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Investigating the impact of livelihood-focused interventions on forest ecosystems, deforestation and associated environmental processes

Dr. Susannah Sallu (SEE), Dr. Simon Lewis (Geography), Dr. Dominick Spracklen (SEE)

Project partner(s): United Bank of Carbon (potential CASE)

Contact email:

Project Summary

Rapid deforestation contributes substantially to climate change. It undermines the provision of vital ecosystem services and livelihood opportunities necessary for sustainable development and limits future options for human adaptation (Bradshaw et al. 2007; Lima 2014). Reducing deforestation is therefore an important sustainable development, climate mitigation and adaptation mechanism (Pramova et al. 2012). One approach to reducing deforestation are livelihood focused interventions in communities adjacent to forests. Such interventions are common place in countries ranked low in terms of human development and high in terms of forest importance (e.g. for biodiversity and the ecosystem services they support. Livelihood focused interventions typically aim to reduce deforestation by diversifying the livelihood activities of forest-adjacent human populations and substituting those activities dependent on forest products (Sunderlin 2005, 2010).

Whilst a significant amount of research has investigated the impacts of livelihood interventions on livelihoods, their impact on forest ecosystems and associated environmental processes (e.g. avoided deforestation and forest-climate interactions) is understudied.

The central research question in this PhD project will therefore be – how do livelihood focused interventions affect forest ecosystems, deforestation and associated environmental processes? 

With significant amounts of overseas development assistance being spent on livelihood focused interventions and forest conservation in the developing world, better understanding of the impact of such projects on forests is important for the design of appropriate policy. There are substantial opportunities for well-designed livelihood interventions to have strong co-benefits for forest ecosystems, but there are also risks interventions might not lead to behaviour change or mis-targeted (Wright et al. 2015; Dokken and Angelsen, 2015) and instead result in increased deforestation locally or elsewhere (leakage) (Latham et al., in press). Livelihood interventions might provide additional rather than alternative livelihood activities, and/or increase the vulnerability of livelihood strategies to future shocks and stress through specialism on new or high risk activities. This PhD project will provide the knowledge to help inform the design and implementation of livelihood interventions that benefit livelihoods as well as reduce deforestation and mitigate climate change. The project therefore has the potential to generate high profile insights on how climate mitigation and adaptation through livelihood interventions will affect forest ecosystems.

Methodological approach

Drawing on the expertise of supervisors and collaborating partners, a cross-scale methodological approach will be used in this project. Firstly, insights will be drawn from a pan-tropical meta-analysis of livelihood projects which will be combined with remote sensing and existing plot data on forest loss to 1) explore whether relationships between forest loss and livelihood interventions are visible/exist. Secondly, ecological and social science fieldwork in a tropical forest location of high livelihood intervention (e.g. East Usambara mountains, Tanzania) will be conducted to 2) explore emergent insights generated from the meta-analysis, 3) investigate the effectiveness of different interventions in reducing deforestation and mitigating climate change, and 4) investigate the impact of interactions between different interventions in reducing deforestation and improving livelihoods. Ecological fieldwork is likely to include vegetation surveys in previously established plots, whilst social science fieldwork is likely to involve interviews with project developers and implementers and participatory research (household surveys, focus group work) with intervention recipients. 

Supervisory arrangements

The supervisory team draws together complementary but different expertise relating to tropical forest ecosystems – rural livelihoods (Sallu), forest ecosystems (Lewis) and forest-climate interactions (Spracklen) – creating opportunities to harness existing knowledge and data, whilst developing new methodological approaches and insights to push forward new thinking in this area. The student will benefit from engagement across the School of Earth and Environment (particularly the Sustainability Research Institute and Institute of Climate and Atmospheric Sciences) and the School of Geography. Supervisors are all members of Leeds Ecosystem, Atmosphere and Forests Centre (LEAF) – a new interdisciplinary centre established to link researchers across schools and faculties, strengthen existing collaborations and encourage new inter-departmental partnerships, establishing the University of Leeds as a leading national centre in forest research. This PhD aligns with this new Centre.

Case partner

The proposal has been agreed as a “Partnership Project” (a potential CASE project) with the United Bank of Carbon (UBoC) (URL: providing £1,000 per year extra funding additional to the NERC student stipend. This research project aligns well with the mission and objectives of UBoC, providing evidence and insight that will inform future conservation practice in the world’s forests. This project also has the potential to inform a partnership building project and livelihood intervention associated with a collaboration supported by UBoC between the University of Leeds, Leeds City Council, Tanzania Forest Conservation Group and communities in the East Usambara mountains (Spracklen led).

