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Jiren, T. S., J. Hanspach, J. Schultner, J. Fischer, A. Bergsten, F. Senbeta, K. Hylander, and I. Dorresteijn. 2020. Reconciling food security and biodiversity conservation: participatory scenario planning in southwestern Ethiopia. Ecology and Society 25(3):24.

Reconciling food security and biodiversity conservation: participatory scenario planning in southwestern Ethiopia

1Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University Lueneburg, Lueneburg, Germany, 2Center for Environment and Development Studies, College of Development Studies, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 3Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Sciences, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden, 4Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands


Social-ecological systems are complex and involve uncertainties emerging from interactions between biophysical and social system components. In the face of growing complexity and uncertainty, stakeholder engagement with the future is important to proactively manoeuvre toward desirable outcomes. Focusing on the interrelated challenges of food security and biodiversity conservation, we conducted a participatory scenario planning exercise in a rural landscape in southwestern Ethiopia. We involved 35 stakeholder organizations in multiple workshops to construct causal loop diagrams, elicit critical uncertainties, and draft scenario narratives. Jointly, we developed four plausible future scenarios for the studied landscape: (1) gain over grain: local cash crops; (2) mining green gold: coffee investors; (3) coffee and conservation: a biosphere reserve; and (4) food first: intensive farming and forest protection. These scenarios differ with respect to their main social-economic dynamics as well as their food security and biodiversity outcomes. Importantly, three of the four scenarios, i.e., all except “coffee and conservation: a biosphere reserve,” focused on increasing efficiency in agricultural production through intensification, specialization, and market integration. In contrast, “coffee and conservation: a biosphere reserve” was driven by agroecological production methods that support diversified livelihoods, a multifunctional landscape, maintenance of natural capital, a governance system that supports local people, and social-ecological resilience. Similar agroecological trajectories have been advocated as desirable for sustainable development in numerous other smallholder farming systems worldwide. Given fewer trade-offs and better equity outcomes, it appears that an agroecological development pathway stands a good chance of generating synergies between food security and biodiversity conservation. Pathways prioritizing agricultural efficiency, in contrast, are more likely to degrade natural capital and cause social inequity.
Key words: agroecology; drivers of change; future scenarios; intensification; rural landscapes; social-ecological system; stakeholder participation


Many agricultural landscapes in the Global South face the two interlinked challenges of improving food security while also halting biodiversity decline. Despite a continued increase in global food production over the last years, one in nine people are still considered food insecure (Godfray et al. 2010, FAO 2018). At the same time, the expansion and intensification of agriculture has contributed to biodiversity loss (Foley et al. 2005). The urgency of reconciling food security and biodiversity conservation is greater than ever given increasing pressures from population growth, natural disasters, and climate change. This has been globally recognized by including aims on limiting food insecurity and biodiversity loss in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN 2015a). Guidance on how to reconcile these two aims in actual landscapes has, however, been scarce (Fischer et al. 2017). Such guidance in turn should consider that food security and biodiversity conservation are intimately connected through land use practices, livelihoods, and governance arrangements (Chappell and LaValle 2011, Sunderland 2011).

In this paper we approach these complex and interrelated issues through a social-ecological, participatory case study in southwestern Ethiopia. Notably, integrating food security and biodiversity conservation poses ecological questions (Green et al. 2005, Fischer et al. 2008, Edwards et al. 2010, Phalan et al. 2011) as well as agronomic ones (Balmford et al. 2005, Rudel et al. 2011, Lemessa et al. 2015). Further, there are also questions related to actor constellation and governance mechanisms (Folke et al. 2003, Ostrom 2009, Berkes 2017), equity (Nyéléni Declaration 2007, Pimbert 2009, Fischer et al. 2017, Wittman et al. 2017), as well as numerous feedbacks that cause path dependencies in development (Fischer et al. 2017). Importantly, all of these features are interdependent and involve multiple sectors interacting across multiple scales (Chappell and LaValle 2011). Many previous studies approached food security and biodiversity as partly separate issues (Glamann et al. 2017, Wittman et al. 2017), paying limited attention to the temporal dimensions of integrating the goals of food security and biodiversity conservation. Here, we used participatory scenario planning to provide insights on the future integration of the goals of food security and biodiversity conservation. Moreover, our paper provides insights on the methods for participatory scenario development, such that it can help to induce collective action toward achieving a desired future.

Southwestern Ethiopia is an interesting system for answering such questions because it shares many of the social-ecological system properties of other rural landscapes in the Global South, including rapid population growth (OBFED 2012, FAO 2018), ecosystem degradation driven by land use change (Tadesse et al. 2014), and a high level of horizontal institutional fragmentation (Gatzweiler 2005), that is, poor coordination across administrative boundaries and also between different sectors within the same administrative unit (Jiren et al. 2018a). Similarly, the challenges around food security, biodiversity conditions, and associated governance mechanisms are not unlike those in many other developing countries. People in southwestern Ethiopia are food insecure by international standards, although better-off than in the drier parts of the country (CSA/WFP 2014). From a biodiversity perspective, southwestern Ethiopia hosts an important share of global biodiversity (Mittermeier et al. 2011), is the origin of Coffea arabica, and supports the remaining Afromontane forests of Ethiopia (Chilalo and Wiersum 2011). However, biodiversity loss has been increasing over time (Gove et al. 2008, Hylander et al. 2014, Aerts et al. 2017). In terms of governance, the landscape is characterized by a hierarchical governance structure with government organizations being dominant, high institutional instability, and conflicting development and conservation policies (Jiren et al. 2018a). In the last two decades, the country has pursued several different policy directions ranging from the promotion of smallholder-based diversified agriculture (MOFED 2003) to investor-based commercial and industrial farming (Gebreselassie 2006), and more recently to building a climate resilient green economy that primarily seeks agricultural intensification (Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia 2011, Brems et al. 2015).

