The structures underpinning vulnerability: Examining landscape-society interactions in a smallholder coffee agroforestry system

Alexandra C. Morel, Mark Hirons, Sheleme Demissie, Techane Gonfa, Zia Mehrabi, Peter R. Long, Sami Rifai, Tadesse Woldemariam Gole, John Mason, Constance L. McDermott, Emily Boyd, Elizabeth J.Z. Robinson, Yadvinder Malhi, Ken Norris

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    7 Citations (Scopus)
    67 Downloads (Pure)


    Smallholder farmers dependent on rain-fed agriculture are particularly vulnerable to extreme climate events and, therefore, it is necessary to identify adaptive measures that would increase farmer resilience to these shocks. The management options in a low-input system, like forest coffee (Coffea arabica), are limited and there are several factors out of farmers' control driving their vulnerability to changing climatic conditions. These can relate to social structures and landscape factors, which can interact to reduce farmers' adaptive capacity, creating a state of contextual vulnerability. We explored the potential synergies of this interaction across elevation, patch area and shade management gradients for smallholder coffee farms around the UNESCO Yayu Coffee Forest Biosphere Reserve in Ethiopia before, during and immediately following the 2015/16 El Niño. We documented a dramatic collapse in coffee yields across all farms, resulting in coffee incomes 29.5% ±18.0% and 19.5% ±10.0% of 2014 incomes in 2015 and 2016, respectively. We identified farms at elevations between 1500 and 1600 m with canopy openness between 40% and 45% as being consistently low yielding over our study period. We found these farmers had the highest rates of income diversification and, therefore, were already exhibiting adaptive capacity. Farmers with the largest income losses were spatially concentrated between 1600 and 1700 m, located in larger patch areas with lower canopy openness. Farmers at this elevation have access to poor infrastructure, restrictions on shade management and reported higher dependence on income from coffee, indicating an interaction of biotic and social factors exacerbating their vulnerability. Unfortunately, due to a nationally declared state of emergency, we were unable to survey farmers on the adaptive measures they undertook; therefore, we are limited in assessing their resilience. However, we do show the importance of considering both biotically and socially-mediated influences for assessing smallholder vulnerability, particularly barriers to diversifying incomes.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number075006
    Number of pages10
    JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
    Issue number7
    Publication statusPublished - 9 Jul 2019


    • coffee forest
    • El Nino
    • Ethiopia
    • smallholder
    • vulnerability

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
    • Environmental Science(all)
    • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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