Understanding systems through a social-ecological “landscape interface”

By Joern Fischer

Throughout the world, we witness rapid change in traditional rural landscapes. As part of the synthesis efforts of our work in Southern Transylvania, Andra Horcea-Milcu just published what is one of my favourite papers from the entire project (PDF). The paper describes two new concepts: that of the “landscape interface”, and that of the “value change debt” (or in short “value debt”). I’ll describe these concepts below, hoping the paper will be of interest to many others working on changing social-ecological systems.

Rural social-ecological systems – apart from those in frontier landscapes – are typically characterized by the gradual co-evolution of social and ecological features. These, in turn, tend to shape and in turn be reinforced by value systems that somehow “fit” the social and ecological characteristics of the landscape.

In the context of such landscapes, the landscape interface can then be understood as the central meeting point, or intersection, of social and ecological phenomena. It is where the lived experiences of people come together with biophysical realities; where these two entities shape one another. The landscape interface is shaped by the local value system, and upholds it through particular understandings of how to use the land, and how the landscape works in response to human activities. The landscape interface thus is a critical space in which sustainable land use practices can evolve and be upheld.

What happens when people spend less time in the landscape, and stop using it in traditional ways? Essentially, the landscape interface loses its prominent role in upholding sustainable land use practices. External changes take place – for example, people from elsewhere move into the region, or new land use practices are adopted that have not co-evolved with local culture or experience.

What is fascinating to observe in Southern Transylvania, is that at first glance, the landscape is relatively resilient to external change. However, upon close investigation, this resilience may in fact be a lag effect… In ecology, people speak of extinction debts when species are still present, but declining such that they will eventually go extinct. Analogous to this, land use practices in Transylvania appear to be partly upheld by a value debt. Many smallholder farmers still act according to the value systems they inherited from the past, even though the external world has changed. And thus, certain practices persist, for the benefit of sustainability – but are declining, and at risk of being lost.

When an extinction debt is identified by conservation biologists, this may come as a shock because it looks like yet another species is doomed. But it is also an opportunity: as long as the species is still there, it is possible to work with the remaining individuals, and perhaps recover its population numbers.

The value debt is similar: it is an opportunity to engage with local people facing rapid and massive landscape change at a time when they are still connected to nature; at a time when the landscape interface is still strong enough to provide a foundation for a sustainable future. The point here is not that the past will be restored: but not all has been lost thanks to the memory in the social sub-system. The value debt thus is both a warning signal and an opportunity to engage before it’s too late.

The paper (PDF) provides many additional details, especially with respect to Transylvania. We hope the concepts provided here will also be of use to better understand and work with changing human-environment interactions elsewhere.

Recognizing and learning the rhythms of local life

A reflection from the field by Aisa Manlosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New paper: A fresh perspective on food and biodiversity

By Joern Fischer

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

SES food and biodiversity

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

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

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

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

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.


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.


Tropical landscapes are changing rapidly as a result of human activities, including widespread deforestation for large-scale agricultural expansion. Heterogeneous landscapes that encompass different levels of forest cover, small-scale farming and human settlements are therefore becoming increasingly important for biodiversity conservation. Birds play important functional roles in ecosystems. For example, birds that feed on fruit disperse seeds across the landscape and thus contribute to forest regeneration. We assessed the conservation value of heterogeneous landscapes for bird diversity in 6 kebeles in Jimma zone, southwestern Ethiopia. We sampled 150 points distributed across pastures, homegardens, farmland fields and forests. We detected a total of 129 bird species, of which 76 occurred in forest and 112 in farmlands, grazing areas and homegardens. In forest, bird community composition varied with the intensity of coffee management: plots with more intensive management typically supported fewer bird species (10 species on average in intensively managed plots; 12 in lots with low management intensity; 14 in plots without coffee management). Undisturbed forests hosted species like the Abyssinian Groundthrush, White-cheeked Tauraco and Hill Babbler. Homegardens, farmland fields and grazing areas had similar numbers of species (on average 13, 12 and 12 species), and bird community composition varied with the amount of woody vegetation surrounding the sampling plots. Common species were the Baglafecht weaver, Common Bulbul and Variable Sunbird. Our findings highlight the importance of heterogeneous landscapes for birds. Some species are farmland specialists, whereas others only occur in undisturbed forests. Coffee forests that are managed at low intensities also contribute to the conservation of forest bird diversity.