Given uncertainties in governance, and rapid social-ecological change, it is important for local stakeholders to engage with possible development trajectories in order to build adaptive capacity and generate shared visions for the future (Freeth and Drimie 2016). To this end, we conducted a visioning exercise, namely participatory scenario planning, with a wide range of local stakeholders. Participatory scenario planning is a method that engages researchers, community, and other stakeholders with the aim to elicit plausible future trajectories and, in turn, navigate uncertain futures in complex systems. Participatory scenario planning helps to identify important uncertainties and driving forces that shape current and future changes (Daconto and Sherpa 2010, Hanspach et al. 2014, Oteros-Rozas et al. 2015). Four specific questions guided our study: (1) What are drivers of social-ecological change and how do they interact? (2) What are plausible future development trajectories or scenarios for the region? (3) How do these scenarios influence outcomes related to food security and biodiversity conservation? (4) How do stakeholders perceive the overall scenario development process and its contribution in terms of coordinating action toward creating a desired future? We discuss our findings with respect to general themes that are relevant to the future of rural landscapes around the world, focusing on social-ecological dynamics and actor and governance constellations that can help to harmonize food security and biodiversity conservation.


Study area

The study was conducted in Jimma zone, Oromia regional state, southwestern Ethiopia. The population of Jimma zone is approximately 3.1 million people, 10% of Oromia’s population, on 5% of Oromia’s land (OBFED 2012). Smallholder farmers account for 89% of the zonal population (OBFED 2012). Within Jimma zone, we selected three broadly representative woredas, i.e., districts, for in-depth investigation, namely, Gumay, Gera, and Setema (Fig. 1). These woredas were selected because they capture the ecological and social diversities of the area including gradients in accessibility by road, and they consist of lower, medium, and large population sizes compared to the average population size of districts in Jimma. In addition, the three woredas are located across altitudinal gradients of coffee and food crop production. In Gumay woreda, coffee production is relatively intensive, while Gera woreda is known for its forest cover and the production of coffee, honey, and cattle farming. Setema woreda is primarily a food crop production area. Moreover, the three woredas also differ in terms of accessibility to social infrastructure. Gumay has relatively better access to health care, markets, and roads, while Gera has medium accessibility and Setema has the least access to social infrastructure. Within each of the three woredas, we purposively selected one kebele, i.e., municipality, namely Kuda Kufi, Difo Mani, and Kella Hareri. The selection of kebeles followed similar criteria as the selection of woredas. For instance, Kuda Kufi is a cereal production kebele with limited forest cover, while Kella Hareri is found in the coffee production altitude with dense forest cover. People in the study area mainly produce diversified crops, but the majority of the people are food insecure (CSA/WFP 2014).

Study design and analysis

As a first step, we identified stakeholders concerned with issues around food security and biodiversity conservation in the study area (Table A1.1). These stakeholders included local people and their organizations, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and civil society organizations. The identification of these stakeholders was based on a priori knowledge of the landscape, including an in-depth stakeholder analysis previously conducted (Jiren et al. 2018b). Based on this, we involved 35 stakeholder organizations, including representatives from the kebele, woreda, and zonal levels. These 35 stakeholders represented 29 different types of organizations. Some of the stakeholders were similar at the woreda and zonal levels, e.g., the Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources has representations at both woreda and zonal levels. We sought to have a high diversity in participating. First, we included stakeholders from the local people as well as stakeholder organizations operating at the three administration levels: kebele, woreda, and the zone (Table A1.1). Second, we selected stakeholders from government organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and community organizations. That said, in the study area, government organizations are dominant and there are only very few nongovernmental and community-based organizations (see also Jiren et al. 2018b). Third, we considered stakeholders from multiple sectors, including biodiversity and food security. Stakeholders represented different aspects of food security such as production, accessibility, finance and economy, marketing, and utilization; similarly, stakeholders from the biodiversity sector represented aspects such as forest and wildlife conservation. Cross-sectoral organizations such as the Women’s and Children’s Affairs Office, education institutions (including Jimma University), and health officers were also involved. At the community level, local people and their social organizations such as groups of women, men, community leaders, religious leaders (both Muslims and Orthodox Christians), community cooperatives, health professionals, and elementary school teachers took part in the study (Table A1.1). Specifically, workshop participants included different segments of the society, namely the youth and elders, men and women, and officials and bureaucrats, academicians and researchers, and also less educated people in the landscape.

Following the identification of stakeholders, we conducted a first round of eight separate participatory workshops. We maintained diversity of stakeholders by selecting stakeholders from different sectors including food security, biodiversity, social sector stakeholders, local people, and their organizations. Three stakeholder workshops were implemented at the kebele level, three at the level of each woreda, and two stakeholder workshops were held at the zonal level. These initial workshops were conducted from December 2014 to January 2015 and were used to identify the main social-ecological changes over the past 20 years related to food security and biodiversity conservation. Identifying these past changes served to identify key drivers and dynamics of the social-ecological system, construct system dynamics in the form of causal loop diagrams, and was the basis for the identification of future changes in the landscape. After identification of past changes, we collected information on the changes expected to happen in the next 20 years related to food security and biodiversity conservation. Here, we asked workshops participants to list the types of changes they expect to happen in the future, both changes that follow from the past trends, and new changes expected to happen based on plausible social-ecological dynamics around food security and biodiversity conservation in the coming 20 years. We decided on a 20-year time frame, rather than 30 or 50 years because changes in socioeconomic and political conditions are rapid. When convening of the workshops, in the second and third rounds of the workshops, we provided refreshment snacks and a very modest payment to recognize participants’ time contribution. However, given the small amounts involved, it was highly unlikely that the payment was the reason why participants participated in the workshops.

