Harmonising Biodiversity Conservation and Food Security: Five Years of Research in Southwestern Ethiopia

The southwest of Ethiopia is home to a rich variety of animal and plant species – many of them endemic or threatened. These species, in combination with intense human pressure on land, make the region a globally recognized biodiversity hotspot and thus highly relevant for conservation. At the same time, millions of people in the area strive to improve their food security and general well-being. Understanding and governing the intersection of biodiversity conservation and food security needs to take different elements of the social-ecological system of southwestern Ethiopia into consideration to enable context-specific action. This task is both highly complex and acute.

Over the past five years, a group of scientists from diverse disciplinary backgrounds collaboratively conducted research at several study sites in southwestern Ethiopia. A recently published book by the interdisciplinary research collaboration now offers a summary of the findings and insights generated during that time (Manlosa et al. 2020).

Map of the area where the research was conducted and impressions of the fauna in southwestern Ethiopia.
(All images from Manlosa et al. 2020, p. 19, 26, 51)

The book by Manlosa et al. (2020) is structured in five sections. First, the researchers’ work and the study area are introduced. Next, an overview of the biodiversity of southwestern Ethiopia with a focus on trees, birds and mammals is provided. Subsequently, different ecosystem services connecting biodiversity with the lives of local people are examined, and benefits, disbenefits and their distribution in the study area are discussed. Then, the book presents insights from an analysis of social factors shaping life in southwestern Ethiopia. Finally, the authors close the book with four scenarios describing alternative future directions for development in the region.

During the research, it became apparent that biodiversity and food security in southwestern Ethiopia are shaped by a combination of land use practices, natural resource use, livelihood strategies, equity issues, and governance. By combining these factors in collaboration with diverse local stakeholders, Manlosa et al. (2020) were able to envision how the future may unfold in the area: Four scenarios describe alternative development trajectories in the region in the next 20 years. Each of these scenarios is associated with certain risks and opportunities for food security and biodiversity conservation.

Alternative futures for southwestern Ethiopia as explored by Manlosa et al. (2020) in combination with local stakeholders. The images depict what a typical street scene might look like under the four different scenarios. (Manlosa et al. 2020, p. 146).

The first scenario called Gain over grain explores what southwestern Ethiopia‘s future might look like when local farmers are supported by the government to focus on the commercialised cultivation of cash crops such as coffee and khat. This scenario offers possible benefits for the income of farmers but is likely to come with undesirable impacts on social relationships and the natural environment.

In the second scenario Mining green gold, smallholder farmers play a limited role while major coffee investors transform the landscape into a monoculture of high-yielding coffee plantations. Here, the national trade balance possibly benefits but the food security for the local population is unlikely to increase.

The third scenario Coffee and conservation, where a biosphere reserve combines sustainable resource use and eco-tourism, holds the potential of balancing social, economic, and environmental priorities. Yet, the pace of economic growth under this scenario is likely to be slow relative to the other scenarios.

Finally, the scenario Food first envisions southwestern Ethiopia as a mixture of large scale intensive farming and strictly protected forests. In this scenario, a possible surplus of food benefits the whole country while the risks of aggravating land degradation and eroding resilience are high.

Importantly, these scenarios will not necessarily become reality, but rather explore four different directions in which the social-ecological system of southwestern Ethiopia might evolve. Thereby, they serve as a means to envision the future, determine potential desirable and undesirable outcomes, and can help identify the actions needed to realize certain outcomes and avoid others. According to Manlosa et al. (2020), stakeholders need to carefully consider all risks and opportunities to create a sustainable future for southwestern Ethiopia.

Independent of the four scenarios, Manlosa et al. (2020) make a number of recommendations for national and local actors. First, the compendium of studies indicates that a small-scale mosaic of sustainably managed family farms in a tree-rich landscape, in combination with large, undisturbed patches of forest is best to conserve biodiversity and support local food security. Next, the authors call for a more even distribution of benefits from the environment as well as a more effective mitigation of disbenefits, and a diversity of crops within local livelihood strategies to improve the food security of households. Finally, the findings suggest that food security and biodiversity conservation are more likely to be achieved if their governance is carefully coordinated and integrated.

Both food security and biodiversity conservation are critical challenges in the 21st century – not only in southwestern Ethiopia but around the world. Manlosa et al. (2020) hope to inspire and inform local stakeholders as well as colleagues who may be working on similar topics in different countries with their recently published book.

To dive into the book and learn more about drivers of food security and biodiversity or to better get to know the four scenarios of the study area’s future take a look at the book by Manlosa et al. (2020) here. You can also check the project website for further information, or check out related blog posts on Ideas for Sustainability.

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