Trends in scientific research

By the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, scientific research in Africa had attracted global attention, partly because of adverse environmental disasters that resulted in mass mortality of livestock, huge human populations dying from starvation and increasing international focus on environmental degradation—referred to as ‘desertification.’4 This post- independence period experienced increased international donor participation in scientific research and project financing. International assistance was necessary to support rapid training of local scientific researchers and technicians, particularly under programs funded by bilateral international organizations.1 A peak in investments in large-scale development programs was evident—focusing mainly on environmental conservation and livestock development.6 The challenge again was that, in general, donor agencies had poor understanding of the social dynamics of the communities benefiting from development programs.

Concurrently, scientific research focused on consultancy services— short-term result-based information gathering to guide donor agencies in supporting development and emergency humanitarian programs. There were also other changes in the application of scientific research. Following greater focus by international donor agencies on the Sahelian region of Africa, national priorities shifted to emergency programs. Development agencies and researchers found themselves grappling with seeking solutions to long-term development problems.

The decade 1970 to 1980 witnessed integration of ecological and social science research in the form of two approaches. The first approach involved social science research that made more concrete proposals on what the futures of pastoral peoples would look like. The International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUSES) formed the Commission on Nomadic Peoples, which championed these ideas. The second approach was social science research conducted by anthropologists considered that researchers were morally obliged to save pastoral peoples and integrate their subsistence economies into national and global economies by focusing on practical solutions to development problems/

During the 1980s (20 years later), interdisciplinary research was becoming popular with development agencies, in addressing development problems. Unlike the past, when ecological research had been isolated from social science research, the merging of the two disciplines created hybrid methods that were applied in implementing development programs.8 Most importantly, there was growing interest in improving the scale of conventional experimental research to the level of ecosystems, in an attempt to understand better the drivers of ecosystem changes (from ecological and social perspectives). The shift—particularly in development aid agendas—was from local to regional programs, with greater participation by private researchers from western academic institutions.9

By the 1990s, the large-scale rangeland and pastoral developments of the previous decades had ended.10 Donor fatigue and disappointment from investments in large-scale programs seem to have been the cause. Consequently, large-scale pastoral development initiatives were on the decline, while scientific research was growing. This mismatch created wide gaps between research and development that had not been experienced since the colonial period (Figure 1.2). Nonetheless, growing interest in the internationalization of scientific research in Africa had created what came to be called an era of ‘big science.’

The era of‘big science’

The ‘big science’ has three characteristics. First, it is scale-dependent. Second, it involves collaborations by large international interdisciplinary teams of researchers comprising natural and social scientists. Third, it includes diversities of ecosystems and cultures across the world. The concept of ‘big science’ emerged from work of the International Biological Program (IBP) launched in the USA in the 1964.11 This network provided rapid methods of sharing research information among its members via peer-reviewed publications. Before it ended in 1974, the IBP provided an international forum for natural scientists on a variety of ecological research topics; however, it made less of a contribution to social and economic research for development programs.12 An important contribution of the IBP was to challenge ecologists to coordinate their research for ‘a common cause’ for humanity around the world11—a philosophical approach that was adopted by UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program.

The UNESCO-MAB program

The enthusiasm generated by the IBP motivated UNESCO to launch the ‘Man and the Biosphere’ (MAB) program in 1971 to support interdisciplinary research and collaboration with individual countries. These country- based programs created international research networks focusing on various ecosystems around the world.14 The MAB studies were significant for four reasons. First, the programs extended investigations into ecosystem studies that had been neglected under the IBP. Second, MAB radically improved the work started by IBP in terms of interdisciplinary research. Third, under MAB, ecosystem studies were expanded to include all natural systems on which societies depend.11 The scale of research was unpreced- ented, compared to the experimental investigations during the colonial period.16 Fourth, UNESCO-MAB recognized that the work of IBP (despite its high scientific value) had limitations in terms of developing methods needed to produce practical solutions.1. The hypothesis of UNESCO-MAB is that ecological problems are interconnected with socio-environmental and economic problems. MAB’s research also focused on production systems that integrated the work of social and ecological sciences with administrative decision making. The merger of scientific and administrative science was part of the vision of Francesco di Castri, General Secretary of UNESCO-MAB (1971-1984), who advocated the application of ecological sciences to solve socio-environmental problems.18 The aim was to organize international research projects through training personnel required in country programs.19 Among the MAB field projects, some served as pilot projects focusing on research of international significance, attempting to test scientific ideas,20 for example on understanding the processes driving ‘desertification.’

