Episode 3 | How Researchers Changed the World

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Episode 3

Seline Meijer: The human side of conservation: people’s needs and planting trees in sub-Saharan Africa

I found that if it’s the woman who decides, that actually results in more trees being planted.


Seline Meijer is a Programme Officer at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), working on gender and the environment. Previous to this, Seline completed a Ph.D. in Forestry at University College Dublin, carried out in partnership with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), for which she spent 3 years living and conducting research in Malawi.

The podcast episode focuses on a paper Seline published as part of her PhD project, entitled: ‘The role of knowledge, attitudes and perceptions in the uptake of agricultural and agroforestry innovations among smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa’. The paper centres around the perceptions of the farmers she met in Malawi towards tree planting and forest degradation, and how household decision-making and gender feeds into this.


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Seline Meijer (SM): I thought, you know, we can’t just think about conservation as a protected area with a fence around it and ignore the people that live around it who are very poor and often rely on those areas to meet their livelihood needs. And so that’s when my focus shifted a little bit more, to include both people as well as conservation and try to work towards land use types and landscapes that really support both conservation as well as people.

Kaitlyn Regehr (KR): What comes to mind when you think of environmental conservation and who do you picture when you think of an environmentalist? Seline Meijer invites us to look at conservation differently, as a problem we all must share, not a mandate to be handed down by the western intellectual elite. In including the people living in areas which we need to protect the most, she argues that we will find workable solutions that benefit everyone.

SM: My main finding that farmers do have positive attitudes towards trees shows that our efforts don’t really need to be necessarily on awareness raising and you know convincing them that planting trees are important, because I think they already know that. They know that very well.  What’s more a limiting factor is the limited resources that they have. Support with tree planting activities can be really a valuable tool here because planting trees can be a way to contribute to food security. Some of these trees have a fertilizer effect so it can actually help them address some of these most pressing needs. So if we come up with interventions that really look at what the local needs are then I think that, that can really help address several of these issues at the same time. 

KR: Welcome to How Researchers Changed the World. A podcast series supported by Taylor & Francis which will demonstrate the real-world relevance, value, and impact of academic research; and highlight the people and stories behind the research. My name is Dr. Kaitlyn Regehr. I’m an academic researcher; an author and a scholar of digital and modern culture, and I’m interested in how new technologies can broaden the reach and real-world impact of academic research.

In today’s episode, we’ll hear about the extrinsic and intrinsic factors influencing the uptake of agricultural and agroforestry innovations in sub-Saharan Africa and why this is so important in the wider context of climate change.

Agroforestry is a land use management system in which trees or shrubs are grown around or among crops or pastureland. This intentional combination of agriculture and forestry has varied benefits, including increased biodiversity and reduced erosion.

SM: My name is Seline Meijer. I am currently working for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Washington DC in the United States. And my main interest is in what I call sort of the human side of conservation issues. And it’s really all about people, so gender issues and conservation, indigenous people, local communities and how they interact with their environments and the type of issues you need to take into consideration in local conservation efforts. 

And my background started more broadly in environmental sciences and then while I was doing a Masters in Conservation Science and had really kind of specialized in ecology, that was when I started to develop an interest to focus more on development issues and people. So the research that I did in Malawi really focused on those aspects and that really further strengthened my interest in those areas. And I still work on related topics today even though they’re, they’re not entirely the same as the research that I did and that I’ll be speaking about today. But very broadly speaking they still fall under that same general topic of people and conservation. 

IUCN is quite a unique organization. It’s one of the world’s largest environmental networks. So it’s a membership organization, it means that we have both government as well as non-government organizations that are members of IUCN. And we work all over the world in many different countries on various topics related to the environment. So we work on forest conservation, species conservation, marine dry lands, water as well as the program that I work in, it’s the global program on governance and rights and we really work on the people issues. 