Take-home messages

  • Undisturbed forest patches are key to conserving forest birds such as the Abyssinian Groundthrush or the Hill Babbler.
  • Coffee forests managed at low intensity also contribute to bird diversity conservation.
  • Bird diversity was high within the heterogeneous farmland mosaic, including grazing areas, live fences and scattered woody vegetation.

Preliminary findings: the governance of food security and biodiversity in SW Ethiopia

By Tolera Senbeto and colleagues

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


We investigated the governance of food security and biodiversity conservation in Jimma Zone, southwestern Ethiopia. We conducted 24 focus group discussions in six kebeles belonging to three woredas (Gumay, Setema, Gera), and interviewed over 200 stakeholders from kebele to federal levels. Ensuring food security without harming biodiversity has been central in Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plans, and stakeholders reported improvements in both areas. Food security improved due to increased production, improved agricultural extension, expansion of services such as cooperatives, health and education, awareness creation in the community, and shifts towards market oriented production. Biodiversity conservation improved due to better forest protection, law enforcement and community awareness, and the recognized importance of the forest for coffee production. Further improvements may be possible by addressing the following issues:

  • We found examples of insufficient interaction both within and between sectors (e.g. between the Bureau of Agriculture and the Oromia Forest and Wildlife Enterprise; or between experts and leaders).
  • We found a near-complete lack of communication among woredas, and among kebeles.
  • There were mismatches between community interests and sectoral services (e.g. on the use of inputs, choice of land use, and centralized forest governance)
  • Development strategies did not sufficiently account for differences between kebeles and farmers
  • There were some sectoral mismatches in goals and implementation (e.g. Land Administration & Environmental Management vs. Oromia Forest & Wildlife Enterprise vs. Investment Office)

Take-home messages

  1.  Services have improved, as have outcomes related to food security and biodiversity conservation.
  2. However, coordination among stakeholders needs to be strengthened for further improvements.
  3. Development activities should account for differences between locations and different community members.

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.

A social-ecological perspective on food security and biodiversity conservation

By Joern Fischer

At last, a paper we started to think about at a SESYNC workshop in Maryland finally got published in Regional Environmental Change. The paper lays out a conceptual foundation for how to think about food security and biodiversity conservation from a social-ecological perspective. In this blog post, I’d like to highlight two key features of the paper: (1) the conceptual framework as such, and (2) its empirical basis.


First, the conceptual model recognises that both biodiversity and food security outcomes are influenced by phenomena at different scales. For convenience, we propose to consider local, landscape, regional and global scales — but depending on the example, this might be adjusted. We argue that one particularly useful scale for analysis is the “landscape” scale. Here, the biophysical landscape is composed of patches, whereas the social landscape is analogous to a community of people, composed of a series of households. Both food security and biodiversity conservation, in turn, are multi-facetted phenomena. Biodiversity encompasses wild as well as cultivated diversity; it encompasses functional diversity as well as genetic diversity. Similarly, food security encompasses availability, access, utilisation and vulnerability. Notably, for both phenomena, we also argue that considering stability is critical — it’s problematic to have outstanding biodiversity or food security right now if this is based on practices that are inherently unsustainable.

Second, I’d like to draw special attention to the empirical basis of this seemingly simple conceptual model. I reproduce here the appendix of the paper — the supplementary material — which I know many people won’t look at unless I highlight it specifically here! The supplementary material lays out in detail the basis for why we believe the variables shown in the above conceptual model deserve consideration. Or, in other words, there is ample evidence that we must look beyond production — for both food security and biodiversity conservation. The table shown below provides empirical evidence for any skeptics out there, as to why a more holistic perspective is not just a vague ambition but necessary, given available evidence.

The full paper is also available as an open access article via the journal website.

