ASSETS receives high attention in Malawi

On the 22. September the ASSETS findings dissemination workshop took place in Lilongwe and received a high degree of national attention. The malawian The Daily Times publish the article “Government reiterates need to help the vulnerable” (6.7 MB). The Malawi Post published the following article:

Malawi Health Minister says ecosystems vital for human health

Peter Kumpalume; Malawi's health minister

Peter Kumpalume; Malawi’s health minister

Malawi’s Minister of Health Dr Peter Kumpalume on Thursday launched management of ecosystem as one way of serving food insecurity nutrition and health in the capital City Lilongwe, with a call to Malawians to preserve natural forests to in order to bridge nutrition gap.

Kumpalume said there is a strong link between ecosystem.

“That is why when I received invitation to this meeting I never hesitated  to come because these are inter related,” said Kumpalume.

Leads Programme Director Sosten Chiotha said ecosystem plays vital role in the human health.

“unfortunately people are no longer using natural forests as source of food they have to buy each and every thing,” said Prof Chiotha.

Chiotha said wildlife conservation provides several ecological social benefits although it is not well managed.

The research findings have revealed that despite Government campaign of eating 6 groups of food, people can no longer afford to eat even four groups.

In 2007, Malawi developed a national nutrition policy and strategic plan that guided the implementation of the muilti sectoral nutrition response.

The goal of the policy was to facilitate the improvement of the nutrition status of all Malawians with emphasis on under five children, pregnant and lactating women, school aged children and vulnerable groups.

Malawi Government has been expressing concern over the rate of deforestation happening in the country.

Is a non-monetary valuation of ecosystem services possible?

Colleagues from the Colombian ASSETS team were working hard to develop a method for the non-monetary valuation of ecosystem services.

Theis study explored combining data on the use of ecosystem resources with measuring the effort expended on agricultural activities in three communities of the lower Caqueta in the Colombian Amazon region. By measuring the energy expended by people during their principal subsistence activities, a measure of well-being was also indirectly obtained. For the three communities, the most costly ecosystem service in terms of energy expended was land in forests, which is prepared for planting with felling and clearing, with a value of 1,353 kcal per workday. This was followed by bush meat from hunting at 811 kcal per workday, fish at 682 kcal, obtaining food from the chagra (small family farming plot) at 470 kcal, collecting fruits at 380 kcal, collect- ing firewood at 148 kcal, and fetching water at 29 kcal. The preparation of casabe (cassava flatbread) as a cultural service has an energy cost of 386 kcal, while preparing mambe (toasted pulverized coca leaves) has a much higher cost at 808 kcal.

For more details about the methodology, the data collection and analysing please have a look at the recently published paper:

A methodological approach for the non-monetary valuation of ecosystem services in three communities of the Colombian Amazon
Zulma Duran H. ; Heliodoro Arguello A. ; Jeimar Tapasco ;
Agronomía Colombiana 2016, 34 (1)

Finalization of ASSETS’ fieldwork activities in the Amazon

by Martha Vanegas

Original post:

Peruvian women

Peruvian women

Some gender insights

After almost two years of field work, we are happy to announce that the data collection phase of the social component of the Attaining Sustainable Services from Ecosystems through Trade-off Scenarios (ASSETS) project is finished, thanks to the effort of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT – Colombia and Peru), University of Southampton (UK), Conservation International (USA, Colombia) and the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonia Peruana (IIAP-Peru).

Our field teams and local coordinators in the Colombian and Peruvian Amazon played a key role for the successful finalization of our activities. The project ‘Managing ecosystem services for food security and the nutritional health of the rural poor at the forest-agricultural interface’, also called ASSETS, aims at documenting the relations between ecosystem services, food security and the nutritional health of local communities living in the forest-agriculture interface.

“The recent field experience has been very important because it has generated many changes in my professional development and teamwork skills. I found the tools for data collection fascinating due to their novelty and easy way of dealing with complex topics.
Most of the participants of the various focus groups held expressed their satisfaction with proposed activities. In many cases, once the activity was over, participants continued with the discussion of some important issues that were raised during the focus groups, even talking about potential solutions to tackle the problem in the community.”