After identifying key social-ecological variables and changes, we asked participants to identify important drivers of changes related to food security and biodiversity conservation and assess their certainty and controllability (for methodological details, see Daconto and Sherpa 2010). Drivers of changes were conceptualized as driving forces that changed the social-ecological dynamics related to food security and biodiversity conservation. We asked the workshop participants to classify drivers of changes as certain or uncertain, and controllable and uncontrollable at the local level. This exercise yielded “certain changes” indicating those changes that were expected by the participant stakeholders to happen certainly, and “uncertain changes,” which participant stakeholders marked as changes that might or might not happen, or changes where the direction of change was perceived as not clearly known by the stakeholders. Thus, a given driver of change was considered uncertain when the workshop participants were uncertain how it might develop or unfold over the coming 20 years. For instance, land use strategies were considered uncertain because participants in all workshops indicated that it was uncertain whether commercial crops or food crops would dominate the landscape in the future. Similarly, “controllable changes” were considered to be under the influence of local stakeholders, whereas “uncontrollable changes” were those over which stakeholders in the study area had no control. For instance, the coffee market was considered uncontrollable because stakeholders in the study area do not control the price of coffee, which is determined by global market forces. In all these exercises, the system boundaries were set spatially to the study area; temporally to the time frame of 20 years in the past to 20 years in the future; and thematically to all social, economic, and ecological dynamics that may influence food security or biodiversity conservation.

Finally, participants were asked to identify causal relationships between the drivers as well as their influence on food security and biodiversity conservation. This led to the development of causal effect chains and draft causal loop diagrams. The collected draft causal loop diagrams and other data from the eight separate initial stakeholder workshops were then analyzed and integrated by a core team of authors at Leuphana University. We decided to integrate the multiple causal loop diagrams and develop draft scenarios within the author team because the stakeholders’ diversity and geographical area covered were large; and we felt that certain voices would be more effectively represented this way than if we had conducted a smaller number of larger workshops. That is, the eight initial workshops served to elicit a breadth of perspectives, where all stakeholders would feel heard. We then provided opportunities for all stakeholders to refine or even substantially change the draft scenarios we generated in the subsequent stakeholder workshop.

In terms of specific steps, we merged similar variables identified in the eight workshops, both past and expected drivers of changes, and derived a single integrative causal loop diagram. For instance, “modernized and high external input farming” was used to group variables related to mechanization, improved seed, and fertilizer and agro-chemical use that were mentioned in the eight initial workshops. This diagram retained dynamics generally agreed upon but removed internally inconsistent or contradictory dynamics. Importantly, as stated above, stakeholders were subsequently given an opportunity to comment on the integrative causal loop diagram. In addition, we generated a thematic list of drivers, i.e., social, demographic, economic, environmental, technological, and policy-related, and arranged these according to the level of certainty and controllability (see above, as well as Daconto and Sherpa 2010).

The resulting causal loop diagram captured the most consistently and repeatedly reported variables and relationships as elicited in the individual workshops. Here, the key point was not on applying a rigid process to pick the “right” variables, but rather, we identified key themes and dynamics that characterized social-ecological change in the landscape, and presented those back to stakeholders to check with them if we had heard them well. Thus, we first simplified the drivers through merging some of the original 174 variables identified, or leaving out highly idiosyncratic ones. Then, for the sake of clarity, we only presented 32 frequently mentioned variables across the eight workshops in the causal loop diagram. Notably, a causal loop diagram with 32 variables is still highly complex. Based on the final causal loop diagram, we identified key reinforcing and balancing feedbacks.

The process of scenario development focused on a subset of the most consistently reported, i.e., repeatedly mentioned across the eight workshops, as well as the most uncertain drivers of changes, as identified by stakeholders. Broadly speaking, these critical uncertainties were related to land use strategies and agricultural production techniques. That means, how land is allocated between different land use strategies, i.e., land use for commercial crops versus land use for food crops productions, and associated agricultural techniques, i.e., intensive agricultural practices versus the agroecological and traditional agricultural techniques. The scenarios were developed following the critical uncertainties identified during the workshops in the study landscape. In additions, other drivers of change, e.g., climate change or population growth, identified in the workshops were also considered in the scenarios, in ways that were consistent with the overall narratives generated.

Through this, we developed four internally consistent narratives that plausibly reflected the future of southwestern Ethiopia. These scenarios were neither predictions of the future, nor did they span the full range of plausible (let alone possible) changes that may take place; rather, the scenarios were representative illustrations of different futures that may emerge in the region, including the extremes along the possible gradients of land use strategies (from cash crops to food crops) and agricultural techniques (agroecological to industrial). The narratives of each scenario indicated the dynamics leading to the scenario over the coming 20 years, internal characteristics including socio-economic and ecological dynamics, as well as food security (food availability, access, utilization, and stability) and biodiversity (farmland and forest) outcomes.

