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What Might the Future Look Like? Participatory Scenario Development in Southwestern Ethiopia

Many agricultural landscapes in the Global South share two urgent challenges: improving food security while also conserving biodiversity. These challenges are intimately connected through land use practices, livelihoods, and governance arrangements. Southwestern Ethiopia exhibits many of the social-ecological system properties of other rural landscapes in the Global South, including rapid population growth, ecosystem degradation driven by land use change, and an oftentimes ineffective administration. With the help of participatory planning, Jiren et al. (2020) developed four plausible future scenarios for the area in order to build adaptive capacity among stakeholders and generate shared visions for the future.

Jiren et al. (2020) focused on three kebeles (municipalities) that capture the ecological and social diversities of the area and differ in terms of accessibility to social infrastructure. (Jiren et al. 2020, p. 2). Southwestern Ethiopia hosts an important share of global biodiversity and supports the remaining Afromontane forests of Ethiopia.

The study encompassed eight participatory workshops involving a wide range of local stakeholders. Participants were asked to 1) identify the main social-ecological changes over the past 20 years related to food security and biodiversity conservation, 2) identify important drivers of these changes and assess their certainty and controllability, and 3) identify causal relationships between the drivers as well as their influence on food security and biodiversity conservation. Based on the most consistently reported variables and relationships elicited in the workshops, Jiren et al. (2020) developed a causal loop diagram as well as four narratives that plausibly reflect the future of southwestern Ethiopia. The study was then completed by a round of validation workshops and a round of workshops aiming to initiate discussions among stakeholders about how to best approach the future. 

The scenarios evolve under different dynamics and are representative illustrations of different futures that may emerge in the region. The first scenario named “Gain over grain: local cash crops” is characterized by a landscape consisting of coffee, khat, and eucalyptus, with settlement areas providing local markets for their distribution. The scenario “Mining green gold: coffee investors” includes intensive coffee plantations and improved infrastructure such as roads to the investment area. Traditional lifestyles where settlements are interspersed with forest and diverse crops can be found in the “Coffee and conservation: a biosphere reserve” scenario. The final scenario, “Food first: intensive farming and forest protection”, involves areas of consolidated and intensively used farmland, fruit tree plantation, and intensive cattle raising. 

Visual representation of key features of the four scenarios in terms of landscape features and composition in a village. The four scenarios cover a gradient from a stronger focus on producing cash crops to a stronger focus on producing food crops in the area. (Jiren et al. 2020, p.6)

Each of the four scenarios generated specific outcomes for food security, biodiversity, and their integration. For food security, the scenarios differed with regard to availability of food, financial accessibility, and dietary diversity. While the food first scenario provides the best outcome in terms of food availability and financial capacity, the mining green gold scenario resulted in the lowest food availability as well as low financial capacity of local people to access food because economic returns from coffee primarily benefit external investors. 

The best outcome for biodiversity is provided by the coffee and conservation scenario where a biosphere reserve provides habitat for forest species through a strictly protected core area, as well as habitat for farmland species in a heterogeneous and ecologically managed agricultural landscape. In the other three scenarios, agricultural intensification through the application of agrochemicals and artificial fertilizers, improved seeds, and landscape homogenization resulted in the loss of farmland biodiversity.

A clear balance between food security and biodiversity conservation can only be identified within the coffee and conservation scenario. This balance is grounded not only in diversification, agroecological techniques, and participatory resource governance, but also in clear acknowledgment of the link between food security and social justice through the emphasis on local knowledge and institutions. Implementing this development pathway would not necessarily require radical changes in the study area as it resonates with the existing culture and traditions of small-scale farming and preferences of local stakeholders. Key challenges, however, include the navigation of power devolution, and the implementation of participatory management and capacity building. 

Jiren et al. (2020) highlight that prioritizing desirable future outcomes is a key requirement to developing and implementing appropriate strategies and policy options. The authors conclude that a sustainable transformation of Ethiopian agriculture, such as described by the coffee and conservation scenario, would benefit from an empowerment of local communities, more coordinated governance in the biodiversity sector, and stronger involvement of environmental NGOs. Such future development would help to yield sustainable outcomes by benefiting a majority of the community including its most disadvantaged members while also maintaining biodiversity.

To learn more about the four scenarios and look at the causal loop diagram of the social-ecological system described above, you can read the full paper by Jiren et al. (2020) here


Published by Marina Frietsch

Social-ecological systems researcher.

3 thoughts on “What Might the Future Look Like? Participatory Scenario Development in Southwestern Ethiopia

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