Liss Vega
Field team member, IIAP

Extensive data collection

We conducted 18 participatory rural appraisal (PRA) exercises with a total of 378 focus groups. The main topics discussed during the focus groups were livelihoods, land use, food security, wellbeing, natural resource management, coping strategies to deal with food insecurity and ecosystem services.

We also conducted 793 household surveys – 335 in Colombia and 458 in Peru – in order to deepen the knowledge on the topic and gain additional insights on the socioeconomic conditions of the families and their use of natural resources. The surveys were conducted in both rainy and dry seasons to account for the effects of seasonality. Finally, we carried out 145 household food diaries to understand food intake and food sources. This massive field work took place in 11 communities in the Colombian Amazon (La Pedrera district) and 9 communities in the Peruvian Amazon (Ucayali region).

One of the aspects addressed with the PRAs and household surveys was to understand the gender aspects related to livelihoods and ecosystem services. To illustrate these, let’s take a look into the preliminary findings of the project in both study sites.

378 – Focus groups
793 – Household surveys
145 – Food diaries

Ecosystem services and gender among indigenous communities in La Pedrera

In La Pedrera, Colombia, when looking at the data it is clear that all the communities greatly depend on ecosystem services to satisfy their basic needs. Although all ecosystem services are important for the local families, men and women seem to value them differently and this is related to local gender roles. In this way, women tend to give a higher value to the agricultural land (chagra) as they are responsible for farming; while men provide a higher value to the timber from the forest, as they are responsible for building the houses (maloka).

Men and women listed different criteria to explain the importance ecosystem services have for their wellbeing. For instance, they emphasized the role ecosystem services play as source of income, for cultural identity, for food and health, among others. Women, who are responsible for preparing the meals at home, mentioned more values related to securing a healthy diet for their families. Men, who are responsible for fishing and hunting, highlighted the importance of the availability of bush meat and fish throughout the year, as these resources are perceived to be decreasing in the region.

There are two different types of restrictions regarding the access to ecosystem services. On one hand, the communities have designed an environmental management plan to regulate the use and access to natural resources. These regulations are not gender differentiated, and aim at protecting the natural resources for present and future generations. On the other hand, there are some cultural restrictions, which are gender differentiated. For example, some of these restrictions prevent women in pregnancy or during their menstruation to visit some sacred areas such the salados (sacred places where men go hunting) for collecting wild fruits, firewood, seeds, or other natural resources. According to the indigenous communities, these cultural restrictions are intended to protect them from the spirits of the forest, as well as from the possibility to have unborn children.

Livelihoods and gender in Ucayali

In Ucayali, Peru, where livelihoods mainly depend on commercial crop and livestock farming, the preliminary results of the study clearly showed distinct gender roles. Commercial cocoa and palm oil farming were mentioned as important livelihood strategies in five of the communities visited. Although most of the communities that took part in the study explained that the maintenance of cocoa plantations is the responsibility of all the members of the household, after taking a closer look into the data men appear to be involved in all the activities related to cocoa production, while women only participate in the harvesting phase. Local families that have palm oil plantations tend to give more responsibility to men for harvesting the fruits, arguing that men are stronger which makes it easier for them to harvest the products. However, both men and women from landless families work as laborers in the palm oil plantations of their neighbors.

In order to understand the division of gender roles for the sale of livestock products it is necessary to take into consideration the socioeconomic conditions of the families. For instance, men are responsible for selling the milk in the households that belong to the higher socioeconomic group; whereas in lower socioeconomic groups women are in charge of this activity.

Temporal migration was mentioned in five communities as an important livelihood strategy for earning an extra income, including the two indigenous communities that were surveyed. During the rainy season many farming fields are flooded, and/or the access to them is very limited and perceived as dangerous by the local families. Therefore, during this season, some people look for work opportunities outside their community. From our preliminary results, it was clear that men tend to temporally migrate more frequently than women. Regarding youth (men and women alike), in non-indigenous communities migration is mainly for educational purposes, although some also migrate looking for job opportunities.

