversity are two of the most prominent challenges facing humanity in the 21st century and it unclear how they possibly could be reconciled in the future. As the topic is complex and the discussion around it is often biased by disciplinary backgrounds, we propose a session where we bring together researchers from different disciplines and with different perspectives in order to transcend conceptual barriers. The presenters will be asked to address specifically how to transcend these barriers in order to reconcile food security and biodiversity conservation in farming landscapes.

Speakers and Abstracts

Rewiring food systems to enhance human health and biosphere stewardship
Line Gordon, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm, Sweden

Integrating biodiversity in agriculture
Teja Tscharntke, Agroecology, Göttingen University, Göttingen, Germany, Göttingen, Germany

Perspectives on biodiversity in Ethiopian heterogeneous agricultural landscapes
Kristoffer Hylander, Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Science, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

Indirect contributions of forests to dietary diversity in Southern Ethiopia
Roseline Remans 1, 4, Frédéric Baudron 2, Jean-Yves Duriaux 2, Terry Sunderland 3, 1 Bioversity International; Ghent University; Wageningen University & Research, Koekelberg, Belgium, 2 International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Harare, Zimbabwe, 3 Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia, 4 Bioversity International, Heverlee, Belgium

M. Jahi Chappell, Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University, Coventry, United Kingdom, Washington State University, Pullman, United States


Our research at Resilience 2017

By Joern Fischer

Next week much of our research group will be attending “Resilience 2017” in Stockholm, a major international conference on social-ecological systems. We’ll be live-streaming a session on food security and biodiversity conservation (stay tuned here for details, and check our twitter account!), and several researchers from our group will be presenting interim findings.

If you’re interested in attending any of the talks by our group, here is an overview, including links to the Abstracts.

Monday 21 August 2017

Session on Governance and social-ecological fit; Multi-level governance and biosphere stewardship; Room 26 (50); 14:00 – 14:40
This will include: Harmonizing food security and biodiversity governance: A multi-level governance analysis with the case study in Ethiopia, Tolera Senbeto Jiren, Ine Dorresteijn, Arvid Bergsten, Neil Collier, Julia Leventon, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Transformative agency Part I, Social-ecological transformations for sustainability, C1/C2 (250); 14:00 – 15:30
This will include: Inside-out sustainability: The role of inner transformation for system change. Rebecca Freeth, Christopher Ives, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Ecosystem Services Mapping, Tradeoffs and Synergies: Approaches and methods for understanding social-ecological system dynamics; Room 35/36 (72); 16:00 – 16:40
This will include: From trade-offs to synergies in food security and biodiversity conservation. Jan Hanspach, David Abson, Neil Collier, Ine Dorresteijn, Jannik Schultner, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Ecosystem services and stewardship: Multi-level governance and biosphere stewardship; C3 (180); 16:00 – 16:40
This will include: Local peoples’ woody plant species use, access and conservation in rural landscapes: a case study from southwest Ethiopia. Girma Shumi Dugo, Jannik Schultner, Jan Hanspach, Kristoffer Hylander, Feyera Senbeta, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Session on Governance and social-ecological fit: Multi-level governance and biosphere stewardship; Room 24/25 (70); 11:00 – 11:40
This will include: A multilevel network model of institutional fit between an actor network and multiple cross-sector issues. Arvid Bergsten, Tolera Senbeto, Julia Leventon, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Pathways and leverage points for transformative change: Social-ecological transformations for sustainability; C4 (125); 11:50 – 12:30
This will include: Leverage points for sustainability transformation in human–nature connections. Maraja Riechers, Agnes Balazsi, Tibor Hartel, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Resilience and Wellbeing: Cross-cutting perspectives on resilience; Room 33 (30); 15:30 – 16:10
This will include: Environmental degradation erodes household capital assets and undermines resilience and food security. Aisa Manlosa, Ine Dorresteijn, Jannik Schultner, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Wednesday 23 August

Contributed session on Reconciling food security and biodiversity conservation in farming landscapes; C1/C2 (250); 09:00 – 10:30; Chair/s: Jan Hanspach, Joern Fischer.
Speakers will include Teja Tscharntke, Roseline Remans, Jahi Chappell, Kristoffer Hylander and Line Gordon. This session will be live streamed. Stay tuned on this blog and on our twitter account for details! Session summary and Abstracts can be found here.