Properties Outcome affected Mechanism/Relationship Example Sources
Bio-physical properties
Global climate change; environmental change Food security Challenges to farmer livelihoods; effects on yield; uncertainty and instability in production, food supply, and food prices. Calzadilla et al. 2013; Porter et al. 2014; World Bank 2007; Ringler et al. 2010


Multiple direct and indirect effects on species habitats, ranges, stressors, and extinction risks. Staudt 2013; Fordham et al. 2011; Klausmeyer et al. 2011; Huston 2005
Soil types and fertility, soil erosion, topography Food security


Direct effect on productivity, indirect effects on production costs and market prices; soil degradation, particularly reduced soil organic matter, affects quantity and quality of food production (e.g., increases susceptibility to drought stress and nutrient deficiencies, and increases susceptibility to pest and disease outbreaks). Soil contamination directly affects food quality (e.g. arsenic in rice) and human health. Lal 2009; Khan et al. 2010; Scherr 1999
Biodiversity Biodiversity influenced directly via soil quality feedbacks on belowground biodiversity and the soil microbiome, and indirectly through soil fertility effects on net primary productivity, and/or increased fertilizer use to maintain yields on degraded soils. Postma-Blaauw 2010; McDaniel et al. 2014; Tilman et al. 1996; Mozumder and Berrens 2007
Water availability (and safety) Food security Strong contributor to malnutrition reduction (as indicator of overall health environment); importance in agricultural production. Hanjra and Qureshi 2010; Smith and Haddad 2015; Armah et al. 2011; Turral et al. 2011; Khan et al. 2010
Biodiversity Agricultural impacts on hydrologic cycles and water quality can directly threaten biodiversity. Zedler 2003; Geng et al. 2015; Gleick 1998
Amount and diversity of natural vegetation Food security Connected to dietary diversity and wild collection; provides ecosystem services to agriculture (e.g., pollination, pest control). Belanger and Johns 2008; Chappell et al. 2013; Lira et al. 2009; Power 2010


Forest degradation and fragmentation leads to loss of wild biodiversity. Godar et al. 2015; Savilaasko et al. 2013; Melo et al. 2013;

Grau et al. 2013; Fearnside 2005

Agrobiodiversity Food security Dietary diversity tied very strongly to food security directly, and to nutritional quality of diets such as reductions in hidden hunger/micronutrient deficiencies, as well as to decreased risk of crop failure and increased ecosystem services (see also references for diversity in natural vegetation).


Crop diversity can increase the stability and reduce vulnerability of both agricultural yields and farm incomes in the face of both market and biophysical perturbations to farming systems. The stabilizing/risk reducing outcome of increased agrobiodiversity (from within-crop genetic diversity, to diversified cropping patterns), is likely to be of increasing importance with increasing climate and market instability.

Abson et al. 2013; Belanger and Johns 2008;

Burlingame and Dernini 2012; Di Falco and Perrings 2003; Di Falco and Chavas 2006; Di Falco and Chavas 2009; Di Falco et al. 2010; Ericksen 2008; Fraser 2003; Frison et al. 2011; Johns and Eyzaguirre 2006; Liebman and Schulte 2015; Smith and Haddad 2015; Zimmerer 1998

Biodiversity A positive association between planned (agrobiodiversity) and associated (“wild”) biodiversity has been, according to

Vandermeer et al. (2002), established “beyond credible doubt” for vertebrates, arthropods, and non-crop plants.

Liebman and Schulte 2015; Vandermeer et al. 2002
Pests and diseases Food Security Increased pest and disease pressure directly reduces crop yields. Verberg et al. 2013;

Matson et al. 1997



Wild biodiversity and agrobiodiversity reduce pest and disease pressure (e.g., by providing habitat for natural enemies, or by serving as “trap crops” for pests). Soil microbial diversity can suppress diseases. Barthel et al. 2013; Bommarco et al. 2013; Matson et al. 1997; Garbeva et al. 2004
Social properties
Trade agreements Food security Highly contingent; often thought to be mediated via economic growth and access to cheaper food; however, connections between food prices and food security are contested
Inequity and lack of appropriate redistribution within national contexts can hinder or eliminate theorized food security gains from international agricultural trade practices.
Brown et al. 2014; FAO 2012; Wise 2009; Weis 2007; Tansey and Rajotte 2008;

