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Rethinking land use change in Africa

Challenges related to land use in Africa are increasingly attracting concerns at all levels of development. At the recent 2nd Global Land Project Open Science Meeting in Berlin, Germany, members of the Future Earth Science Committee and other researchers discussed how the Future Earth approach to integrated, interdisciplinary research, co-designed and co-produced with stakeholders is relevant to land use change in Africa.

Chairing the discussion, Science Committee Vice-Chair Melissa Leach argued that the Future Earth approach offers a range of advantages in understanding and shaping pathways of land use change in Africa, but that taking full advantage of these requires attention to power relations and the politics of knowledge. Future Earth research must integrate the knowledge and perspectives of diverse stakeholders – including local land users – to build a richer picture of land use dynamics through deliberation and dialogue.

Melissa Leach presented a case study of soil dynamics in West Africa to illustrate both the power of entrenched, dominant narratives about soil degradation and farmers’ negative impact on soil quality, and secondly, the indigenous knowledge and practices that are creating highly-fertile, carbon-enriched anthropogenic ‘dark earths’, but that had been obscured by entrenched narratives. The case study also demonstrated how an interdisciplinary, co-produced research process has been able to integrate the perspectives of soil scientists, botanists, anthropologists, historians, men and women farmers and development agencies to understand and legitimate hitherto obscured ‘climate smart’ land use pathways, and to identify prospects for enhancing and upscaling them – for instance through locally-appropriate biochar technologies – towards more sustainable futures.

Science Committee Member Cheikh Mbow also took part in the discussion, highlighting the importance of sustainable land use as a development model to address future uncertainties including increasingly frequent extreme events, long term climate change, population increase and urbanization. Cheikh Mbow’s presentation raised the issues of information availability and accessibility in African settings, and the expectations for knowledge translation to various stakeholders to meet needs for sustainable development and to ‘link content to people’.

Christine Fürst , Senior Researcher from the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn, and Anette Reenberg, Professor Emeritus at the University of Copenhagen also presented during the meeting.

Christine Furst discussed a case study from the BMBF research-focused program WASCAL (West African Science Service Center for Climate Change and Adapted Land Use), which aims to enhance the resilience of human and environmental systems to climate change by developing and consulting strategies for adapted land use. Furst used examples from the program to show how integrated land use planning processes can be initialized, supported and bundled to transferable recommendations for how to best involve management practices and land use pattern as basis for evolving rural land systems in West-Africa.

Finally, Anette Reenberg addressed the challenge of conceptualizing and analysing complex change processes and causal explanations in human-environment systems. To illustrate this challenge empirically, Anette’s talk took as its point of departure the apparent paradox that the agricultural practices in the desert fringe zone of the Sahel seem to remain remarkably unchanged despite huge and accelerating changes in major driving forces such as climate variations, population pressure, policies, and market access. Such partly unexpected trends suggest that novel insight is needed into the human-environment interactions that shape the use of land for cultivating purposes in this region. Reenberg suggested employing a portfolio of complementary conceptual lenses to human-environment interaction in the Sahel, in order to help build understanding of local land transformations and their implications for local livelihoods and regional to global sustainability.

This piece relates to information presented at the 2nd Global Land Project Open Science Meeting on March 19th 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Slides from the meeting can be found on SlideShare.