These preliminary results are only an appetizer of what is coming… because now it is time for the ASSETS team to analyze this interesting amount of data collected.

ASSETS is part of the ESPA initiative funded by DFID, NERC and ESRC from the UK.

Royal Society Pairing Scheme 2015


By Simon Willcock, University of Southampton (@Simon_Willcock)

Screenshot 2016-01-12 10.42.49

Dr Simon Willcock is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Southampton. Last November, Simon spent a week in Westminster as part of the Royal Society’s pairing scheme. As the Royal Society get set to open applications for this year’s scheme, Simon shares his experience of the week and what he learnt. This blog was prepared for the Royal Society’s Inside Science blog.

Although we have already entered 2016, it is well worth reflecting on my experiences as part of the Royal Society Pairing Scheme towards the end of 2015. #SpoilerAlert: the scheme was (as always) a huge success. Twitter was buzzing with messages from scientists, civil servants and Members of Parliament, all excited about what each was learning from the other. This press release shows how enthusiastic my university was about it! As usual, I was glued to my phone and managed to rattle off a solid half century of tweets over the course of the week. If you haven’t already looked at the scheme’s hashtag (#ScienceInWestminster15), I would encourage you to do so – the tweets have even been ‘storified’ here, which gives you a great overview if you are pushed for time (and who isn’t?!). A quick look at the agenda, gives you a good idea about many of the things we all learnt during the week, so I am going to focus on the time spent with my pair Prof Tim Wheeler (Deputy Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK Department for International Development [DFID]). Pairing with Tim was great; despite being tremendously busy (his day is scheduled from 8am to 8pm, as with most people in Westminster, and meetings are considered ‘long’ if they take over 30 min!) he took a lot of time explaining the ins and outs of the department to me. For me, the whole process was eye-opening. DFID part-fund two of the projects that I work on (ASSETS and WISER, both of which use the ARIES modelling software) via the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation programme, and gaining an understanding of their aims, objectives and pressures was invaluable.

As Sir Mark Walport (UK government Chief Scientific Advisor) explained to us towards the end of the week, ‘the job of a scientific advisor is not to know everything, but to find it out and communicate it to ministers’. The difficulties associated with this were immediately evident. For example, whilst I was at DFID the Autumn Statement set out the budget for government departments for the foreseeable future. The civil servants were juggling their regular day-to-day activities with trying to influence the statement (in some cases up until the very last minute!) as well as pre-empt the impact of its outcomes, all whilst liaising with the International Development Minister Grant Shapps. The numbers being discussed in the Autumn Statement were simply astronomical and have far-reaching effects. As scientists, we have become used to the chaos associated with moving from grant to grant to fund our research; now imagine that grant is worth hundreds of millions and was used to support a substantial proportion of your day-to-day workforce! I am certain that the people I met at DFID spent much of December sifting through the Autumn Statement to balance the books – what a delightful Christmas that must have been!

Against all odds, the staff at DFID do a great job, managing numerous successful projects and getting significant buy-in from ministers. For example, in a meeting which I was lucky enough to attend, I got to see first-hand how excited and passionate Grant Shapps was about some of the projects DFID has managed. However, within days I got to see yet another obstacle that has to be overcome in order to form evidence-based policy; Grant Shapps resigned as Minister of State meaning all the traction the scientists at DFID had gained with him must be re-gained with his replacement – such is the nature of politics!

In all, I learnt a lot from the people I met at DFID and they were also keen to learn from me. I am very much looking forward to the return leg where Prof Tim Wheeler will visit me at the Centre for Biological Science, University of Southampton. I think the paring scheme was a great success and the vast majority of the participants (81%) agree with me so make sure you sign up this year when applications open on 3 February.

The Jungle inside the Jungle: An Impression of the Peruvian Amazon

By Vincent Bax. Edited by Wendy Francesconi

The pristine, natural, and intensely green Amazonian forests have captured my interest for as long as I can remember. My second hand knowledge of tropical rain forests was built on an accumulation of books, courses, television, and of course the internet. The wait and hard work had paid off, I was finally going to experience first-hand one of the most biodiverse biomes in our planet. Within the framework of the ASSETS project, I had the opportunity to conduct research on deforestation processes in the Central Peruvian Amazon. From my home town in the Netherlands, I moved and lived in the jungle city of Pucallpa for about 8 months. Not too long ago, Pucallpa was a small settlement at the margins of the Ucayali River (a major tributary to the Amazon River). Today the city is the most important commercial port of the region. Since the 1940s, people from many different origins have migrated to Pucallpa resulting in a society of mixed cultures and traditions.

