CNH: Emerging land transactions in Ethiopia and their impacts on food and energy security

Blue Nile near Bahar Dar by Giustino (file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

National Science Foundation

Award Dates
2016 – 2020


Project Lead: Southworth, Jane (UF lead)

Project Participants: Dan Brown (PI; University of Michigan); Arun Agrawal (University of Michigan).

Goals and Objectives

Tens of millions of hectares of land has changed hands in the last decade in a large number of lower-income countries, with the UK, China, and the US being among the largest sources of land investments. Control over land enables investors to cultivate new commodity crops, deploy new agricultural practices and technologies, and sell output for new uses and in new markets – with associated impacts on food-energy security, human well-being, and ecological processes. The scale and pace of changes in land ownership and access has increased rapidly in lower-income tropical countries. The project will assess outcomes of land transactions in Ethiopia – a country that has witnessed thousands of transactions and has substantial external investment, including from the United States – to identify when land transactions generate positive versus negative outcomes. This research will focus in particular on agricultural, ecological, and food and energy security outcomes. The project will generate new data that will be available for public use by other scholars and researchers, train scientists in the United States and build greater research capacity among international collaborators, and produce findings that will hold practical interest for decision makers in government agencies, NGOs, and donor organizations. Generalizable propositions about the impacts of land tenure changes on farm level processes, producer incentives, and labor practices will be of interest to US investors in other regions.

The project will focus in particular on quantifying the nature and extent of socioeconomic, land cover/change and ecological impacts, and modeling the causal sequences and feedback loops of land transactions. The research will advance the conceptual understanding of how tenure and institutional changes on land drive human-nature interactions and impacts in coupled agro-ecological systems. The project will aggregate and leverage existing socioeconomic datasets, and collect original social and ecological data from eight transaction sites. The research will contribute in three major ways towards an improved understanding of the effects of land transactions and the social and ecological effects of land tenure changes. It will: (1) Develop new theoretical insights into the livelihood, land use, and ecological effects of land tenure changes and displacement through integration, quantitative analyses, and agent based modeling based on multi-level social, economic, ecological, and biophysical data; (2) Enhance existing methods to understand and detect changes in land cover using remote sensing data for both agricultural and forest landscapes, particularly for the drier eastern African region; and (3) Improve statistical analysis and computer simulations-based predictions, in particular by developing better spatial analysis techniques. Overall, the project will show how varying patterns of livelihood and land cover changes result from land transition pathways associated with land transactions.

Project Outputs

Liao, C., Jung, S., Brown, D., and A. Agrawal. 2016. Insufficient Research on Land Grabbing. Science 353: 131.

Liao, C., and Brown, D.  2018. Assessments of synergistic outcomes from sustainable intensification of agriculture need to include smallholder livelihoods with food production and ecosystem services. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 32: 53-59. 10.1016/j.cosust.2018.04.013.