Haddad 2015; Otero et al. 2013; Heady 2010

Biodiversity Complex; land-displacement literature growing; international trade is increasing invasive species. Lenzen et al. 2012; Meyfroidt et al. 2013; Bax et al. 2003
Environmental agreements Food security The focus of REDD+, CBD, and Kyoto on increasing forest cover may reduce agricultural area and productivity; inclusion of agricultural soil carbon sequestration contracts can raise income and improve food security. FAO 2013a; Antle et al. 2009; Corson and Macdonald 2012
Biodiversity Increase in conservation area may improve preservation of wild biodiversity; appropriate scale and community engagement needed for effective governance. Hodge and Adams 2014; Ewers et al. 2009; Brannstrom 2001; McAfee and Shapiro 2010
Certification systems Food security & biodiversity Fair trade: documented multiple effects on farming systems, biodiversity, livelihoods, and food security; effects vary with the social and political institutions regulating fair trade schemes. Bacon et al. 2008; Jaffee 2007; Jaffee and Howard 2009; Raynolds 2000
Financial regimes and multinational corporations Food security Investment and speculation can affect food prices and livelihoods. Davis 2001; De Schutter 2010; IATP 2008
Biodiversity Largely speculative as a “financialization of biodiversity” is still in developmental and uncertain stage; could be mediated through investments in offsets and finances of conservation. Doswald et al. 2012; Phelps et al. 2011; McAfee 1999
Research system Food security Privatization of agricultural research reduced support for research on low-input agricultural practices and subsistence models IAASTD 2009; Sumberg et al. 2012a, b; Levidow et al. 2014
Biodiversity Determinants of innovation within agricultural research systems have led to technological systems favoring specialized, low-diversity agroecosystems. Vanloqueren and Baret, 2009
Government policy


Food security Many possible avenues of effect through effects on entitlements and underlying determinant variables. da Silva et al. 2011; Lappé et al. 2013; Smith and Haddad 2000; 2015; Rocha 2009; Wise 2004
Biodiversity Affected directly by conservation policies and indirectly by many other policies (including agricultural policies).


Ceddia et al. 2013; Chopra et al. 2005; Soares-Filho et al. 2014
NGO programs social movements and civic engagement Food security Multi-faceted and variable ways in which civic engagement and civil society organizations can influence food security both positively and negatively. Can play a crucial role in mobilizing underprivileged groups to advocate for greater rights and increased access. Abebaw et al. 2010; Seed et al. 2013; Wittman and Blesh, 2015.
Biodiversity Social movements can play a crucial role in promoting biodiversity in regions of high inequality. Perfecto and Vandermeer 2008; Wittman 2010
Equity and justice Food security Affects distribution, political effectiveness, access rights, and multiple other factors. Haddad 2015; Friel and Baker 2009; Sen 1981; Sievers-Glotzbach 2014
Biodiversity Driving mechanisms/ underlying correlates unclear. Holland et al. 2009; Mikkelson et al. 2007
Political stability Food security Instability and conflict affects many elements of food security, from food supply to entitlements and rights. FAO 2000; Ó Gráda 2009
Biodiversity Possible links little-explored; legacy of conflicts may have profound indirect effects. Russell 2001; Smith et al. 2003; Hamilton et al. 2000
Migration and Demographics Food security Rural out-migration increases dependency on imported food subject to global price shocks; urbanization and changing food preferences affect global demand and supply. Otero 2011; de Janvry and Sadoulet 2010; Regmi and Meade 2013
Biodiversity Habits of urban dwellers will highly influence biodiversity outcomes. CBD 2012; McSweeney 2005
Food storage and distribution systems (imports/exports) Food security


Grain reserves aim to address food price volatility associated with food imports and exports. Murphy 2009; Gilbert 2011; Wright 2009; Brigham 2011; Headey 2010


Increased reliance on food imports may reduce pressure to expand agricultural land base, but increase deforestation in other regions.


Walker 2014; Melo et al. 2013; DeFries et al. 2010
Land tenure system and land availability Food security Food security depends on adequate land access for smallholder and domestic food supply systems. HLPE 2013; Borras 2003; 2010; 2012; White et al. 2012; FAO 2013b; Young 1999; Assies 2009
Biodiversity Property rights regimes provide both structure and incentives for natural resource use and conservation. Hodge and Adams 2014; Ostrom et al. 1999; McKean 2000; Merenlander et al. 2004; Brannstrom 2001; Wittman 2009, 2010.
Access to infrastructure and agricultural inputs Food security Market and distribution infrastructure and access to agricultural inputs shape production systems, food system resilience, and food accessibility. World Bank 2007; Sumberg et al. 2012b; IAASTD 2009;   Patel et al. 2014; Bezner Kerr 2012; 2005
Biodiversity High input agricultural systems, especially at the agricultural frontier involving land clearing, impact biodiversity and landscape degradation; road infrastructure can shape advancement of the agricultural frontier. Baletti 2012; Fearnside 2001; Matson et al. 1997; Barona et al. 2010
Political agency and rights Food security Citizen role in setting food policy affects food availability and distribution systems. Edelman and Carwil 2011; Edelman 2008; Borras et al. 2008; Wittman et al. 2009; Wittman 2011
Biodiversity Political and social entitlements shape access and use of environmental resources and services. Leach et al. 1999; Wittman et al 2010; Wittman and Blesh 2015
Education, Knowledge and Social Networks Food security Multiple benefits, including possible increases in agricultural productivity, agrobiodiversity, entitlements, maternal, and postpartum care, agency, nutritional knowledge. Smith and Haddad 2015; Alderman and Headey 2014; Nuñez-Espinoza et al. 2014; Wittman and Blesh, 2015


