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.

leverage points and gender

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.


Governing food security and biodiversity: a network analysis from Ethiopia

By Tolera Senbeto Jiren

The sustainable governance of interdependent policy goals such as food security and biodiversity conservation is often facilitated or constrained by the broader political economy of a country. This is true because institutional configurations are shaped by the underlying premises of the chosen political economy. For instance, while numerous countries currently pursue a market based neoliberal institutional arrangement, Ethiopia has adopted Democratic Developmentalism as its paradigm – a developmental state thesis with a strong state dictation both in the human and economic development of the country. While the qualitative study around this unique form of political economy is interesting, it is also important to understand how institutions are aligned or networked to address two pertinent development agendas, namely ensuring food security and biodiversity. Understanding the governance network for these two agendas is important because it lays the foundation for how different interests, policies, and strategies can be integrated.


Under Joern Fischer’s ERC funded project, social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity, I am looking at the governance dimension of food security and biodiversity conservation, looking at the case study in Ethiopia. Here, we want to share the findings of our recent paper published in Land Use Policy that uncovered the governance structural pattern for the integrated governance of food security and biodiversity in a multi-level governance context. For this, using the snowball sampling technique, we identified and collected relational data from 244 stakeholders (a group of individuals and organizations), from the local to the national governance level. Through a social network analysis, we mapped the structural pattern, integration mechanisms and stakeholders’ roles in the integration of food security and biodiversity.

Of the 244 stakeholders, we found that 80% of them were governmental organizations, and 71% were simultaneously involved in the governance of both food security and biodiversity. These stakeholders maintained 1884 collaborations in total, of which approximately half were about food security alone. Concerning the structural pattern, we mapped the stakeholders pattern of interaction in both sectors (see Fig. 2 in the paper). We found that stakeholders were hierarchically structured, with no reported direct interaction spanning two levels of governance, only ever to the same or the nearest level up or down the governance hierarchy. Moreover, despite sharing geographical boundaries, no horizontal linkages were reported between stakeholders in the adjacent three districts (“woredas”). This could create structural gaps and consequently lead to an implementation deficit and institutional misfit.

Importantly, we identified two mechanisms through which stakeholders integrated food security and biodiversity goals. One the one hand, individual stakeholders – mostly at the implementation governance level – integrated the two goals through forming interactions with other partners separately for the food security and biodiversity issues. That means, individual stakeholders held both policy goals but with interaction separately either about food security or biodiversity, which we termed individual integration. On the other hand, few stakeholders – mostly administrative sector stakeholders – had integrated the two policy goals by forming interaction with other partners simultaneously about food security and biodiversity. Here, an interaction between stakeholders simultaneously carried both food security as well as biodiversity issues, which we termed collaborative integration. We argue that individual integration could help a specific stakeholder to pursue their own respective goals in a coherent fashion, while collaborative integration facilitates the system-level integration of food security and biodiversity conservation.

Interestingly, we found that stakeholders with connecting roles (measured in terms of high betweenness centrality, and liaison brokerage) were largely from administrative sectors, who held formal authority, key structural positions, and popularity. While this could help these stakeholders effectively exercise their roles, however, unless properly managed, there is a high risk of power capture by these stakeholders. In general, we concluded that sustainability could be enhanced through multiple horizontal and vertical connections. Thus, a governance network that fosters stakeholders’ multi-level ties across jurisdictions, and enhances multi-sector interaction would likely improve integration outcomes, social learning, and provide opportunities to identify integration problems.

Transgenic golden rice: friend or foe?

By Annika Kettenburg

How come scientists disagree quite fundamentally at times? In our new paper, we investigated the academic controversy over transgenic Golden Rice. Itself a microcosm of the broader debate surrounding genetically modified crops, it shows some unique particularities: Here, rice plants were modified to synthesize beta-carotene and thus act as an edible cure against Vitamin A deficiency – a humanitarian project developed in university halls, to be handed out for free to smallholders. It is anticipated to become available in the Philippines and Bangladesh in two to three years from now.