From a very young age I was interested in nature and the environment, and as a child already I really enjoyed being outdoors. Even though I grew up in the city, I was very appreciative of any nature that I could spend time in. Once I saw the nature that we still have in other parts of the world, I really wanted to become involved in working towards conservation and the environment. And I became really interested in ecology because I wanted to understand how ecosystem, how ecosystems function and how they work. And that was something that while I started studying, that those were the types of topics that I became more and more interested in initially. And then at the same time, because I had spent some time abroad, that didn’t only sort of spark an interest in environmental issues but also in development issues, because you know there’s lots of issues in countries you know with poverty and inequality. So I actually studied a Minor in Development Studies and so at some point, these two things really came together. And you know I really wanted to work towards conservation and development efforts sort of at the same time and really work on the intersection of those two, two areas.

KR: Seline was always interested in the natural world and initially imagined a career for herself in ecology.

SM: My initial travel was in South East Asia, but I always had a really big interest in sub-Saharan Africa. And after my first year in university I decided I really wanted to go and visit to see what it was like. And so I signed up as a volunteer and I travelled to the tiny country of Swaziland, where I participated in a rhinoceros conservation project. And I spent five weeks in a national park in Swaziland helping out with various conservation activities in the park and really getting an opportunity to live up close with you know wildlife and nature and understand some of the issues that those parks and managers of those parks face in conservation. And that really for me, was a point where I knew I wanted to work more in Africa. And even though I was really fascinated by the beauty in the national park, that’s why initially I did more ecology, but at some point I thought, you know, we can’t just think about conservation as a protected area with a fence around it and ignore the people that live around it who are very poor and often rely on those areas to meet their livelihood needs. And so that’s when my focus shifted a little bit more to include both people and as well as conservation and try to work towards land use types and landscapes that really support both conservation as well as people.   

KR: Seline is originally from the Netherlands, a country whose remaining natural areas are closely managed and controlled. After completing an undergraduate in Environmental Sciences at Utrecht University, she travelled to study at the University of Oxford for a MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management. This Masters was to prove pivotal as she became more familiar and interested in the social and psychological factors of conservation. This led Seline to a Doctorate in Agroforestry at University College Dublin, which in turn led her to the World Agroforestry Centre in Malawi and to publish a paper entitled: ‘The role of knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions in the uptake of agriculture and agroforestry innovations among smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa’.

SM: The research paper really was the starting point of my research, where I was really trying to understand what motivates the farmers in Malawi whether or not they decide to plant trees and how they engage with trees in the landscape. So I started off by doing a big literature review around topics of decision making, how, understanding how people make decisions when it comes to agriculture and particularly tree planting. And I did that for the entire sub-Saharan Africa to really understand what literature was out there.

KR: Agroforestry is vitally important to agricultural landscapes the world over, and especially in the developing world. The benefits of planting trees include:

  • Reducing soil erosion, which in turn reduces loss of water, soil, organic matter and nutrients
  • Maintaining soils’ physical properties, leading to higher quantity and quality of crop yields and…
  • Providing an alternative food source between harvests

Once Seline had read what others had written about Agroforestry in sub-Saharan Africa, she left the library and went out into the field – literally. 

SM: I did interviews with many farmers in Malawi and before I went into this research I had some ideas on what I might expect to find, which was based on obviously the literature review that I did as well as conversations that I had with colleagues and other academics.  And the sort of general discourse around this topic really was that farmers aren’t so interested in planting trees, they don’t see the benefit and we really need to convince them to plant trees and make them understand why it’s important and why it’s good for them. 

KR: The Republic of Malawi is a landlocked country in the South East Africa. It’s a developing country, in fact one of the least developed countries in Africa, with an economy heavily based on agriculture, and a largely rural population. The country’s development needs are mostly met with outside aid, meaning there is a complex relationship between Malawians and the plethora of multi-national aid workers and visitors living and working in the country.

SM: And when I was talking to these farmers, I realized that they very well understand the benefits and they’re very positive around tree planting and it’s not that their attitudes are negative, they actually are aware of the different benefits that planting trees can offer to them. And they are planting more trees than I was expecting. I think that a lot of research takes a very black and white approach and often research papers are very binary, and they say either farmers are planting or they’re not planting trees. 