Timber extraction in Ucayali River, near Pucallpa, Peru. Picture by Wendy Francesconi.

Timber extraction in Ucayali River, near Pucallpa, Peru. Picture by Wendy Francesconi.


The lush green rain forest has rapidly been replaced by an ever growing concrete jungle. The life threatening traffic, the never ending construction work on every corner, the open air concerts and drum bands late into the evening, the beggars and vagabonds, the stray dogs and rats, all bombard and assault your senses as you attempt to stroll the door to door cemented streets. Very soon it became clear to me that Pucallpa’s multicultural population brings along a divergence of values and living standards. The fact is that not everyone subscribes to a consensus on social harmony and hygiene. This forest- agricultural frontier in the Amazon could easily be thought of as the 21st century’s “Wild West”. The ability to adapt to this harsh urban environment is an important one if one wants to reside in Pucallpa. Although life in this jungle city is far from perfect, living there enabled me to gain insight on the environmental and social problems affecting the Peruvian Amazon region.

The massive destruction of the tropical rainforests becomes painfully evident as fully loaded timber ships arrive at Pucallpa’s harbor every single day. It is well known that much of this timber is extracted illegally. However, for many reasons the government completely fails, to reduce or manage these activities. The rural areas surrounding Pucallpa and along the main highway are already completely deforested. The highly degraded environment makes it easy for you to forget that you are standing in the Amazon basin, the largest tropical rainforest in the world. Along with the exploitation of the forest timber, the native wildlife is under great pressure as well. River turtles, salamanders, birds and monkeys can be bought dead, alive, and somewhere in between, at the market in Pucallpa for just a couple of Peruvian soles (less than a dollar). Though this trade is illegal and concerns many endangered species, no serious action is taken by the authorities to prevent these crimes on nature.

Far away from the chaos of Pucallpa, some indigenous communities in rural areas along the Ucayali River maintain a different way of life. I visited one Shipibo village about 5 hours from Pucallpa. Though conveniences such as piped water, electricity, etc., are lacking, and life can be very difficult from time to time, the indigenous population seems to adopt a less stressful lifestyle compared to the urban dwellers. People seem less interested in gaining monetary wealth since most of the resources they use and need are found in their immediate surroundings. Fresh fish is extracted from the river, fruits are collected in the forest, and vegetables are cultivated on small plots of land. The village is full of life surrounded by trees, birds, primates, reptiles and other wildlife. In contrast to Pucallpa, the songs and calls, earthy fresh smells, and green, blue, brown sights inspire and embrace you.

It was not obvious to me how ongoing deforestation and other environmental issues in the region are affecting this community. Hopefully, the villagers will be able to maintain their harmonious life style for a very long time. However, we know that this will probably not be the case. The desire for achieving development under the conceptual framework of western society, as the power to acquire of manufactured goods, is too heavy to counterbalance when the legacy involves centuries of undermining indigenous wisdom and culture. The most likely outcome is for migration to Pucallpa to continue to grow, strengthening the unsustainable extraction of natural resources, given that a living environment in the concrete jungle is favored over a living environment in agreement with nature.

Pilot in Zomba

reblogged from


Zomba, a small city in Malawi, without traffic lights, where half of the (few) cars that drive around have a logo, and where the other 50% demonstrates the huge inequalities that exist in this country, where the university and forest research institute host some of the most amazing researchers and critical thinkers!

And where one of the large research projects managed to hire all good-quality rental cars in Zomba, so that I ended up with this …

My first (pilot) trip to Malawi is over and I have enjoyed (most of) it. The purpose of the trip was to test my surveys, which include different valuation methods, as well as develop future scenarios as part of my ESPA Fellowship research. My Fellowship is linked to the ESPA ASSETS project, which focuses on food security and nutrition.