We use an example here. Between 1976 and 1986, UNESCO-MAB conducted an integrated research project on arid lands (IPAL) in northern Kenya. This project was concerned with understanding ecological and social factors that triggered desertification. The study region represented two ideal conditions associated with desertification processes. The first was that it was an arid ecosystem where the processes of desertification were believed to be active. The second was land use by indigenous pastoralists often blamed as causative agents of environmental problem. The participants were interdisciplinary teams of researchers who used a 36,000 km2 area of the Rendille nomads’ grazing lands for experimental research. The grazing territory was mapped into 24 range units (i.e., vegetation types) which disclosed a variety of ecological potentials for multi-livestock species grazing during different seasons of the year. While the anthropologists investigated socio-economic factors that motivated varied decision-making in terms of livestock movements,21 livestock scientists investigated constraints on livestock productivity, such as disease prevalence and feed variability.22 Range ecologists monitored impacts of settlements on the woodlands,25 and mapping and monitoring permanent vegetation transects across range units in terms of vegetation production dynamics.24 Economists, meanwhile, worked on rates of livestock offtake that could be sustained under conditions of normal pastoral herd growth. Climatologists used instrumental data to reconstruct the features of past climates and climate variability. The interdisciplinary research results were used to develop management plans for the Rendille grazing lands.2’ Unfortunately, neither international donor agencies nor the Government of Kenya implemented the Western Marsabit grazing and development plans. This is just one example of how the vastly rich scientific research information goes to waste in African countries.

Whereas the UNESCO-MAB programs provided individual countries with opportunities to calibrate research methods to international standards, they also faced challenges.26 First, despite the programs borrowing heavily from IBP, in reality they lacked an accepted scientific paradigm—forcing researchers to learn ‘along the way,’ or even relying on old paradigms such as the African environmental crisis (that has since been discredited, as shown in this work). Second, it emerged again that those responsible for research and management of natural resources produced information that, in fact, had limited practical value. By ignoring new emerging scientific directions (see below) and focusing on theories that had failed in the past, these ambitious research programs had limited impacts.2' The value of ecosystem scale research is in terms of building LTER networks.

Long-term ecological research (LTER) networks

The idea of ‘long-term ecological research’ (LTER) emerged in the USA and the west from the 1970s. LTER requires careful management of research data in order to monitor trends and outcomes.28 Where monitoring data are unavailable, interdisciplinary teams of researchers collect historical information on ecological dynamics from a variety of sources, in order to reconstruct historical insights into selected ecosystems.29

The success of LTER programs and their networks may be attributed to three major factors. First, the LTER approach developed conceptual frameworks that help in understanding both ecological and social perspectives of ecosystems (see later section). Integrating human actions with ecosystem dynamics and biogeographical drivers provide predictive tools on the behavior of human-managed environments. Second, through comprehensively managed documentation practices, LTER creates data banks that are ideal for testing ecological and social theories related to the exploitation of natural ecosystems. Third, in real world cases, LTER enables interdisciplinary research collaboration across political borders.’0

In East Africa, although many of the colonial research sites and many research stations were abandoned and the data series from these earlier periods lost to posterity, the colonial archives represent a valuable scientific resource and could serve as a base on which to build LTER. In terms of continuity, an LTER program that has involved collaboration by international interdisciplinary scientists since the 1950s is the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.31 Others include work of scientists who used meta-analysis of environmental and social data to reconstruct long-term environmental and social history of the region of southern and eastern Africa.32 In her recent book Savannas of our birth, Robin Reid’3 provides a thorough analysis of the relationship between pastoralists’ use of natural habitats and the needs of wildlife. Other examples of long-term research programs include the Maasai ecosystems,54 the southern Turkana ecosystem project,35 the Borana rangelands project in Ethiopia, b and the UNESCO-IPAL project in northern Kenya that produced valuable data necessary for building the historical and socio-ecological background that will contribute to ongoing LTER.3' The availability of such long-term data series allows for better prediction of future events, being able to separate natural from human-induced environmental changes.38 Further analysis of LTER data series will allow scientific researchers and development agents to track emerging problems that influence decision-making in the management of natural resources.’9

Systems analysis for decision-making

The idea of systems analysis is motivated by the industrial production model, and later computer systems and other technologies that were implemented in agricultural and range production studies to enhance decision-making. Systems ecology involves the quantitative enumeration of components and their interactions with subsystems, to capture and describe ecosystem dynamics.40 During the decade 1980-1990, rangeland and pastoral research involved multi-disciplinary teams working on research of global significance.41

