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Governance Challenges at the Interface of Food Security and Biodiversity Conservation

Food security and biodiversity conservation are two key challenges for many countries around the world. The simultaneous provision of food security and biodiversity conservation requires a governance system that can address intra- and intersectoral complexity. However, the two sectors are often treated as separate goals. In their recent study, Jiren et al. (2021) explore challenges encountered by governance systems to deliver integrated biodiversity and food security governance. To this end, they identified food security and biodiversity governance challenges in a multi-level governance context in southwestern Ethiopia. Specifically, this study focused on identifying institutional interplay problems within and between the two sectors at different governance levels.

The study area in Jimma zone in southwestern Ethiopia is a biodiversity hotspot and the birthplace of coffee (Coffea arabica, see picture). Food insecurity and biodiversity loss are major problems in the area and are accelerated by population pressure, agricultural land expansion, and challenges related to the governance system.

The case study in southwestern Ethiopia exhibits a rich yet declining biodiversity and high levels of food insecurity. The governance systems for both sectors are highly complex and consist of a large number of stakeholders engaged over multiple governance levels. Jiren et al. (2021) propose a conceptual framework to foster the understanding of institutional interplay within a single sector (food or biodiversity) as well as between sectors (food and biodiversity) that can occur horizontally within a single governance level, or vertically between governance levels. Based on the nature of governance challenge and the stages of policymaking process at which the institutional interplay challenge occurs, the framework further differentiates between institutional structure and policy output within and between sectors, and horizontally and vertically. All in all, this amounts to six types of possible governance challenges.

Conceptual framework of six types of governance challenges. A1 and a2 = challenges of horizontal interplay within a single sector; B1 and B2 = challenges of vertical interplay within a single sector; C1 and C2 = challenges of the interplay between sectors (from Jiren et al. 2021, p.3).

The analysis of 177 semi-structured interviews and 24 focus group discussions conducted with governance actors and local residents allowed Jiren et al. (2021) to identify key governance challenges at the interface of the two sectors. Overall, the governance of food security, biodiversity, and their integration was often constrained by the challenges of horizontal and vertical interplay, within and between the two sectors. In terms of the horizontal interplay within a single sector (A1 and A2 in the conceptual framework), overlapping and intersecting of mandates, and institutional gap are an example of a challenge present in the food security and biodiversity conservation sectors respectively. Conflicting interests between institutions which actually have the same purpose of either supporting food security or biodiversity are an example of a challenge present in both sectors. This problem largely stems from the way stakeholders are evaluated: because they are ranked against one another, horizontal coordination and communication between institutions is disincentivized.

“We understand the importance of coordination and are aware of contradictions between different institutions. But we pursue our task since we will be evaluated in terms of our specific task, and there is no point in wasting resources to foster coordination.”

Quote from one interviewee on the effect of the evaluation system that does not consider the adverse effect one institution might have on another, or possible synergies that could arise from coordinated action (Jiren et al. 2021, p.6).

The vertical interplay within the food security sector (B1 and B2) was shown to be restricted by fragmented, provisional, one size fits all interventions that were at times even contradictory to the needs and capacities of local people. Meanwhile, the biodiversity conservation sector mainly experienced problems with vertical interplay (B1 and B2) in terms of policy incoherence: here, strategies formulated by policy-makers conflicted with the implementation as implementation-level stakeholders faced considerable institutional uncertainty and socio-economic insecurities. Finally, regarding the interplay between the two sectors (C1 and C2), Jiren et al. (2021) found that institutional challenges were caused by weak and missing cross-sectoral linkage institutions. Policy incoherences between sectors also complicated interplay between food security and biodiversity conservation. Institutions often prioritized individual goals, as opposed to considering both sectors.

“Interventions for food security are crooked. Regularly, we are forced to adopt different technologies without seeing the feasibility of previous technology. Sometimes, we adopt different incompatible technologies over the same period by multiple institutions, which leaves us vulnerable.”

Comment by an interviewee on the incompatibility of food security interventions and the preferences of local people (Jiren et al. 2021, p.7).

Overall, Jiren et al. (2021) argue that challenges in the food security and biodiversity sectors in southwestern Ethiopia arise from the institutional structure: at some points in the system, institutional gaps impede the interplay within and between sectors and make the implementation of strategies difficult. At the same time, other points in the system experience a concentration of many institutions governing particular aspects of policy sectors, while other aspects are largely neglected. Another set of key challenges are related to policy outputs: contradictions in sector-specific policy instruments, clashes in priorities and techniques within and between sectors, and strong incoherencies in policy goals across sectors are major obstacles for sustainability governance. Finally, Jiren et al. (2021) highlight that while their framework presents the six types of governance challenges separately, it is important to recognize that they are related and exacerbate each other.

Jiren et al. (2021) concludes that collaborative models of governance could enhance structural fit, promote the coordination of institutions and participation across governance levels, lead to improved coordination of institutional actions, and hence create greater coherence of policy content. The creation of such a governance structure should be a participatory process which includes diverse worldviews, priorities, and practical realities. In general, the conceptual framework proposed by Jiren et al. (2021) is a useful tool for highlighting points in multi-sector, multi-level governance systems where integration needs to be strengthened – also beyond the Ethiopian case study.

To learn more about challenges at the interface of food security and biodiversity conservation in southwestern Ethiopia read the full paper here.


Published by Marina Frietsch

Social-ecological systems researcher.

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