After the development of these initial scenario narratives, in February 2018, we conducted six validation workshops with the same stakeholders previously involved. The only difference was that we held one joint validation workshop at the zonal level (instead of two separate workshops), and one joint workshop for the two nearby kebeles Kuda Kufi and Difo Mani (instead of two separate workshops). The validation workshops sought feedback on the causal dynamics identified, and sought to ensure the internal consistency of scenario storylines, their plausibility, and validity from the perspective of local stakeholders. Based on the feedback obtained from the participants, we refined the scenario narratives along with their defining characteristics or key features that made each scenario different from the others. Notably, relatively major changes were made to one draft scenario based on this feedback, whereas the other three scenarios required only minor modifications. Finally, one author (JH) visualized features of each scenario through stylized paintings that depicted what the landscape might look like in 20 years.

Having generated a complete set of refined and validated scenarios, we conducted a third round of workshops in November 2018, specifically designed to generate impact, that is, to initiate discussions among a wide range of stakeholders about how to best approach the future, given the scenario exercise that had been completed. To this end, we organized a series of workshops at kebele and woreda levels, where we presented the scenarios and distributed posters and leaflets to initiate discussion among stakeholders. We also organized a two-day meeting at the zonal level where participants from local (woredas) and higher levels (zone, region, and federal), representing community, nongovernmental, governmental, and academic interests, participated. All stakeholders who had participated in the initial and validation workshops also participated in the third round of workshops. In all workshops and at the conference, stakeholders jointly discussed and deliberated on what each of the scenarios implies for the landscape, and discussed what would constitute a desired outcome in terms of integrating food security and biodiversity goals. For this, an open-access booklet (Fischer et al. 2018) was prepared and distributed to the stakeholders to also facilitate discussions beyond the workshops. For the woreda workshops and zonal conference, we prepared a feedback questionnaire for participants, asking them: (a) what they liked and did not like in the process of scenario development; (b) whether the scenario exercise assisted them to think about the future in different ways and if so, how; (c) whether they think that the outcome of the scenario planning process will facilitate further discussion among stakeholders about the future of the landscape. With this questionnaire we aimed at understanding the impact of scenario development for local stakeholders. We randomly distributed this questionnaire to 70 participants who all returned it. Data from this was transcribed and analyzed for its themes using NVivo software. All stakeholder workshops were conducted in the local language, Afaan Oromo, and were facilitated by the authors of this paper with the help of local guides.


Drivers of change

Past drivers of changes in the landscape were related to the social and demographic, economic, environmental, technological, and political and to governance (Table A1.4). Some of these drivers of changes were identified to characterize changes over the coming 20 years, some of them reported as certain, while others as uncertain (Table 1). Education, gender equality, and employment were perceived as certain changes that were considered to improve, while other drivers such as drug addiction, through increased chewing of khat, were considered to worsen, but perceived as controllable by the stakeholders. In contrast, demographic changes, e.g., population, and economic changes, e.g., coffee market, were perceived as certain and beyond the control of stakeholders. The most important uncertain and uncontrollable changes spanned a wide range of topics including local living conditions, social trust and traditions, income, equity and equality, agricultural production techniques, land use strategies, forest condition, wildlife population, climate change, and land use rights (Table 1).

Social-ecological dynamics

Of the 174 drivers we included the 32 most frequently mentioned ones in a causal loop diagram. The diagram includes the most important links between the variables and with food security and biodiversity as perceived by the workshop participants (see full diagram in Fig. A1.1). Many variables in the causal loop diagram describe dynamics related to the main livelihood activity, i.e., smallholder farming. At the core of this stands a balancing feedback loop that describes the allocation of land for either food crops, e.g., maize, teff, and sorghum, or cash crop production, e.g., coffee, khat, and Eucalyptus. The balancing effect arises from the fact that farmland is finite.

Despite this, yields of both food and cash crops can increase with farm modernization through an increasing application of external inputs such as agrochemicals and inorganic fertilizers, which can lead to higher incomes, i.e., farm modernization → food crops yield and cash crops yield (Fig. A1.1). Increased income can on the one hand improve financial access to food and thus food security, but on the other hand needs to be reinvested into farming inputs, i.e., income → modernized farming → food crops yield and cash crops yield (Fig. A1.1). In this way, modernized farming constitutes a reinforcing feedback mechanism that is further facilitated through improvements in infrastructure such as market access, farmer training, and cooperative functions, i.e., cooperative functions → farmers training → modernized farming → food crops yield and cash crops yield (Fig. A1.1). However, this feedback mechanism also leads to biodiversity loss and environmental degradation as well as losses of traditions, knowledge, and practices, i.e., modernized farming →- natural capital farmland and natural capital forest; modernized farming →- traditional management and life (Fig. A1.1). Such societal change, in turn, is not only driven by a transformation of the farming system, but also by demographic processes. Human population growth, which in turn could be reduced by family planning and women’s participation, was a key factor (women participation → family planning →- population growth and density). According to our simplified causal loop diagram, increases in population size and density lead to land scarcity, which leads to conflict over resources, emigration, and increasingly prevents farmers from traditional management of resources, consequently constraining sustainable and sufficient food crop production, i.e., population growth and density → land scarcity and conflict → migration and urbanization →- traditional management and life → food crops yield and cash crops yield (see Fig. A1.1). Land scarcity and the increasing need to provide more food lead to the expansion of farmland into forests or traditional grazing land, and thus ultimately to the loss of biodiversity and natural capital.

Although local traditions and informal social institutions could benefit food security in general, for example, by limiting wild animal crop-raiding, increasing conflicts and pressures were seen to cause the loss of traditions and informal arrangements, i.e., land scarcity and conflict →- traditional management and life → food crops yield and cash crops yield (Fig. A1.1, Table A1.3). Such informal institutions, however, facilitate participatory resource governance, which was perceived to enhance both food security and biodiversity through collective action, social learning, and the empowerment of disadvantaged groups such as women and poor people, i.e., traditional management and life → participatory resource governance → natural capital farmland and natural capital forest → food crops yield and cash crops yield (Fig. A1.1, Table A1.3).

