Jennifer Olson, a visiting assistant professor of geography at Michigan State University, is co-coordinator of LUCID: Land Use Change, Impacts and Dynamics, an international effort to examine and discover links to how East Africa's economic and social progress is influencing land use, the area's plant and wildlife diversity and land degradation.
Olson participated on a panel discussion today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting on "Space Matters! Space Dimensions of Complex Interactions between People and the Natural Environment." The session was to explore challenges in interactions between human and natural systems. Olson was to discuss "Multiscale Analysis of the Linkages Between Human and Biophysical Processes." Her work in LUCID, which is conducted in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, expands on that concept.
Drawing connections between changes in the social system and the environment is one aspect that makes LUCID unique.
"Most research projects just look at impacts on biodiversity and land degradation without integrating socioeconomic factors," Olson said. "Changes in social systems are all reflected in the environment. It is critical to link the two."
Olson points out that land use results in both positive and negative outcomes. On the one hand, local economies are doing well as more and more people are earning a living farming.
But this increased agricultural production has its trade-offs. Farmers need land. Farmers have been expanding into the savanna, wetlands and forests - creating problems for the native plants and wildlife that occupy one of the globe's most significant and diverse ecosystems, Olson said.
"In East Africa most of the wildlife, 60 to 80 percent, are outside of the parks and reserves at any one time. Agriculture is increasingly moving into these areas that had been for livestock and wildlife," she said.
Elephants are just one animal population that is feeling the effects of land use, particularly deforestation. During the rainy season elephants live in the dry land savanna zones. Once the difficult dry season begins, they head toward the forest. In some areas, however, deforestation is a major problem and has cut off the elephants' migration route.
The negative consequences of land use aren't as severe in some areas where the community's agricultural practices have not diminished biodiversity, resources or soil quality. Olson and other LUCID researchers want to know why.
"We want to understand why in some areas people have maintained the environment and their resources alongside the local agriculture industry," Olson said.
Olson and other researchers use a variety of methods to achieve this goal. She combines on-the-ground ecological and socioeconomic field studies with satellite imagery and aerial photography to get a broad idea of what changes are occurring on the land and why.
She and her colleagues collect information about who occupies a particular area, how long they've been there, how they modified the land and their perceptions of land degradation and changes in biodiversity.
Olson said there's a pattern - people clear the bush, start planting, soil fertility decreases and then in some cases there seems to be a turning point where farmers begin to invest in methods to improve land productivity.
"Determining when and why this turning point happens is important so governments can encourage improved soil and water management," Olson said.
The United Nations is taking note of LUCID's research methodology and implementing it in environmental projects in other parts of Africa and Asia.