KR: As we’ve already discussed, the benefits of agroforestry are widely acknowledged and understood in the developed world. We’ll unpack the evidence supporting this claim later in the story. But why are farmers in Malawi planting trees? 

SM: So, they were planting trees for several different reasons. There are also many different types of trees that they could plant, so often they’re divided into different categories, including fruit trees, which is usually what, the types of trees they plant closer to their homes and includes things like mango trees, papaya trees, avocado trees etcetera. Then there are trees that they plant for example to function almost as a fence around their farms or around their homes. And then there are certain trees that can be used to provide a fertilizer effect, so these are the trees that the plant really on their farms mixed in with their crops. And there’s a couple of different tree species in Malawi that are used for this and they help to bring additional nutrients into the soil so that the maize mainly, can grow better. And then finally the other one that’s very important is trees that are used for firewood, which is still the main source of cooking and heating in homes in Malawi. And because there’s fewer forests and trees in the general landscape that farmers can rely on to collect firewood, they really also are trying to have more trees on their own farms that they can use to collect firewood and use that then for cooking.

So I think that you know the farmers they see these different benefits that trees have, and they recognize that it can really benefit them in the various different ways that I’ve just described and so they’re quite interested in having trees for those reasons. 

KR: As well as uncovering and understanding the motivations behind agroforestry in the developing world, an important part of Seline’s research was breaking through the preconceptions reinforced by previous research. A vital part of this is understanding decision making from a Malawian perspective.

SM: So initially when I started my research I was told by my professors that I should be talking to the head of the households because they’re the main decision makers and I was really wondering if that’s really true. So I decided to make that one of my research questions to also see you know who in the household makes the different decisions and how does that then impact how many trees are planted, and that then kind of became a study on its own almost.

KR: This initial suggestion feels like a slightly outdated approach based on preconceived gender binaries. Thankfully Seline implemented a much more nuanced framework. 

SM: Very interestingly enough it’s not just the head of the households that make the decision. Oftentimes in Africa it’s the husband, the men, that’s the head of the household, although in Malawi, in certain parts, they have more matrilineal systems where it’s the woman who’s head of the household, but I found that very often there’s a lot of joint decision making. And so I feel that by only talking to the head of the household you might not get a full picture of what’s happening and it’s really, again painting a much simpler picture than what’s really happening. And so, in my research, I wanted to understand the roles of both men and women when it comes to tree planting.

KR: So, why is this important to understand?

SM: Even though tree planting in general is in Malawi seen as a task more for men and it is more often the men that decide, I found that interestingly enough if it’s the women who decides, that actually results in more trees that are being planted.

KR: This kind of knowledge supersedes – or rather supplants – decades of research aimed at designing and developing climate change interventions and aid work in sub-Saharan Africa. In assuming that only the heads of the households make key decisions influencing a farm or family’s livelihood, aid workers and climate change scientists might inadvertently reduce the effectiveness of their work. What Seline discovered further to this, was that joint decision making and action was even more effective. 

SM: When I was talking to farmers in focus groups that I did with groups of men and groups of woman, there they provided additional insights to understand the specific roles that men and women have. So, men might be the ones that prepare the planting stations but it’s the women that actually take care of the seedlings and water them. And so, it’s really I think, too simplistic to say it’s only the men who participate in tree planting or who are making the decisions because both men and women play a role in that and really work together on that. 

KR: We should note that Seline is an incredibly humble person and without this humility and her quest for not only knowledge but truth, she might not have made the breakthroughs that she did.

SM: I think that academics when, you know, we go to university and we learn all these things we become experts in these topics or at least you know that’s what we think we are. And even when we go to some of these places where we implement projects, we are recognized there as the experts. And that was something that I grappled with in my research a little bit because I felt like as a researcher actually, I’m not the expert, I’m there to learn. And so what often happened was at the end of an interview with a farmer, they would thank me and they say “oh, I really learned a lot from you.” And then I thought to myself, actually I came here to learn from you!