The bit where I had to work every evening and weekend I will leave out. The bit where the printer decided to merge all words in Chichewa into a long blurb, leaving my (brilliant!) research assistants a bit confused, I will also not dwell on. And everything that I would not do according to my risk assessment but …, I cannot tell here.

Car repair in Zomba

My trip started very well. I was welcomed by Dalitso from LEAD SEA, the (very supporting!) host institution and partner in the Assets project, who not only managed to arrange everything such that I hit the ground running so fast that I almost tumbled over, but also advised me to buy candles for the occasional / regular blackout. I was almost disappointed when the candles were left untouched until well into week 3 (when I realised I didn’t have any matches).

In the four weeks that followed, there was a lot of learning, digging up experiences from previous projects, some more learning, a bit of pushing and pulling, some compromising, and various sighs of relief when methods, designed in an office in Southampton, actually worked at the foothills of Zomba Mountain!

Most enjoyable, by far, were the days out of the office, in what will be my case study villages. It is perhaps a cliche for Malawi, but respondents and participants were very patient with us, and extremely cooperative in the discussions and group exercises. Big kudo to my three research assistants, who went along with my experiments while always being super professional!

It was tough hearing people say over and over again that they lack the most basic necessities, such as safe drinking water, health care and schools – and then spending the equivalent of half their annual harvest on a rental car (see above). Or hearing about the endless promises made to these villages about nursery schools, water well improvements, agroforestry or health centers that never got any follow up – and then having to admit that you are here ‘only’ to do research.

Politics at various levels may be frustrating. During one of the field days, we ran into the household listing / census (important for fertiliser subsidy distribution, among other things). A conversation we picked up walking behind two women:

“Oh.. this village will never improve”
“What do you mean?”
“Our village headman, he is a disaster. He tried to register Williams again”
“Which Williams?”
“The one that is now in the graveyard”

The combination of expert interviews and these on the ground experiences has given me a first glimpse into the realities of poverty, inequality, agriculture and natural resource management in Malawi, and I consider myself very lucky to have the opportunity to come back in June!

The Hidden Spirit of the “ruined Maloca”


Maloca in the Colombian Amazon

Authors: Jenny Alexandra Angarita-Báez & Carolina Díaz-Jaramillo

Our experience in La Pedrera in the Colombian Amazon is of two worlds, one of human settlements labouring day and night on a land which constitutes their main source of subsistence, the other a magical world from which the voices of the communities’ dead ancestors, once honourable members of these settlements, all clamour and demand of their descendants that due care and attention is paid to the fragile ecosystems on which their whole existence depends.

From the depths of the village’s ruins of an ancient maloca, the continuous melodious chants of the community’s long-deceased elders could be clearly heard during the night. One of the villagers, who could not resist the call, decided to investigate and discover the source of these bewitching tunes. One night, as he crossed the maloca’s threshold, he encountered a spirit, dancing and singing in the middle of the room (dancing and chanting in the same manner villagers celebrate important occasions, e.g. the harvest season). According to tradition, confronting a spirit constitutes a dangerous challenge, so as soon as the villager saw what was taking place, he turned on his heels and fled. Not been able to hold his tongue on the matter, he immediately recounted the experience to the rest of the community, who advised him to leave well alone, but the attractions of the place overwhelmed the poor chap, who in the meantime was already planning his next trip. Putting his plan into action, he visited the haunted maloca the following day, with the firm idea of killing the spirit! On arrival, he heard the same enchanting tunes as the spirit was once more, singing and dancing in the maloca’s main room. As the villager entered and prepared to draw the weapon he was carrying, the spirit noticing his intention battered the man to death without a second thought.


