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Conservation Planning to support Local Decision-Making

Biodiversity modeling is a useful tool when it comes to preparing for land-use change. However, most models work on a global or regional level, making it difficult to predict what land-use change might look like at a specific location. In their recent paper, Duguma et al. (2023) focus on landscape-scale analysis to support local decision-making in southwestern Ethiopia. For their research, they “used statistical models to relate empirical data on woody plant species richness to indicators of human disturbance and environmental conditions in order to make spatial predictions at landscape scale for future scenarios.”

 The study specifically looked at woody plants, which have important social and ecological functions in the area. As well as supporting animal life, woody plants provide ecosystem services that support the livelihoods of the local population. For another research project, the research team and local citizens created four alternative future social-ecological land-use scenarios for this region of Ethiopia, based on different agriculture and land management pathways. 

The four scenarios were…

‘Gain over grain’…in which traditional foods crops are abandoned in favor of cash crops, which leads to an influx of cash and economic gain for some groups in society. 
‘Mining Green gold’…in which coffee production is intensified through large investors using modernized high-input production.  
‘Coffee and Conservation’…in which a diversified mix of forest and farmland consisting of a core zone with unused forested areas, divided by a buffer zone of low-intensity production of coffee and other forest products.  
‘Food First’…in which large amounts of cereals are produced through intensive large-scale agriculture, which requires land clearing and consolidation.  

Duguma et al. (2023) then took these four scenarios and modeled the future of the woody plants under the plausible land management regimes. The woody plants were classified into forest specialists, generalists, and pioneer species. According to the models, different species thrived or declined depending on whether the future scenario provided favorable conditions.

There were clear differences in biodiversity among the scenarios. In the ‘mining green gold’ and ‘food first’ scenarios (where intensive agriculture plays are large role) biodiversity dropped heavily. The “gain over grain’ scenario slightly benefited biodiversity, while ‘coffee and conservation’ scenario had a sizable positive impact on species richness.

This table goes into the impacts of each scenario in more detail.

‘gain over grain’The small-holder-driven agricultural intensification of this scenario would have a positive impact on income and employment, in the short term (20 years). However, equitable distribution of the economic benefits of this future is not guaranteed. It is more likely that the benefits will be reaped by a limited portion of the local society. Most of the counties saw low to moderate changes in woody plant species richness. However, in the long term (20+ years), this scenario could negatively affect biodiversity.. This may ultimately lead to negative social and ecological impacts due to possible increases in use of agrochemicals and biodiversity loss.  
‘mining green gold’Forest specialists and biodiversity overall were strongly negatively impacted in this scenario because this future is driven by clearing forested areas. Out of all four scenarios, the negative ecological impacts were most consistent in this future. The areas which showed the greatest loss in woody plant richness were those currently sporting forested areas which would be converted to coffee plantations under this land management regime. This is one of the common trends in current-day Ethiopia and it mostly ignores the role of woody plants and biodiversity in maintaining the well-being of the social-ecological system.  
‘coffee and conservation’This scenario showed positive impacts on woody plant biodiversity. The diversity of land use positively benefits both species richness and diversity. This future would also help protect the gene pool of Arabica coffee, for which the region is famous. This scenario could even lead to the creation of a sorely needed biosphere reserve. This scenario supports the idea that a well-managed ecosystem can support both human and natural life.  
‘food first’As this scenario is dependent on the intensification of agriculture, forest specialist woody plants are lost. This scenario also represents the current trends in the region, where deforestation has been increasing since 1973. This land use scenario also has negative social-ecological impacts on smallholders, who suffer most acutely from loss of ecosystem services.  

The well-being of woody plants under the different land management regimes is important to understand and model because it helps local decision-makers make informed choices that impact the future of the region. It is unlikely that only one of the scenarios will come to pass – instead, we might expect to see a patchwork of all the scenarios spread out across the region. However, understanding the impacts of each option on woody plants (indicative of the ecosystem) might sway decision-makers in one direction or another.

If you would like to delve more deeply into this topic, you can find the full paper HERE.

Duguma, D. W., Law, E., Shumi, G., Rodrigues, P., Senbeta, F., Schultner, J., … & Fischer, J. (2023). Spatial predictions for the distribution of woody plant species under different land-use scenarios in southwestern Ethiopia. Landscape Ecology, 1-15.


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