And so I feel like, you know oftentimes, I would say especially people may be from Europe and North America, we we have our university degrees and we’ve kind of become experts in a different topic such as conservation, and then when we go to some of these places and implement things, we we are seen as the ones with the understanding and the authority and the power. Like that’s I think one of the main issues. We’re the ones that have the power to implement things and sometimes we might not be aware enough of the local conditions, or we think we know but it might only be a very simplified picture that has been informed by perhaps some reading, or perhaps other work or what we’ve heard. But perhaps what we really need to do is take a step back and understand truly what is happening at a local site. 

KR: We asked Seline how we, as researchers, might address this imbalance of power and how this might create an ‘education bias’ in our own work.

SM: I think it might start with being aware of that because sometimes I think that there’s a lack of awareness of the power that we do have and the imbalance of power that that can bring. And at the same time like you know when we’re being more aware and perhaps a little bit more humble about what we know and what we can do, I think that the other part is really working on empowerment of local communities and other actors in those landscapes where we work, to really make sure that people have a voice and they can participate in a meaningful way in these interventions, and have their voices heard so that it’s really understood what their needs are, where their challenges are and making sure that you know these interventions are really locally driven and that there’s a real need and that we address the right issues in the right place. 

KR: Following a short message, we’ll discuss local context and how cultural and regional bias can affect research findings. Join us after the break.

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SM: I think it’s really important to understand the local context and what drives people so that when interventions are being developed and targeted to these people, we really have a good understanding of what their needs are and what it is that we need to target. I feel that often you know some of the projects are kind of developed from a more top-down perspective and people kind of impose projects and fill in what other people might need and then they wonder, why was that intervention not that successful?

KR: The Republic of Malawi was formerly known as Nyasaland. Between 1891 and 1964 it was under the colonial rule of the British Empire. There are many people in Malawi who still remember British and other Europeans as the rulers, law makers and landowners. This historical and cultural perception is connected to the deforestation and the subsequent need to plant new trees.

SM: Unfortunately, colonialism plays a part in that and it’s created certain power dynamics and relationships that up till this day affect some of these issues. And you know when I did my research, a lot of the farmers at the end of the interviews asked me if I could help them get money, get seedlings you know because they expect that they might get some sort of development aid as you know part of this. And it’s hard sometimes because we’ve created almost you know almost dependent communities that sometimes they either you know they were told for a long time to ignore or forget things that they were you know used to doing. They were belittled and they’re sometimes looking at foreigners who have more power and think like, “oh they also have more knowledge and I should be doing what they’re telling me to do because that’s when I you know get benefits.” This is a generalization and obviously not true for everyone. Especially as a researcher sometimes I felt that, you know, I didn’t want to necessarily change anything and I didn’t want to make people feel like you know they should be doing certain things, or they should be telling me certain things.  I just really wanted to understand what they thought and believed and did and why. But sometimes it’s really hard to separate those two issues because they feel like if they give you certain answers, they might get certain benefits. And they really associate you know people from Europe as the ones that bring development or that bring money, projects and other such things to their communities. 

So it makes doing research sometimes more complex but at the same time, I think you know that’s why it’s so valuable to do research before we do some of these projects. Because only then can we really understand, you know, what is needed.

KR: It was Europeans colonizing sub-Saharan Africa who cleared large areas of forestry or shrubland for mass-scale farming and introduced European methods into a landscape that had largely remained unchanged for millennia.

SM: In the context of Malawi, there is that history of tree planting where what happened was in colonial times, it was actually you know big farms were opened up that were held by people coming from Europe. And they were actually the ones initially, who really cut down massive areas of forests to establish these big plantations. But what happened was the government was kind of blaming that on the farmers and the farmers were then told, “you need to plant trees.”  And so, there was big government programs shortly after Malawi became independent. And the government was really saying the farmers are responsible you know for all this deforestation, people in Malawi don’t realize why forests are important, you need to plant trees. And I think that did initially cause some very tricky situation where some people became angry, because they knew that initially, you know yes they would go to the forest sometimes to harvest a tree and use that in their home, for building materials or for firewood, but they also very well knew that the massive deforestation that had happened wasn’t because of the farmers. But yet it was blamed on them and now they were told that they had to participate in tree planting programs to resolve this issue. And I think that did kind of create a little bit of an environment where some people almost rebelled against that and said “no, I don’t want to participate in this.”

