Current Research

Plant Diversity in Southern Mozambique’s Human-Modified Landscapes

Can biodiversity and ecosystem services in sub-Saharan Africa be supported and maintained in landscapes where people live and work, i.e. in so-called human-modified landscapes (HMLs)? This question must be definitively answered in the next decade if the species and ecosystem services that people depend upon, and the iconic plants and animals we associate with this continent, are to survive this century and beyond. Threats from overexploitation, expansion of agricultural production, habitat modification, and increasing urbanization to support rapid population growth, as well as invasive species, pollution, and climate change loom large. Only 12% of sub-Saharan Africa landscapes have protected area status at present. Increasingly, ecologists and conservation managers are asking whether measures to support and maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services can be undertaken in HMLs, the other 88%.            

Anthropologists, and other social scientists, working with native peoples across sub-Saharan Africa have documented an extensive range of traditional ecological knowledge and environmental management practices that allow communities to access and use natural resources, often plant species, for livelihood production sustainably in HMLs. Their research shows how daily household needs for hundreds of years have guaranteed that nearly every plant species finds some use as food, fodder, medicine, construction materials, hunting and fishing gear, clothing, household goods and tools, ritual items, and/or fuelwood. While modern materials may provide excellent substitutes, personal preferences, tradition, and, most significantly, poverty help preserve the traditional ecological knowledge people need to access and use wild plant species effectively and sustainably.

This project proposes to synthesize previously collected interview and botanical survey data to investigate the relationship between plant diversity and plant use for livelihood activities in southern Mozambique. Matutuine District in southern Mozambique, the study site, has been identified as a coastal forest-savanna biodiversity hotspot of international interest. The highly diverse landscape supports a low density rural population dependent on natural resource access for livelihood production. However, recent designation of the district as part of a transfrontier conservation area has increased pressure to erode local natural resource access rights to wild plants in the effort to protect regional biodiversity and ecosystem services. Botanical data and interviews, collected during previous fieldwork in Matutuine District, will be analyzed and the results synthesized to answer the proposed project questions. [Summer 2017 RASA]


SESYNC Pursuit: Saving Africa’s Vultures

A SESYNC Pursuit is a collaborative team-based research project addressing a pressing socio-environmental problems.  We are addressing the “African vulture crisis” and the decade long decline in populations of 7 of 11 vulture species that have recently been reclassified as Critically-Endangered or Endangered.  Multiple human-caused stressors have been linked to mortality including: poisoning, directly and in association with elephant poaching and predator control; harvesting for trade in vulture parts for traditional medicine and beliefs; alteration of habitat through changes in land use; lead poisoning from game hunting and culling; drowning in farm ponds; and, collisions with and electrocutions on electrical power infrastructure.  Our objective is to address this complex issue through a cooperative multinational partnership.  This project will provide tools to enable policymakers, conservationists, and others to recognize and mobilize the best resources to address the complex web of threats affecting the vultures of Africa.



Signals in the Noise: Local Indicators of Change in a Complex Savanna Socio-Ecological System

Local environmental knowledge (LEK) supports household and community-level decision-making about resource use and management during stable periods, and adaptation during uncertain times, when other information is limited and/or non-existent. Socio-ecological system (SES) complexity suggests that LEK users focus their attention on specific indicators to forecast future climate and other environmental changes. LEK of the connections and interactions between various SES socioeconomic and biophysical elements and processes is then drawn on a second time to analyze response risks and make decisions. This local SES model offers opportunities for exploring variation that may be lost in the large, aggregated datasets used for global and regional SES modeling. Considering recent findings that critical thresholds and tipping points in complex systems are often preceded by a slowing of key indicator variables, comparisons of LEK indicators with regional and global indicators may also suggest variables for further analysis. This proposal outlines a pilot project to investigate SES complexity in Matutuíne District, southern Mozambique using LEK. Living in one of the world’s most climate vulnerable countries, residents of Matutuíne District use their LEK daily to navigate the uncertainties of climate, globalization, and conservation policy. Ethnographic, visual, and ecological methods are proposed to build a local model of the savanna SES, explore local indicators of environmental change, including climate, and examine local perceptions of environmental risk and uncertainty, as well as socio-ecological sustainability. This pilot project supports BSOS and University of Maryland priorities in advancing international and interdisciplinary research and outreach on the environment and sustainability. Pilot project results will be used to obtain additional funding to expand the PI’s research program on SES complexity into three other regions in Mozambique.


African Landscape


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