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!

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.

Book recommendation: Resilience, Development and Global Change

By Joern Fischer

I would like to warmly recommend Katrina Brown’s new book entitled “Resilience, development and global change”. I found it a thoughtful, authoritative book that links and transcends several deeply entrenched ideas and discourses. As such, I think it is an excellent input (or even entry point) for people working on social-ecological systems – especially, but not only in the Global South.

The book articulates different, partly conflicting understandings of resilience, both in science and policy arenas. This overview of existing perspectives is useful, simply because resilience is used in so many different ways, by so many different people, that it’s helpful to get an overview of who actually means what. A key point here is that in much of development policy, resilience is employed to argue for status quo approaches to development. Perhaps needless to say, that’s a long way from the paradigm shift some scientists might envisage ought to come with focusing on resilience.

But to my mind, the book got most interesting at the point where it speaks of “experiential resilience”. Here, different case studies from around the world are used to highlight how people experience their own resilience (or lack thereof) in relation to surprises or shocks. Resilience dimensions touched on include winners and losers within and between households, gendered responses, different narratives of change, cultural and political dynamics, and place attachment – to name just a few.

In her conclusion, Katrina Brown argues for a re-visioning of resilience in a development context. Such a re-visioning should include three aspects of resilience. First, resistance denotes the ability to absorb shocks, but in a social context also taking an active stance against threatening outside forces. Second, rootedness denotes the deeply place-based nature of resilience, especially in a social context, but also with respect to human-environment interactions. And third, resourcefulness relates to the capacities and capabilities that people have to absorb and adapt to change.

In summary, this book bridges gaps between disciplines, between theory and practice, and between different discourses on resilience. It thus makes a theoretical contribution — but one that promises to make resilience have greater practical value.

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

By Girma Shumi and colleagues

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

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

Some further details are available in the presentation below.

And then … there was a state of emergency

By Joern Fischer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topics on the rise in conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Research on any given topic tends to come and go. Searching the scopus database, I had a bit of a look at some terms I am interested in. Some of these are gaining in popularity, and some are on their way out. I’ve summarised these trends in the graphs below. Keep in mind that “constant” interest probably means a tripling in the number of mentions since 2000, simply because the number of journal articles has increased a lot. I found the patterns interesting, and so thought I’d share them here.

My overall interpretation is that ecosystem services and social-ecological systems are starting to reach saturation point. In contrast, sustainable intensification and food sovereignty are shooting up. Landscape ecology and habitat fragmentation used to attract more attention than they do now.

Not earth-shattering, but kind of interesting…

 

Post-peak terms:

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Not so obvious terms (in terms of trend):

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And “hot topics” still on the rise, or recently starting to gain popularity:

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Paper recommendation: integrated landscape approaches for the future

I would like to recommend the following paper:

Reed J,  Van Vianen J,  Deakin EL,  Barlow J,  Sunderland T. 2016. Integrated landscape approaches to managing social and environmental issues in the tropics: learning from the past to guide the futureGlob Chang Biol. 2016 Mar 17, DOI: 10.3410/f.726225411.793517151

Focusing on the tropics, this paper makes a strong case for further efforts on ‘landscape approaches’ to biodiversity conservation. Landscape approaches are defined as approaches that seek, at the same time, to tackle biodiversity conservation, food security, poverty alleviation and climate change. The paper urges researchers, policy makers and practitioners alike to continue their efforts on focusing on landscapes as units for the integration of multiple interests — with the goal of maximizing synergies, while minimizing and being aware of inevitable trade-offs.

Through its holistic, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary focus, this paper is a welcome contrast to the dominant discourse in leading journals, which tends to be technocratic in nature {1}.

References

1.
The intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation: a review, Glamann J, Hanspach J, Abson DJ, Collier N, Fischer J. Reg Environ Change. 2015 Oct 06; 

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

By Joern Fischer

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

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

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

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

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

Turning hurt into impact (?)

By Joern Fischer

“I can’t afford to buy pencils for my daughter, who needs them for school.” – This was the response by a woman in our study area in the SW of Ethiopia when asked about her biggest challenges. The SW is one of the most food-secure parts of Ethiopia, and yet, by international standards, many people in this part of the country live in severe poverty, and are afraid of food insecurity in most years.

For me, engaging with issues of poverty first-hand stirs up a potent mix of strong emotions, including empathy, hurt, anger, impotence, and a sense of shame. It hurts to see people who deserve a good life have fundamentally worse access to things that I take for granted – material safety, schools, doctors. It makes me angry that the world is full of poverty, and yet, in the rich nations we still fiddle around the edges, and by and large, are happy to exploit the poverty of others to make our lives yet more comfortable. I feel a sense of impotence by not knowing what to do about it, and a sense of shame that I will be publishing research on these issues, yet I cannot help very well in tangible terms.

How can a researcher navigate such feelings? This question is work-in-progress for me, in the sense that I’m far better at offering a theory for this than living it in practice. My current understanding is that all of these feelings are worth experiencing. But being caught in them achieves nothing, and so they should be noted, but then left to settle. Caught up in strong emotions, we don’t function well as researchers, and both our science and potential to have real-world impact will suffer.

Ultimately, then, when the strong feelings have settled, they can turn into motivation: Motivation to question one’s research, frame problems in ways that are relevant to the “subjects” being studied, and motivation to generate impact. Impact, in this context, is likely to be diffuse. As researchers, we generate an understanding of complex challenges – we can’t single-handedly implement solutions, especially not in messy situations that don’t lend themselves to ideal-typical transdisciplinary research. Yet, even when it’s difficult, we can think about how to best engage a variety of different stakeholders so that we can be of use not only to the international scientific community but also to the stakeholders in the system under investigation.

I wrote about poverty in the above, but the same is true for other normative research endeavours. If I care about conservation, it hurts to see landscapes cleared of forest. If I care about climate change, it hurts to see policy failures. I argue that engaging with these feelings, and reflecting on them, is important to channel our energy wisely – to prioritise where to work, what to work on, and how to work on it.

PS: Why did I write this post? Because I figured I’m probably not the only person struggling with these issues; and because it’s the kind of thing that is not being talked about in (most) scientific papers. Yet, the context of science is just as important in shaping our science as the intellectual questions we are so much more used to debating.