At first sight, the scientific position on Golden Rice seems to almost exclusively consist of utmost approval. In 2016, 131 Nobel laureates signed a petition to accelerate the introduction of Golden Rice – calling to end the “crime to humanity” committed by the GMO opposition. Though critics are outweighed in numbers, they voice various concerns. Most often, they point to an overshadowing of malnutrition’s root causes, namely the social determinants of access to food, and the inadequacy of Golden Rice in addressing these.

Corresponding to this bifurcation, our cluster analysis identified two major branches in the Golden Rice literature. Interestingly, the branches and their clusters correlated with the disciplines authors adhered to and the scope of topics they addressed. Put simply, the branch optimistic up to euphoric about Golden Rice was mostly comprised of plant scientists, and the topics our indicator analysis marked as constitutive centered on deregulation. The more critical branch consisted mostly of social scientists writing on a variety of topics relevant to sustainability.

What now is the cause for this divergence? In our paper, we argue it is mainly the authors’ starting point – the perception of the problem (also discussed in this blog here, here and here). In simplified terms, if the problem of vitamin A deficiency is a result of mainly eating rice that lacks beta-carotenes, then the solution is to enhance the rice. In contrast, if one sees the problem in a lack of access to diverse, nutritious food, then one has to pursue biophysical, economic, political and social changes altogether. This means bio-fortification of crops results to be only one out of many strategies – a short-term fix until social and political structures change.

But even if scientists were to overcome disciplinary divides and arrive at a shared conclusion on Golden Rice – is it for us to decide what people should plant and eat? Why has nobody involved affected communities in their research? When reviewing the literature I was bewildered by the paternalistic undertone of some articles: either local people were completely left out or treated as passive victims. (Would we like to have Asian scientists donating to us a GM wheat variety against high blood pressure?)

A lot of the questions I came across were ultimately ethical in nature: what type of agriculture to pursue, whose needs to prioritize, which risks to take – can the concept of sustainability provide guidance here? We argue that for this to happen it is necessary to explicitly recognize which criteria constitute sustainability in a particular context (as we tried in our paper, see Table 1) and to ultimately seek genuine dialogue across disciplines and actor groups.

The full paper is available here.

New paper: legacy effects of land use change on tree diversity

By Girma Shumi Dugo

I am Girma, one of Joern’s PhD students working on his ERC-project that aims to identify social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity. My background is in forestry and plant ecology – with a focus on sustainable use and conservation of woody plants. I’ve worked on participatory forest management (PFM) in coffee forests of SW Ethiopia; ecological indicators for Chilimo PFM of Ethiopia; and contributed to various research projects in forestry, agroforestry and ecosystem services in rural landscapes of Ethiopia.

ethiopia.pngIn the current project, I am working on the empirical case study conducted in the rural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia. In my research, I am assessing the effects of historical and current land use, site level forest management (e.g., disturbances, management for coffee production) and forest landscape history (e.g., primary vs secondary forest – time lag effects, edge effects) on biodiversity, more specifically on woody vegetation in both agricultural and forest landscapes. Furthermore, to better understand the link between conservation and human well-being, I am investigating local people’s woody plant use, conservation and their perception of their property rights, particularly, with respect to tenure security and the rights to withdraw or wood, which may hinder both the use and conservation of woody plants in the landscapes.

The main purpose of this post is to share with you the findings of a new paper we’ve just published where we’ve looked into land use legacy effects on woody vegetation in agricultural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia.

In our study landscape, some plant species respond to land use changes immediately while others show a time delayed response. In this regard, past land use legacy effects – extinction debts and immigration credits – might be particularly pronounced in regions characterized by complex and gradual landscape change. In order to examine the existence of such land use legacy effects, we surveyed woody plants in 72 randomly selected 1 ha sites in farmland, and grouped them into forest specialist, generalist and pioneer species. We examined their composition and distribution using non-metric multidimensional scaling; modelled their richness in response to historical and current distance from the forest edge; and examined tree diameter class distributions in recently converted versus permanent farmland sites.