Inside the maloca

As the days went by and the villager was neither seen nor heard, the other members of the community begun to express concerns on his whereabouts. One of those present volunteered to investigate the matter. It so happened, that same evening, the chants and dancing of the spirit at the ruined maloca could once more be overheard in the village, and the volunteer come “inspector”, recalling the “demons” driving to distraction his missing friend, decided to visit the ruins himself. On seen the spirit, he understood it was moaning in distress because something was holding him captive within the ruins. It was important to discover what held him chained to the place, as its destruction would guarantee its release and enable the community to live in peace once more. With this in mind, the inspector together with other community members visited the ruined maloca early the following day. In the main room, hidden under the board the spirit used to stamp his feet on while he danced, they found a collection of charmed leaves and stones held together by a liana. Gathering all these items, the little group exited the ruins and proceeded to light a fire and destroy them. The story goes nobody has heard chants of any kind in the ruins since ☺ (story heard from Don Alberto, a local storyteller).

Violence breeds failure, much more is gained through careful appraisal of our surroundings – culture as well as nature, as we stand a much better chance of success if we make an effort to understand!

Reflecting on this little story, it is clear that regardless of your geographic coordinates or your roots, societies all over the world attempt to transmit the same message to their descendants! It’s a pity their voices are drowned amidst the shouts of war and greediness that often prevail!!!!

An evening with Polly Higgins

Polly Higgins

On Thursday 6 November, 7:30 pm, James Dyke (University of Southampton) and others will be hosting Polly Higgins at the Turner Sims concert venue at the University of Southampton. 

ec•o•cide [noun] is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.

Polly has become renowned for spearheading the campaign to bring a Law of Ecocide as the 5th crime against humanity, peace and ultimately nature, to stand alongside war crimes and genocide. Polly will give a talk that, after a short break with some complimentary refreshments, will be followed by what I’m sure will be a lively panel discussion.

Tickets can be obtained from the Turner Sims website here.

Come and listen to a legend of our times and ask questions to a panel of esteemed guests, including Keith Taylor MEP.

Reminiscing on my childhood days


Juice making

Los pollitos dicen, pío, pío, pío,
cuando tienen hambre, cuando tienen frío.
La gallina busca el maíz y el trigo,
les da la comida y les da abrigo.
Bajo sus dos alas se están quitecitos,
y hasta el otro día duermen calentitos

Those members of the ASSETS team who took part in the project workshop in Peru between 22nd – 26th September had the good fortune to visit several of the study sites. One was several hours drive from Pucallpa in an area where oil palm plantations are rapidly replacing forest. We left this village with “la barriga llena y el corazón contento” (a full tummy and a happy heart), a well-known traditional Colombian proverb, no surprises there 🙂 after partaking of a fish soup (gamitana) and plantain feast served by our local host, all washed down with juice made from the fruit of local palms (aguajales). Our next stop was a community much closer to Pucallpa, which has no more access to forest resources and is suffering from severe soil degradation leading many families to leave the community to make a living elsewhere.

Arriving a little later than expected, we were slightly worried about the kind of welcome we would receive. These doubts were unfounded as on arrival, we were greeted by a very special welcoming party, none other than the community’s very own children school choir.

The children were all “full of beans” and in appreciation for the bunch of “uvas caimaronas” we shared with them on arrival, they treated us to their very own interpretation of “Los pollitos dicen”, a well-known traditional Latin-American children’s song, which I picked up during my school years in Venezuela. Who would have thought it? Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be reminiscing about my Primary school years in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon!!

The whole week gave those who attended, the modellers, the social scientists and the team members working on location in the three countries (Malawi, Colombia, Peru), an excellent opportunity to discuss the current status of the project, take stock of what has already been achieved, and the effort we need to invest, if the team hopes to achieve everything it set out in the project proposal. As I was not hampered by communication barriers, I was in the privileged position of being able to speak directly with different members of the communities that José Sanchez Choy from our local partner, IIAP, arranged for the ASSETS team to visit. The main message that I have brought home with me is their awareness of the environmental challenges confronting them. They are all prepared to make the effort required to ensure their future and that of the environment in which they live, nevertheless they made us all very aware they need to survive under especially difficult circumstances, an exploitative economic and political environment, whilst at the same time fighting a hard battle in a tough and unforgiving environment.

I can’t but hope that we deliver and can’t thank enough José, Gisella, Martha, Cecilia, Lisseth, Ingrid, Carla and Madeleine for their hospitality and professionalism!!!

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