The four scenarios

Based on the key uncertainties (Table 1) and social-ecological system dynamics (Fig. A1.1) we developed four plausible scenarios for the study landscape. The scenarios were related to land use strategies and agricultural production techniques, and cover a gradient from a stronger focus on producing cash crops to a stronger focus on producing food crops in the area. The four scenarios were termed “gain over grain: local cash crops,” “mining green gold: coffee investors,” “coffee and conservation: a biosphere reserve,” and “food first: intensive farming and forest protection.” We present short summaries of the scenario narratives together with visualizations of current and future landscape conditions (Figs. 2, 3). Subsequently, we summarize the scenario outcomes in terms of food security and biodiversity conservation. The full scenario narratives are presented in the supplementary online text (Appendix 1).

Gain over grain: local cash crops

The Ethiopian government has prioritized farmer specialization and commercialization to boost development. As a result, southwestern Ethiopian farmers have abandoned traditional food cropping and focus on cash crops for which biophysical conditions are suitable: coffee, khat, and fast-growing trees including Eucalyptus. This scenario is driven by a reinforcing feedback loop around increasing smallholders’ income through increasing efficiency in the commercial production of crops through modernized and high external input farming. The landscape now consists of intensively managed coffee forests interspersed with khat and tree plantations, while the production of food crops is limited (Figs. 2, 3). Although the income the farmers producing commercial crops increases, food security and especially dietary diversity for many rural people remains low. Farmland biodiversity is dramatically reduced because of simplified habitats and intensive management. Forest biodiversity is also reduced because of intensive coffee management, but forest wildlife still persists. Wildlife raids of food crops heavily impact farmers. Living standards are high for some, but less wealthy farmers and landless people have been marginalized and are worse off now than in the past. Social costs are high: commercialization through cash crops has reduced traditional cooperative management, khat consumption involves health risks, and mistrust is high within the community.

Mining green gold: coffee investors

International coffee markets and prices have led the government to prioritize southwestern Ethiopia for export coffee production. Large-scale coffee investors have been given land, because smallholder farmers lack the capacities to produce for export. This scenario is driven by a reinforcing feedback loop around increasing national income through increasing efficiency in the production of commercial coffee crops through intensification and specialization—modernized and high external input farming—of coffee production by large-scale agricultural investment by national or foreign coffee investors. The landscape now consists of monoculture, high-yield coffee plantations, and relatively little food is produced (Figs. 2, 3). Both farmland and forest biodiversity have declined considerably because of monocropping and intensive management. Native coffee varieties have disappeared because of the influx of high-yield varieties. Farmers have lost land to investors and many received inadequate compensation. Promises by investors of job opportunities and improved public infrastructure have fallen short of local expectations. Poverty, food insecurity, land scarcity, and conflicts between coffee investors and local communities have resulted in the emigration of locals. Traditional farming and culture have been lost almost entirely.

Coffee and conservation: a biosphere reserve

Conventional agriculture in Ethiopia has failed because of land degradation, and has been replaced by sustainable approaches. Global interest in sustainably grown coffee is increasing. A biosphere reserve has been established that combines sustainable agriculture, eco-coffee production, and tourism opportunities. This scenario is driven by a reinforcing feedback loop around improving farmland and forest natural capital through agroecological production techniques including maintaining agrobiodiversity and investment in participatory resource governance, which enhances long-term sustainability of the landscape. The landscape around a core area of sustainably managed forest consists of a mosaic of diversified farmland and forests (Figs. 2, 3). Farmland biodiversity has recovered because of varied habitats and sustainable agricultural practices. Forests and wildlife are managed by the community, and forest biodiversity is relatively high. All people including the poor produce their own food as well as products for export, supported by a revival of traditional cooperative farming arrangements. Economic growth is slow but steady and equitable, and living conditions slowly improve. Household resilience is high because of strong social capital, diversified farming, and new income opportunities from tourism.

Food first: intensive farming and forest protection

The government has pushed for commercialized food production in southwestern Ethiopia and has protected existing forests to meet its global commitments. Climate change has made coffee production unviable in the southwest, and food production elsewhere in the country is also failing. Large amounts of food (primarily for sale within Ethiopia) are now produced in the southwest through intensive, large-scale agriculture. This scenario is driven by a reinforcing feedback loop around increasing household income and food self-sufficiency through increasing efficient production of food crops by modernized and high external input farming. The landscape consists largely of fruit and vegetable plots, maize and teff fields in the wetlands, and pastures for beef fattening (Figs. 2, 3). Remaining forest areas are strictly protected and not accessible to locals. Farmland biodiversity has plummeted because of intensive management, but forest biodiversity remains high. Some farmers are better off, but poverty is widespread among those who lost land and could not capitalize on new agricultural opportunities; their food security is low. Community resilience is limited because of fluctuations in climate and markets, and many poor people emigrate to urban areas.

Food security and biodiversity outcomes in the scenarios

Each scenario 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. The food first scenario provided the best outcome in terms of food availability and financial capacity because local people produce food crops for consumption and market surplus to generate income. In contrast, the mining green gold scenario provided the lowest food availability, and local people’s financial capacity to access food was also low because economic returns from coffee primarily benefitted external investors (Table 2). The gain over grain scenario increased smallholders’ financial incomes. However, the focus on commercial crop production limited food crop availability in the landscape. Finally, the coffee and conservation scenario enabled food availability and dietary diversity because in this scenario, local people produced diverse food crops for their own consumption; and food accessibility was most equitable in this scenario (Table 2).