Additional talks by colleagues from Leuphana University

MONDAY: In the session Drivers and outcomes of altered landscapes; Connectivity and cross-scale dynamics in the Anthropocene; Room 27 (60); 14:00 – 14:40, you will hear:
Exploring sustainable biophysical human-nature connectedness at regional scales. Christian Dorninger, Henrik von Wehrden, David J. Abson.

MONDAY: In the session Food, Agriculture and Resilience: Cross-cutting perspectives on resilience; Room 24/25 (70); 14:50 – 15:30, you will hear:
Is food security and sovereignty influenced by informal labor sharing among smallholders? Arvid Bergsten.

MONDAY: In the session Communities and resilience practices: Cross-cutting perspectives on resilience; C1/C2 (250); 16:00 – 17:30, you will hear:
Effects of the “back to the land” movement for rural sustainability a case study from Spain. Elisa Oteros-Rozas, Álvaro Fuentes, Berta Martín-López, Claudia Bieling, Daniel López, Federica Ravera, Francisco Martin-Azcárate, Irene Iniesta-Arandia.

WEDNESDAY: In the session Integrating gender and feminist research into global environmental change: Theory, Methods, and Practice; Contributed session – Approaches and methods for understanding social-ecological system dynamics; Room 21 (30); 11:00 – 12:30, you will hear:
The diversity of gendered adaptation strategies to climate change of Indian farmers: a bottom-up feminist intersectional approach. Federica Ravera, Berta Martín-López, Unai Pascual, Adam Drucker

Telling a different story about the world

By Joern Fischer

I’m on my way to Berlin, to the FONA Forum 2017. The Forum is organized by Germany’s Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF), and brings together policy makers, scientists and business representatives. A central question is what to make of, and do with, the UN’s 2030 Agenda and its associated Sustainable Development Goals.

As always when attending such a forum – and even more so when given the opportunity to speak – the question arises how to make a useful contribution. This same question that I ask myself in preparation for this forum, a farmer recently asked me in a public talk; and a class of students asked me after I told them about my research on food security and biodiversity: how is any of this going to make a difference?

It’s the million dollar question of sustainability science, and indeed, the million dollar question for anyone working to make the world a better place. How do we actually do this?

For the time being, the answer I most commonly give is that I believe we need to tell a different story about the world. The dominant story we’re hearing, and that keeps being reinforced in public fora, is overly simplistic, and misses a whole bunch of important issues that ultimately, we need to face head on.

At the FONA forum, I’ll talk about land as a scarce resource, which is related to Sustainable Development Goal 15 (“Life on Land”), but potentially clashes with other goals, such as Goal 2 (“Zero Hunger”). And like in much of the rest of sustainability science, the dominant story on land is simple, often too simple. It’s a story that tells you that you can have your cake, and eat it too. It’s a story of meeting endless demand, including for the foods that make us unhealthy, because supposedly we “have to”. It’s a story of sustainable intensification, of green growth, of trickle down effects that will eventually reach the poor. It’s a story that does not rock the boat, that is palatable to status quo thinking, and to living within existing paradigms. It’s a story of shallow leverage points, of not challenging let alone shaking up the dominant paradigms that we have built our world around.

It’s this dominant story that I’ll seek to challenge, because frankly – if people with the privilege and freedom to study the world in whichever way they want to don’t challenge this story, who will? Building on our work critiquing sustainable intensification, reviewing social-ecological systems thinking, and most recently seeking synergies between food security and biodiversity conservation, I will try to tell a different story. A different story is less comfortable, but optimistic at the same time. This different story is one that speaks of the possibility of having enough for all, of including justice within and between generations, of beginning to recognize complexity in the form of drivers, dominant actors, and feedbacks.

I’m excited to take this story to a sizeable forum and take part in discussions of how to deal with the Sustainable Development Goals. Working within the boundaries of what current policies can do is all very well – but to me, a timely contribution will be to rock the boat a bit more than that – to tell a different story and thus hopefully contribute to ultimately shifting entire discourses, away from the very mindsets that have got our planet into trouble in the first place.

New concept in sustainability science: Reverse transdisciplinarity


(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.