Potential for research and development impact

The project addresses novel questions around how climate mitigation and adaptation through livelihood interventions will affect forest ecosystems. The project exploits expertise in social science, tropical forest fieldwork, numerical modelling and remote sensing. Existing research from the supervisors in this research area has yielded a number of high impact publications (see above lists of papers). Knowledge from this studentship will not only inform livelihood intervention and conservation activities in Tanzania, it will also inform ongoing policy mechanisms such as the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) mechanism. The studentship therefore has potential to impact both policy and practice.

At least three high impact academic papers would be expected from this project. The first from the pan-tropical meta-analysis and remote sensing component of the project (relationships between forest loss and livelihood interventions), the second from the assessment of effectiveness of interventions in reducing deforestation and mitigating climate change, and a third that focuses on the impact of a particular intervention and/or a combination of interventions. Policy briefs and policy/practice relevant communications (blogs/meetings/workshops) would also be expected from the project.

The PhD will benefit from ongoing partnerships, research projects and research networks, enhancing potential for research and development impact, in particular:

  1. There is potential for fieldwork in the East Usambara mountains to inform:

    - livelihood interventions through direct research collaboration with the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group-ONGAWA-Muheza District Council led EuropeAid funded programme implementing ‘Integrated approaches for climate change adaptation and resilience’ (Sallu led project), and/or similar ongoing projects.

    - a partnership building project and livelihood intervention associated with a collaboration between the University of Leeds, Leeds City Council, Tanzania Forest Conservation Group and communities in the East Usambara mountains, a collaboration that has secured initial funding from the United Bank of Carbon (Spracklen led).

  2. There is potential for ecological fieldwork in East Usambara mountains to build on established vegetation plots and transects established by the East Usambara Conservation Area Management Programme (1992-2002, involving Dr. Sallu) and during the ‘Valuing the Arc’ project (2007-2012, involving Prof  Lewis), allowing longitudinal analysis of data.
  3. The PhD research will complement the work of ESRC PhD students Marta Gaworek-Michalczenia working on resilience and climate change adaptation in the East Usambara mountains and Robin Loveridge studying biodiversity and human well-being across protected area networks in Tanzania (both supervised by Sallu), and benefit from a wider network of researchers with experience working across Tanzania, creating potential for additional joint publications.

In addition the PhD will directly benefit from and inform a Masters-level fieldcourse that provides training on environment-development issues and overseas fieldwork in the East Usambara mountains led by Dr. Sallu.

Entry requirements/necessary background for students

A minimum 2:1 undergraduate degree in Environmental Science or similar, plus a Masters degree in a subject of relevance to the PhD project. Experience conducting fieldwork / working overseas is essential.

This PhD would be well suited to a candidate with an interest in interdisciplinary research and with good quantitative and qualitative data handling and analysis skills. It would suit a student with both environmental and social science training (gained at Undergraduate and Masters level), or with environmental science training and a passion to develop their skills in the social sciences. Knowledge and experience of remote sensing and/or GIS would be beneficial, but is not essential. An interest to develop advanced knowledge and expertise in remote sensing and GIS expertise is essential. Experience conducting overseas research would be beneficial.


Student training will be available in research skills, advanced qualitative and quantitative methods, geographic information systems and other optional M.Sc. degree modules across the Faculty of Environment. The student will specifically benefit from training provided on the Overseas Environment & Development Field Course, a Masters module that runs in Tanzania lead by supervisor, Dr. Sallu.  The student will benefit from interactions with the ESRC White Rose Network on ‘Conservation Governance’ that runs October 2016-2020 which is co-led by Dr. Sallu and involves three studentships across the Universities of Leeds, York and Sheffield. The student will join a small supportive research group involving 4 other students at Leeds currently working in Tanzania led by Dr. Sallu.


  • Bradshaw et al. (2007) Global evidence that deforestation amplifies flood risk and severity in the developing world. Global Change Biology 13, 1–17.

  • Dokken and Angelsen (2015) Forest reliance across poverty groups in Tanzania. Ecological Economics 117: 203-211.

  • Lima et al. (2014) Feedbacks between deforestation, climate, and hydrology in the Southwestern Amazon: implications for the provision of ecosystem services. Landscape Ecology 29(2): 261-274.

  • Pramova  et al.2012 Forests and trees for social adaptation to climate variability and change. WIREs Climate Change 3: 581-596.

  • Sunderlin et al. (2005) Livelihoods, forests, and conservation in developing countries: An Overview. World Development 33(9): 1383-1402.

  • Sunderlin and Sills (2010) REDD+ projects as a hybrid of old and new forest conservation approaches

  • Chapter 10 in Angelsen, A. et al. (eds) 2012 Analysing REDD+: Challenges and choices. CIFOR, Bogor, Indonesia.

  • Wright et al. (2015) Reframing the concept of alternative livelihoods. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12607.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Environmental science