I guess my research just does show that these days, there aren’t…you know I don’t think there’s a lot of resentment anymore and people do genuinely care about trees and forests and want to plant trees. But it’s still, yeah a legacy of things that have happened, I guess over the past you know hundred years and how that really has affected what the landscape looks like today but also how the people that live in those landscapes relate to their environment. 

KR: Seline now works in a policy role and designs interventions to help local people make a positive impact on our environment. Designing these projects can be extremely challenging in balancing the needs of the climate and the people living locally. Her suggestions for designing effective environmental interventions…

SM: I mean I hope that the impact of this research is that it gives a better and more nuanced understanding of how, in Malawi at least, you know these types of decisions are made and what people’s barriers and needs really are. And I really hope that we can step away from some of the more simplistic views that we have and that we still base some of our conservation work and other interventions on and really look at some of the more complex issues that I think sometimes you know we want to shy away from. Because it’s very difficult to take that all into consideration when you’re designing a project. And it’s much easier to go off of more simplistic views and assumptions. But I really hope that the research that I’ve done helps to show what some of these complexities are and that actually you know becoming aware of those and working with that will have better outcomes than than if we kind of take those simplistic views, which simply don’t hold in reality. So I think that’s really my main, my main hope for this. 

And I guess the other part of it is that we hopefully can be a little bit more humble and give a little bit more power and credit back to those communities to really know that, you know, they’re really doing a lot more than we might give them credit for. And they know a lot more and they have, you know, very positive views of things. So I think that’s kind of the other side of that, that I really hope that my research can show, that we can give them a little bit more credit for that. 

KR: Without wishing to end on a sombre note, we asked Seline what the world would look like if farmers didn’t participate in agroforestry or stopped planting trees altogether.

SM: It’s hard to imagine what that would look like, but I think it wouldn’t be a very good situation… I think that if there were no trees, then the farmers in Malawi would have fewer food resources to rely on. For instance, right now mango trees play a really important role in what they call the hungry season, when their last years’ supply of maize has run out and they’re waiting for their current maize crops to mature so that they can harvest. And they use different fruits trees, especially mangoes, to really provide an important part of their diet and feed their families and so if there was no trees and only crops, there would be parts of the year when they’re waiting for their crops to mature when they’d have a lot less food.

And then in general, the environmental benefits of trees are so important so that if there’s no trees at all, I think that there would be a lot of problems such as flooding, soil erosion and like the local impacts of climate change might even be worse because there’s, there’s no trees to help mitigate that. So I think that the farmers would be really suffering in a double way: that the environmental consequences of that are very severe and at the same time helping them get enough food would be a challenge as well.

KR: Food security right now is not an issue for those of us who live in developed parts of the globe such as Europe and the United States, it’s a privilege we may enjoy for now, but never take for granted. Climate change is something that is affecting all of us. We’ve changed our planet so drastically that unless we act immediately, the consequences will be unimaginable. The responsibility for that change belongs to all of us, from academics and policymakers to farmers and fishermen.

To find out more about this podcast and today’s topic, visit howresearchers.com/agroforestry. On next week’s episode of How Researchers Changed the World, we’re speaking with Steve Omohundro about the ethical considerations of artificial intelligence, past, present and future.   

We’d love to hear your feedback so please follow us on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn @howresearchers.

This podcast was written and produced by Monchü and recorded at Under the Apple Tree Studios. Our producers were Ryan Howe and Tabitha Whiting, with editing, mixing and mastering by Miles Myerscough-Harris at WBBC.  We would like to acknowledge the incredible support of Taylor & Francis Group with a special thank you to Elaine Devine and Clare Dodd. 

I’m Dr Kaitlyn Regehr. Join us next time for How Researchers Changed the World. Thanks for listening. 

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