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Conceptual Framework

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The Collaborative Research Center (CRC) takes current large-scale land-use change in Africa as its starting point. Focusing on the two seemingly opposite, yet often mutually constitutive processes of intensification and conservation, it investigates their impact on social-ecological transformation (SET) in the context of three major growth corridors in eastern and southern Africa. While SET is commonly understood in relation to past processes, this CRC takes a different perspective: It conceptualizes SET as an expression of ‘future-making’. Resonating with current debates in the interdisciplinary field of future studies, this means that potential futures and the different ideas of how they can be realized are seen to have a decisive impact on current land-use dynamics, especially through diverse processes and politics of anticipation. ‘Future-making’ refers to physical changes as well as social practices that link the present to the future in various ways. Whereas natural scientists primarily study how a ‘future of probabilities’ is anticipated in different forms of calculation, measurements and models, the social scientists also take into account how a ‘future of possibilities’ takes shape in visions and imaginations. Together, the subprojects of the CRC will therefore be able to analyse how such different approaches to the future inform practices of large-scale land-use change, and how they relate to each other. While SET is not confined to rural areas alone, it is here where its impact is most significant and immediate, though often with uncertain outcomes. Special emphasis will be put on surprises and unintended side-effects of future-making, which play a key role in characterizing rural Africa today. 

The CRC is structured in three project groups, each organized around a bridging concept that addresses specific aspects of SET and future-making (see figure above).

Project group A (‘coupling’) studies the articulation between social and ecological subsystems, B (‘boundaries’) looks at the shifting zones of interaction and confrontation, and C (‘linkages’) explores cross-scalar drivers, connections and causations.

Empirical research focuses on development hubs in the Kenyan Rift Valley (KRV), the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT), and the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). The CRC builds upon profound research experience of the applicants and African partners, amplifies the unique combination of expertise at the universities of Bonn and Cologne, fosters partnerships with scholars and scientific institutions in Africa, and aims at making Bonn-Cologne one of the leading centres of innovative research in the emerging field of futures studies and social ecology in Africa. 


Envisioning the future: The title “Future rural Africa” does not mean that the CRC aims at foretelling the future. Instead, the research program will examine the processes and practices that reflect the future in the present or, in other words, that “fold” the future into the present, and that influence contemporary decisions and thereby prepare the ground for processes that shape future conditions. Future-making refers to the way how ideas, expectations and imaginations of the future inform action in the present.


Problem setting: The future of rural Africa is open – for transformation, surprise, hope, fear, speculation and contestation. This is the point of departure for the CRC´s conceptual framework and theoretical perspectives. These changes happen amidst controversial visions of the prospects of the continent. On the one hand, optimistic outlooks on “Africa rising” are featured by international development banks, foreign donor organizations as well as African governments themselves. On the other hand, critical voices are skeptical whether current developments are sustainable and beneficial, and they warn of a “new scramble for Africa”. Amidst these controversies, the future is explicitly addressed as the bone of contention. And yet the question arises whose future the different voices are referring to, who produces the various visions of the future, and how these alternative visions are put into practice. The future is not simply emerging from the past, but it is manufactured in an interplay of numerous actors, interests, and institutional settings linked across manifold scales.


Processes: Making sense of the complex situation requires a closer look at the processes and drivers of change. Two dominant types of land-use change can be discerned, i.e., intensification of agricultural production on large and medium-sized farms, and conservation of natural resources in national parks, community-managed conservancies and game reserves. Both processes are currently gaining ground in a highly dynamic way. They both respond to global regulatory regimes and incentive structures, leading to a transformation of nature and social ecologies. As a consequence, both avenues of land-use change converge in massive transformations of local livelihoods, including the marginalization, dispossession and even eviction of local populations, with an impact on land ownership, labor, food security, health, and social structure. What makes these processes problematic for many people is not so much change as such, but its unpredictability.


Why rural Africa? The CRC views the rural not in a dualistic way as the opposite of the urban, but as a socio-spatial entity that is intertwined with ‘the urban’ and ‘the world’ through various connections, like commodity chains, agro-food systems, migration regimes, communication networks, or other global flows in the context of globalization. Boundaries between the rural and the urban are progressively blurred, with urban residential settlements mushrooming in rural areas, multi-local households, new technologies like mobile phones and digital cash transfers, etc.


The CRC is organized around three bridging concepts, i.e., coupling, boundaries and linkages (se figure 2). They refer to different forms of intersections of social-ecological transformation. The purpose of addressing these three concepts is to facilitate cooperation between natural and social sciences within the CRC for an interdisciplinary knowledge production on future-making in rural Africa. By using the bridging concepts as guidelines for different disciplinary perspectives, the specific research foci converge on the same (quality of an) object, phenomenon, or process – such as large-scale land-use change and SET. In other words, the connecting and focusing function of the bridging concepts lies primarily in their capacity to create a bridge for the cooperation between different disciplinary projects. For that reason, the bridging concepts have been chosen for the formation of the three project groups A, B and C of the CRC.


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An important aspect in conceiving the future is the question whether the future is uncertain and open, or whether it is, at least partly, predetermined. We suggest distinguishing between futures of probabilities and futures of possibilities. The future may thus be understood either as the outcome of predictable processes that can be planned, calculated, measured, modelled, and managed in the present, or in terms of imaginations, visions, aspirations and political discourses that have an influence on decision making and future-oriented practices. At the same time, plans, calculations and models are developed in an attempt to control what is ultimately a future that is not fully predictable. Future-making in rural Africa is framed by controversial discourses about modernity, development paradigms, and Westernization, which are embedded in specific human/nature-relations. Scientific perspectives on these relations differ greatly between the CRC´s participating disciplines.


Research questions: The central research questions of the CRC address the relationship between large-scale land use change, social-ecological transformation, and future-making. They serve as guidelines for interdisciplinary cooperation.


(1) How can we understand and research future-making in rural Africa from different disciplinary perspectives?


(2) How and by whom are rural African futures made probable and/or possible?


(3) What are the main challenges and consequences of future-making in rural Africa?


(4) In which way are conflicting visions of future expressed, negotiated and translated into large-scale land-use change and ensuing social-ecological transformation?