In Africa, researchers at the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA) in 1970s and 1980s have used systems analysis for decision-making, working with their networks on pastoral and agro-pastoral production in various agro-ecological systems.42 In the ILCA systems studies, interdisciplinary teams of scientists combined a multiplicity of methods for data collection and analysis, to assist decision-making in managing group ranches and pastoral herd production under traditional management systems. Three lessons have emerged from these studies. First, short-term studies are of little value for making effective management decisions. Second, production systems are dependent on climate variability. This finding confirms the perspective that has been promoted throughout this book. Third, awareness has emerged within the teams of scientists that any new development approaches would radically alter traditional pastoral production practices.43 Examples presented from the systems studies have also confirmed that altering pastoral production is not necessarily as efficient as the systems of indigenous production. It was, therefore, this evidence that raised much interest in new ecology during the 1990s.

New ecology

The imperial science, as we have severally shown, had accepted the African environmental crisis hypothesis as the truth, even when there is an alternative explanation for ecological outcomes.44 There are two contrasting research viewpoints on the matter, which highlight shifts in environmental management paradigms. On the one hand, there are those researchers who continue to subscribe to the old theory by concentrating on the immediate (proximate) impacts of land use, while on the other hand, there are those researchers who argue that such opinions are misleading. The latter argue for a new ecological thinking. In their opinion, it is preferable to investigate the ultimate causes of the problem of land degradation and the general ecological dynamics of the arid and semi-arid rangelands. While the adherents of proximate causes would link processes such as desertification with land uses, the opposing view associates the problem with much broader and overarching climate variability as the primary driver and land use as a secondary cause.41 This then is the context of the ‘disequilibrium hypothesis.’41' We will explain this briefly.

Disequilibrium rangeland ecology and development

The old equilibrium theory (i.e., environmental crisis) had persisted until the decade 1980.4' The shift that occurred thereafter was based on evidence that emerged from pastoralists’ own adaptations and new interpolations of rangeland production dynamics in arid and semi-arid areas. Whereas in the past, researchers and development agencies blamed indigenous land use for environmental degradation, ecologists and social science researchers started to ask new questions, prompted by the need to understand why and how pastoral societies maintained their production in the absence of development interventions. Various studies have demonstrated that the western scientific knowledge systems alone is unsatisfactory in explaining their longterm survival in harsh environments.48 The questions are motivated by emerging and better understanding of indigenous land-use practices—the rationale behind certain land-use practices, local solutions to problems, knowledge of indigenous peoples, their adaptive methods of resource use and their future worldviews. These included increasing evidence that the dynamics of the arid and semi-arid rangelands of Africa were in response to climate variability and the adaptive strategies to environmental variability were by mobility of the pastoral herds. These two factors motivated applications of the new ecology.

How is the indigenous system of resource exploitation explained by the new ecology? How would knowledge of the new ecology support management of variable environments? We consider brief responses to these two questions as follows. First, range ecologists and anthropologists conducting long-term research among pastoral communities in East Africa have gained insights into patterns of resource exploitation, use of mobility, practices of herd splitting to reduce risks to vulnerabilities and exploitation of variable resources across space and time.49 Using their indigenous ecological knowledge, pastoralists have classified and appropriately allocated grazing areas during different seasons.10 Their systems of range evaluation and monitoring—when combined with ecological knowledge—provide a new understanding of rangeland ecology.51 Thus, contrary to earlier perceptions, indigenous knowledge and practices are robust and, in the majority of cases, offer better management insights than any alternative models. We will elaborate on this in the next section.

Second, the knowledge of new ecology proposes indigenous methods of managing variable environments.’2 In the new way of thinking, environmental degradation is explained as dynamic processes as opposed to progressive ones.5* The resilience of the African grazing lands has disclosed that the perceived long-term view of environmental degradation should be abandoned and replaced with one of possibilities and opportunities.’4

The disequilibrium model functions at spatial and temporal scales, as opposed to the equilibrium model, which works at fine scales. That is to say, evidence of land degradation might be observed at the scale of plots, as opposed to entire grazing territories of pastoralists.” While the equilibrium model predicts that vegetation indicators would decline with increasing grazing pressure, the disequilibrium model predicts variable responses in space and time.56 The persistent African crisis hypothesis had, however, ignored these important ecological factors and therefore failed to address actual causal factors of land degradation. To sum up this work, we will identify some key emerging issues focusing on use of knowledge systems using a conceptual model.

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