Biodiversity Alters the normative underpinnings for biodiversity conservation; may increase agrobiodiversity and agroecological management practices. Van Weelie and Wals 2002;

García-Barrios et al. 2008; McAfee and Shapiro 2010; Wittman et al 2010


Gender equity/women’s status Food Security Multiple benefits, including possible increases in agricultural productivity, entitlements, maternal, and postpartum care, agency, nutritional knowledge; increased say in household spending; increased productivity from equal access to resources Alderman and Headey 2014; Agarwal 2015; Smith and Haddad 2000; 2015
Biodiversity Greater gender equality can play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity in forest ecosystems; alters the normative underpinnings for biodiversity conservation. Van Weelie and Wals 2002; García-Barrios et al. 2008; Agarwal 2009; 1997; 1988; McSweeney 2005; Zimmerer et al. 2015
Affluence and capital assets Food security Income has multiple indirect effects on food security, as well as serving as a form of food entitlement. Sen 1981; Smith and Haddad 2000; 2015


Affluence drives biodiversity-harming consumption through a variety of mechanisms.


Bradshaw et al. 2010; Holland et al. 2009; Weinzettel et al. 2013


Farm practices


Food security Crop choice, diversification and farming type (for subsistence, local markets, and export) affect household and community food availability and price. Seufert et al. 2012; Badgley et al. 2007; Connor, 2007; Dahal et al. 2009; Kasem and Thapa, 2011; Jones 2015; Jones et al 2014; Blesh and Wittman, 2015


Land management decisions, including deforestation at the agricultural frontier, affect both wild and on-farm biodiversity, particularly with negative effects of high input agricultural practices; crop rotation selection, use of organic nutrient amendments, reduced chemical inputs, and building soil organic matter reserves all impact planned and associated biodiversity. Chappell et al. 2013; Frishkoff et al. 2014; IAASTD 2009; Power 2010; Norton et al. 2013; Phelps et al. 2013; Barona et al. 2010; Jarvis 2008; Blesh and Wittman, 2015


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Managing rural landscapes in tradition

By Joern Fischer

Throughout the world, we find landscapes that used to be dominated by smallholder farming. Despite great differences between such places, there are also many commonalities. For example, agriculture tends to be conducted for local use rather than for distant locations; many members of the local communities are engaged in farming; farming methods are relatively simple in technological terms (and happen without a lot of input of modern technologies or fossil fuels) — and people often have “enough”, but are not able to access or accumulate large quantities of economic wealth.

Examples of such places exist around the world, and they share one more commonality: they are rapidly changing. How can rural landscapes in transition best be managed? Based on our work in Romania, I propose five common take-home messages for rural landscapes in transition.

1. Natural capital provides a solid foundation for development, while other capital stocks may be lacking

If we think about landscapes as a series of capital stocks, it becomes apparent quite quickly what the strengths and weaknesses of traditional farming landscapes might be. There is often little in terms of modern infrastructure (or physical capital), so that for example access to markets might be not very good; and agriculture might rely on large amount of human labour. Human capital then, is usually quite high when it comes to farming labour, but low when it comes to high levels of formal education. Financial capital is often lacking. Social capital is often quite high in traditional societies, but perhaps the most obvious capital stock is natural capital. Traditional farming landscapes are, often, very biodiverse. Some biodiversity may be lost when such landscapes become economically more prosperous, but at the same time, I would argue that natural capital provides a solid foundation for development, on top of which other capital stocks can be accumulated. If development focuses narrowly on just (for example) modern farming equipment and pumping investment into an area, it’s likely this would come at a high cost to natural (and quite possibly also social) capital.  So, a wise choice, to my mind, is to be aware of what these landscapes already are rich in, and not destroy this in the process of trying to improve human well-being (assuming that this is the goal, rather than just profit, in which case it’s not sustainable development anyway!).