For biodiversity conservation, the coffee and conservation scenario provided the best outcome, because the biosphere reserve provided 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 contrast, agricultural intensification through the application of agrochemicals and artificial fertilizers, improved seeds, and landscape homogenization resulted in the loss of farmland biodiversity in the other three scenarios. Forest biodiversity was partially maintained in the food first scenario because of the strict protection of forest remnants. Intensified coffee management practices caused the loss both of farmland and forest biodiversity in the remaining two scenarios (Table 2).

The mining green gold scenario threatened local people’s food security as well as biodiversity conservation, and thus provided a lose-lose outcome for food and biodiversity. The food first scenario, in contrast, provided some benefits for both food and (forest) biodiversity, but the biodiversity benefits were partly offset by intensive land use practices outside the protected areas. Through the implementation of land use zoning, the coffee and conservation scenario provided a win-win situation where both food security and biodiversity conservation benefitted. Finally, the gain over grain scenario benefitted food security through increasing the incomes of smallholder producers, while intensive production on the farmland and within the forest threatened biodiversity conservation (Table 2).

Stakeholder perceptions of the scenario development process

All stakeholders positively evaluated the overall scenario development process. Six aspects of the scenario development process were considered most important by the respondents. First, the majority of participants at the woreda and zonal levels (88%) mentioned that they liked the overall organization including the timing and facilitation of workshops and conferences, and the distribution of outreach material. For example, one woreda respondent indicated, “The distributed scenario materials will help us to continually remind ourselves and guide our actions and services accordingly.” Second, the majority of respondents (87%) liked that the process of scenario development was inclusive toward stakeholders from multiple sectors. Third, 84% of respondents liked that the scenario development process provided new perspectives and helped them to be prepared for the future. Here, one respondent stated, “Every year we develop a future plan in the form of annual and midterm five year plan. However, this scenario process showed us a holistic and broader picture of the future of our landscape.” Fourth, some participants (60%) liked that the scenario development was a joint undertaking and not as extractive as conventional academic research. Fifth, approximately half of the respondents (51%) valued the time allocated to group discussions where stakeholders deliberated on the drivers, scenarios, pros and cons of the scenarios and reported back to the entire group afterward. Sixth, some stakeholders (42%) appreciated that the zonal conference brought together stakeholders from the policy level (federal, regional, zonal) and implementation level (woreda).

In contrast, stakeholders mentioned two issues that they disliked, or that could be improved in the future. First, 33% of respondents indicated that the scenario development process should not end at this stage, but that there was a need for continuing to engage with stakeholders and plan which steps toward a desirable future should be taken. Second, 19% of respondents indicated that the number of kebele participants, including local farmers, should increase in the future.

Regarding long-term impact, stakeholders replied that the scenario planning process would help them to think about the future of their landscape and the need of integrating food production and biodiversity conservation (67%) and that it would facilitate future discussion and cooperation (56%). However, 19% of respondents did not believe the process could bring together stakeholders in the future, because, to foster stakeholders’ joint work, a further step of discussing the specific implications and actions would be required.


Participatory scenario planning can serve as a tool to explore development pathways of complex systems and thus help to inform planning for sustainable development (Flynn et al. 2018). Here, we implemented such a process and developed a set of future exploratory scenarios for southwestern Ethiopia, an area that is characterized by smallholder farming, rapid population growth, and fast environmental change. In our study we identified important social-ecological dynamics that influence changes in the study landscape, and these dynamics were related to the various social, economic, environmental, technological, and governance and political drivers. We also found that the main critical uncertainty was related to future land use strategies and agricultural techniques, that is, how land is allocated among different crops and stakeholders. Understanding of the dynamics and critical uncertainties produced the four plausible future scenarios, gain over grain, mining green gold, coffee and conservation, and food first. These future scenarios evolve under different dynamics (see Appendix 1), and also differ with respect to their food and biodiversity outcomes (Table A1.2). The process of scenario planning provided a structured process for stakeholders to engage with the long-term future, to explore the effects of uncontrollable and uncertain changes, and to elicit how certain actors and policies or governance settings may influence future change (Daconto and Sherpa 2010). However, because participatory scenario planning is primarily a place-based visioning exercise, our discussion primarily relates to the social-ecological dynamics of the southwest Ethiopian landscape, with relatively less emphasis on potentially uncertain higher level dynamics.

Social-ecological dynamics

Disentangling the dynamics of social-ecological systems is a prerequisite to identify drivers of change and thus to successfully manoeuvre future developments (Meadows 1999). The dynamics of social-ecological systems are often characterized by a small number of feedback mechanisms that determine sustainability outcomes (Hersperger et al. 2011). Here, we discuss the key feedbacks observed in the different scenarios.

Most importantly, three of the four scenarios, i.e., gain over grain, mining green gold, and food first, were driven by a reinforcing feedback loop around increasing efficiency in agricultural production through intensification, specialization, and commercialization. In general, this feedback mechanism can lead to increasing profits, which can benefit food security, but which also need to be reinvested into further inputs such as agrochemicals, machinery, or seeds. Current policies of the Ethiopian government strongly support this dynamic because it is seen as one of the key pathways to rural development (MOFED 2010, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia 2011). At its core this strategy follows the logic of the green revolution, which is currently guiding development of the farming sector in order to boost financial income as a means to achieving food security all over Africa (NEPAD 2003, Shiva 2011, AfDB 2014).

