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Livelihood, land use and environment interactions in the highlands of East Africa

Livelihood, land use and environment interactions in the highlands of East Africa
Eija Soini


Department of Geography, University of Helsinki, 00100 Helsinki, FINLAND.


This study aims at improving understanding of the interactions of livelihoods and the environment focusing on both socio-economic and biodiversity implications of land use change in the context of population pressure, global and local markets, climate change, cultural and regional historical factors in the highlands of East Africa. The study is based on three components (1) two extensive livelihood surveys, one on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the other in the Taita Hills of Kenya, (2) a land use change study of the southern slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro focusing on land use trends between 1960s and 1980s and 1980s and 2000 and (3) a bird diversity study focusing on the potential impacts of the future land use change on birds in the main land use types on the slopes and the adjacent plains of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In addition, information on the highlands in Embu and the adjacent lowlands in Mbeere of Kenya are added to the discussion. Some general patterns of livelihood, land use and environment interactions can be found in the three sites. However, the linkages are very complex. Various external factors at different times in history have influenced most of the major turning points. Farmers continually make small adaptations to their farming practices, but the locally conceived alternatives are too few. Farmers lack specific information and knowledge on the most suitable crops, market opportunities and the quality requirements for growing the crops for markets. Population growth emerges as the most forceful driver of land use and environmental change. The higher altitudes have become extremely crowded with population densities in some areas higher than typical urban population densities. Natural vegetation has almost totally been replaced by farmland. Decreasing farm size due to population pressure is currently threatening the viability of whole farming systems. In addition, capital-poor intensification has lead to soil fertility depletion. Agricultural expansion to the agriculturally marginal lowlands has created a new and distinct group of farmers struggling constantly with climate variability causing frequent crop failures. Extensification to the fragile drylands is the major cause of fragmentation and loss of wildlife habitat. The linkages between livelihoods, land use and the environment generally point to degradation of the environment leading to reduced environmental services and ecosystem functions. There is no indication that the system is selfregulating in this respect. Positive interventions will be needed to maintain ecosystem integrity.