2. Market-oriented incentives may erode a traditional stewardship ethic

A second, perhaps more speculative point is that many traditional rural landscapes use long-established methods to manage the natural environment. These methods typically go hand in hand with an understanding of what’s right and proper — certain activities ought to be done in certain seasons for example. Such traditional rules are typically upheld by informal institutions, together with a stewardship ethic of how one ought to look after the land. It follows that “modern” monetary incentives need to be used carefully. Pumping money into systems with a traditionally strong stewardship ethic can actually erode this ethic, thus accelerating environmental decline by destroying the value basis of sustainable practices.

3. Good governance is critical (accountability, trust) for sustainability

It somehow goes without saying — and was extremely obvious in our work in Romania — that not much good will come of “development” that is governed badly. When money disappears or nepotism is rife, environmental and social outcomes are unlikely to be very good.

4. Equity issues are likely to emerge as social structures change

Just like the potential danger of monetary incentives is widely under-appreciated, there is only little understanding and interest in equity issues. As development takes place, differences in wealth between the rich and poor tend to be magnified in traditional farming landscapes. Who decides who gets to win and who misses out? Questions such as this, and questions around access to ecosystem services (and also government subsidies) are likely to arise. Unless they are managed well, they can lead to major disappointment and disillusions about development among local people.

5. In the absence of a “benevolent dictator”, change must happen through empowering communities (bottom-up)

A lot of natural scientists like to recommend to decision-makers what they calculated to be optimal or efficient solutions. Well, fine. But what if there are no benevolent dictators interested in such information? I would argue that many of the world’s rural landscapes — and especially those in transition — are governed in complex or even messy ways, where it is not clear that anybody in particular is “in charge”; nor that anybody in particular is interested in guiding development in a way that is optimal or efficient from a sustainability perspective. In such cases, it’s important for scientists to be open to the idea that change will not come from the top down, through policy. Rather, I think there is value in engaging with local communities and providing information to people directly, so that nascent initiatives can work towards sustainability from the bottom up.

These five points are a subjective list of observations from our work in Romania. They may or may not apply to other locations in the world. I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on the possible generality of some of these.

Conservation and governance

By Joern Fischer

Conservation science emerged primarily out of the biological sciences. In the last decade, there has been a lot of engagement with economics, especially in the context of ecosystem services and land use optimisation. Here, I argue that the next key challenge for conservation scientists is to engage more deeply with academic work on governance — especially considering multi-level governance.


Conventionally, scientists have often seen their job as providing “facts”, which then ought to be implemented by policy-makers. Such an approach can be criticised for being overly technocratic — that is, an expert (the scientist) finds the fix to a problem, and then it’s up to the benevolent dictator (the policy-maker) to implement this fix. But what if there is no benevolent dictator? What if there are a bunch of contested interests operating all at once, if the science does not have a single “true” answer, and if multiple ecological scales and administrative levels interact?

In a recent paper, we argued that conventional notions of evidence for conservation practice could be more useful if they were embedded in the context of a multi-scaled ecological vision; while explicitly acknowledging the realities of multi-level governance. How might this work?

First, a set of multi-scaled ecological principles can help to generate a vision of what a sustainably managed landscape, region, or continent would look like. Such multi-scaled visions have been discussed, for example, in forestry (see Lindenmayer and Franklin’s seminal book). Such visions enable a clear articulation of different kinds of goals at different scales, as well as shedding light on likely cross-scale interactions. Bits of “evidence” (including expert understanding) can then help to refine an ecological vision, and to assess how well a current state of implementation matches with the envisioned situation.

Second, evidence can’t be put into practice without a good understanding of multi-level governance, and the constraints and opportunities arising from it. Questions conservation scientists can ask (together with governance experts) include: which level of governance should be responsible for a particular conservation intervention? Does this interfere with decisions made at other levels? Is there sufficient democratic legitimacy for successful implementation? Which government and non-government actors have stakes in a potential conservation intervention?

Considering multi-level governance is not a magic bullet for conservation. But it will help to get away from overly technocratic, potentially simplistic understandings of how science interacts with policy decisions.

Our full paper is available in Conservation Letters. All papers in Conservation Letters are now open access.