The differences between the three scenarios involving such a green revolution type of modernization show that this feedback mechanism can lead to different social-ecological outcomes depending on crop choices and the specific actor and governance constellations. For instance, as indicated in our findings, although the feedback mechanisms of the mining green gold and food first scenarios were built around modernization of agriculture, their outcome in terms of food security varies because the former chose commercial crops whereas the latter focused on food crops. Similarly, because of differences in actors between gain over grain and mining green gold, the outcomes and beneficiaries vary between these scenarios. This finding thus shows the range of possible development options available and demonstrates the uncertainties of future developments, even when following a green revolution development logic. Although market mechanisms are key in all of these instances, additional policy settings and differing emphasis on certain actors steer the system into different directions. This is most obvious in the mining green gold scenario, where poor land tenure rights, prioritization of national revenues, and the influence of external agricultural investors leads to a type of land grabbing, which would largely exclude local people from the financial benefits of development. Such development has been reported for other parts of Ethiopia where land grabbing by private agricultural investors has led to a displacement of smallholders from their farmland (Rahmato 2011), and, to a limited extent, in Jimma Zone (Ango 2018).

Notably, the strong reinforcing feedback mechanism built into a green revolution type pathway could have a series of negative effects on some social and ecological variables. For instance, the scenario narratives (see Appendix 1) suggest that an agricultural intensification pathway might create social injustices, this is, evident in the mining green gold scenario, but also in the other two cases, which also see rising inequalities and the loss of traditions and local knowledge (also see the causal loop diagram in Fig. A1.1, where modernizing agriculture negatively influences traditional management and life). Second, we found that land use intensification would likely lead to the decline of biodiversity both in farmland and in the forest, i.e., modernized and high external input can be expected to negatively influence both farmland and forest natural capital (Fig. A1.1). Biodiversity loss is caused directly through habitat loss because of expansion and consolidation of farmland, but also through increased application of agrochemicals. Consistent with our findings, this side-effect of modernized conventional farming has been considered as a strong contributor to global biodiversity loss (Grau et al. 2013, Gonthier et al. 2014). Although biodiversity loss is partly being counteracted through strict protection of some of the remaining forests in the food first scenario, biodiversity benefits may be minimal or absent in practice because increased agricultural profitability could encourage further agricultural expansion, a problem known as an example of the “Jevons Paradox” (Matson and Vitousek 2006, Desquilbet et al. 2017).

In contrast to these three scenarios, the coffee and conservation scenario is driven by a very different dynamic. It is based on the reinforcing mechanism of agroecological production methods increasing natural capital, which in turn, provides diverse harvests, a wide range of ecosystem services, and enhances the long-term sustainability of the landscape. The causal loop diagram describes this dynamic by the links between crop diversity and participatory resource governance with farmland and forest natural capital, which in turn increases both food crop yield and cash crop yield (Fig. A1.1). This dynamic is based on a strong emphasis on local agency and participation, and it integrates different land use strategies within a multifunctional landscape. Besides smallholder farmers, this scenario also includes nongovernmental actors (Appendix 1); the governance mechanisms thus are collaborative, involving multiple sectors and levels (Table A1.2). Overall, this scenario strongly resonates with the agroecology paradigm (Altieri et al. 2012, Kremen 2015). This approach is also represented by many other farming systems in the world such as the Satoyama landscapes ( Importantly, implementing this development pathway would not necessarily require radical changes in southwestern Ethiopia, but resonates with the existing culture and traditions of small-scale farming and preferences of local stakeholders (Jiren et al. 2018b). However, key challenges could be the navigation of power devolution (Ayana et al. 2013), and the implementation of participatory management and capacity building (Ayana et al. 2013, Jiren et al. 2018b).

Trade-offs and synergies for food security and biodiversity conservation

Identifying synergies for food security and biodiversity conservation is a key challenge for research and policy (Brussaard et al. 2010, Fischer et al. 2017). We discuss the outcomes of the different scenarios and how these relate to each other. A clear trade-off was apparent in the three intensification scenarios, most strongly in the gain over grain and mining green gold scenarios. Here, increasing agricultural production leads to an overall increase in food security, but at the cost of biodiversity in farmland and forest, a typical trade-off that has been described for intensively used landscapes around the world (Fischer et al. 2017). According to our simplified causal loop diagram, modernized farming increases food security, i.e., boosting the yields of food crops and cash crops, while at the same time causing degradation of farmland and forest (Fig. A1.1). Elsewhere, too, a strong emphasis on industrial farming for economic development has been shown not only to affect biodiversity (Cunneyworth 2001, Holt-Giménez and Altieri 2013, Konstantinidis 2018), but also leads to a loss of resilience to climatic and market shocks (Koohafkan et al. 2012, Fischer et al. 2017).

Although in the short term, intensification and specialization practices could increase income through national and international market integration, they are also associated with risks of crop losses and market failure, which may particularly threaten the future of smallholder farmers (Pender and Dawit 2007, Gebreselassie and Sharp 2007). Importantly, it is not only the increased susceptibility to shocks that would be unevenly distributed, but also the actual economic benefits and corresponding gains in food security. Intensification, commercialization, and specialization could benefit either richer locals or external investors because the majority of poor smallholder farmers would lack the capacity to intensify production and integrate into both domestic and global markets (Jiren et al. 2020). Research elsewhere, for instance, in other parts of Ethiopia (Horne et al. 2011, Rahmato 2011), in other sub-Saharan African countries (Cotula et al. 2009), or in South American and Southeast Asian countries (Zoomers 2010, Visser and Spoor 2011), has indicated that few capable actors benefit from market integration whereas often, the majority of poor smallholders may suffer further deprivation.