Overall, we found 110 species of trees, shrubs and subshrubs, representing 48 families. Historical distance to the forest edge was a primary driver of woody plant composition and distribution. However, somewhat surprisingly, we found no extinction debt for forest specialist species, suggesting that this debt was rapidly paid off in the farming landscape (i.e. forest specialists disappeared quite quickly). In contrast, and again surprisingly, we found immigration credits in farmland for generalist and pioneer species. This might suggest that long established cultural landscapes in Africa might have unrecognized conservation value – not for forest specialist species, but for a rich array of other species. In conclusion, our results indicate that conservation measures in southwestern Ethiopia should recognize not only forests, but also the complementary value of the agricultural mosaic – similarly to the case of European cultural landscapes. A possible future priority could be to also better maintain forest specialist species in the farmland mosaic.

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!

What do we value?

By Joern Fischer

In 2012, I led a paper on “Human behavior and sustainability”. Alongside that paper, I wrote a blog post encouraging people to reflect on what it is what we truly value. This was summarized in an open letter, which you can find here.

I thought it’s a nice time to reflect on where my own thinking on this topic is at. With a few years of distance between that initial paper and the open letter and now, some things I see much the same way – and others I see a bit differently.

In the open letter, I implied that many of us probably don’t truly value “ever more stuff” as their deepest life philosophy, but yet we are not actively pursuing what it is that we actually are interested in having more of in our lives. Much of humanity acts as a passive victim of the institutions it created in the past. We’ve locked ourselves into certain trajectories – starting with our mindsets, which are too uncomfortable to question, and our institutions, which are rigid and complex, and it’s hard to know where to even start to fundamentally change anything.

Despite its imperfections, I still think the central tenet of the letter from 2012 is right: we need to start having a conversation about what we truly want. And I think it’s still fundamentally correct that if the answer is “gluttony, even if it’s unjust”, then all is well in the sense that we’re moving in precisely that direction. But … for most of humanity, I don’t think “gluttony, even if it’s unjust” is the philosophy by which they would really like to live. People thrive on good social relations, on balanced time budgets, on a healthy environment, and on “enough” material wellbeing rather than ever more stuff.

Still, this is contentious. In the following, I want to highlight three ways in which my own thinking has slightly moved on since that original paper.

First, there appears to be a clash between two paradigms: the paradigm that we can’t change values, and therefore should work within existing value sets – versus the paradigm that changing values might be hard, but since this is the root cause of our problems, we’d better get started on engaging with this difficult topic. This clash was nicely exemplified in a discussion between Manfredo et al. and Ives and Fischer in a recent issue of Conservation Biology. We argued that value change within instants may not be likely, but social change including fundamental changes in value orientations has been common in human history – and to discount this possibility (when it looks like it’s a necessity) and the possibility of fostering such change seems … well … not so useful. Another nice idea related to societal change and value change is that of a “ripple effect”, which implies that changes in the world can permeate up and down scales – from individual to society, or from society to individual. Things (including values) can change, and do change, and we all play a role in it.

A second area in which I think we can poke around in more is that of deep leverage points – places in a system where small interventions can lead to major changes. Truly deep leverage points relate to shifting to new paradigms and on that basis, re-define system goals. This is very much in line with the idea of reflecting on what we truly value – if the goals of our global system of “gluttony for those who can afford it” are not actually in line with what we want, we’d better change them. This is not straightforward, but would be very influential as a leverage point for social change.

And finally, some colleagues and I have been thinking a bit about how to bring change in our inner and outer worlds into alignment. Sustainability science has firmly focused on our external worlds, but has largely discounted the hidden lived experiences within individuals. Arguably, those are the origin of external phenomena, and it’s only through inner change that stable changes for the better will emerge in the outer world. For now, I’ll just point you to an Abstract of a paper that Rebecca Freeth presented at Resilience 2017 – a full paper on this topic is in preparation.


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!