A clear balance between food security and biodiversity conservation can only be identified within the coffee and conservation scenario, in which people and biodiversity would both benefit from the proactive management of social-ecological interactions (Morrison and FitzGibbon 2014, Holt-Giménez and Altieri 2013, Kerr et al. 2016). As an indication of trade-offs, although this scenario would lack the rapid economic development that is inherent to the other scenarios, it would provide a system that is more resilient to environmental and economic shocks, thereby providing a more sustainable long-term perspective for the area.

This balance between food security and biodiversity conservation is grounded not only in diversification, agroecological techniques, and participatory resource governance (Fig. A1.1), but also in clear acknowledgment of the link between food security and social justice through the emphasis on local knowledge and institutions (traditional management and life; Fig. A1.1). This link is consistent with findings from elsewhere. For example, in a study in Tanzania, Mbunda (2017) attributed food insecurity primarily to a system guided by a capitalist policy narrative, emphasizing the necessity of refocusing on a system that nurtures local principles and practices of agroecology. Also, when comparing different cases of a win-win scenario in other systems, some common features are similar to those identified here. Often, win-win scenarios build on empowering smallholder farmers (Holt-Giménez and Altieri 2013, Fischer et al. 2017), focus on agroecological practices and diversified farming (Holt-Giménez and Altieri 2013, Kerr et al. 2016), emphasize adaptive governance of interdependent social-ecological systems (Morrison and FitzGibbon 2014), value local knowledge, culture, and traditions, ensure smallholder participation both in production and conservation activities (Altieri et al. 2012, Bailey and Buck 2016, Glamann et al. 2017), and promote enhanced resilience capacity of smallholders (Tengö and Belfrage 2004, Bacon et al. 2012).


Global discussions are polarized as to whether economic gains (e.g., efficiency in production, trade, and profit maximization) or social-ecological system considerations (e.g., food sovereignty and agroecological production systems) are better suited to integrating food security and biodiversity conservation (McKeon 2014). In this study, a sustainable balance was identified for only one of the scenarios. Prioritizing desirable future outcomes is a key requirement to developing and implementing appropriate strategies and policy options (Henrichs et al. 2010). Importantly for this, development trajectories are strongly influenced by specific actor constellations and governance mechanisms (Adger et al. 2005). Our study shows that not only the national and zonal policies and their implementation, but also local actors will shape the future of southwestern Ethiopia. Thus, 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 (Järnberg et al. 2018). Such future development would help to yield sustainable outcomes because it would benefit a majority of the community including its most disadvantaged members while also maintaining biodiversity. To realize such improvements, a governance system needs to be put in place that promotes multistakeholder participation and interactions across multiple scales, sectors, and institutions, and explicitly supports land use strategies and approaches that encourage agroecological production. Such changes to the status quo would be consistent with the recommendations generally derived from work on adaptive comanagement and resilience (Olsson et al. 2007, Plummer et al. 2013, Biggs et al. 2015).

Because scenario planning is a place-based visioning exercise, our study primarily relates to the social-ecological dynamics of southwestern Ethiopia. Similarly, although this study aimed to explore longer term social-ecological changes, it did not look at the dynamics beyond the time frame of the study. Most importantly, this includes the dynamics of human population growth, which most likely will be ongoing for many decades. Population growth is one of the most important drivers of change not only in our study area but many other parts of sub-Saharan Africa (UN 2015b). We incorporated some demographic aspects in our study within a 20-year time frame, e.g., emigration to towns and the need for strengthening family planning. Within the time frame of our study, however, the negative effects of unhindered population growth and possible migration remained somewhat hidden. Especially when looking beyond a 20-year horizon, increased attention to the use of family planning and female empowerment, for example, through education, become extremely important.


Through iteratively engaging stakeholders from different sectors and governance levels in identifying important social-ecological dynamics and critical uncertainties, our study produced narratives of four plausible future trajectories, with different outcomes for food security and biodiversity conservation for southwestern Ethiopia. The four plausible trajectories discussed differ in the underlying dynamics that lead to the scenarios, along a gradient of a cash crop dominated landscape to a food crop dominated landscape. The four scenarios also differ in their system properties, such as land use strategies, actor constellations and governance mechanisms, as well as in the feedback mechanisms that drive the dynamics of a given scenario. Our discussion suggests that the most plausible means to integrate food security and biodiversity conservation in southwestern Ethiopia is to pursue a development direction that reflects local priorities and preferences, and includes the establishment of a governance system that ensures participation of a diversity of stakeholders. The trajectories identified in our case study may in fact be archetypical, that is, they may apply in similar ways to many other landscapes worldwide. Finally, transdisciplinary approaches such as participatory scenario planning are powerful to empower local people and promote mutual learning, enable stakeholders to proactively think about and navigate alternative futures, generate new knowledge, and initiate collective action to achieve a desired and sustainable future.


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The study was funded through a Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council (ERC) to Joern Fischer. We thank all local stakeholders who were involved in the scenario planning workshops at different stages. Special thanks go to Dadi Feyisa Damu and Birhanu Bekele Negash for facilitating group meetings in the study area. We would also like to thank our colleagues Girma Shumi Dugo, Patrícia Rodrigues, Aisa Manlosa, Abebe Tufa, and Lennard Thale-Bombien for their valuable insights and support. We thank the Governments of Ethiopia and Oromia for granting us the relevant permits.


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Address of Correspondent:
Tolera S. Jiren
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