Research theme 1: Agricultural expansion

Understanding the dynamics of agricultural expansion into natural habitats in Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia


About the theme

This research theme will provide thematic and spatial data and information that will lead to (a) an understanding of the past, present and (likely) future dynamics of the expansion of agriculture into natural habitats, and (b) enable the selection of areas / sites for empirical research on the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of expansion under Research Theme 2 (understanding the impacts of agricultural expansion).

By 'dynamics', we mean the main current and likely future drivers of expansion (at household and national level), the resulting extent of the expansion in terms of area, and the nature of the expansion. 


Our research questions

This theme aims to answer the following research questions, framed around the past, present and future: 


  • Where has agricultural expansion primarily happened in the past? What has been the extent of this expansion?
  • Historically, what have been the main drivers of this expansion, and how have they changed over time? 
  • What have been the dynamics of past expansion? What sort of agricultural systems have replaced the forest or other natural habitat?
  • Where and to what extent has agricultural expansion overlapped with areas of high biodiversity? 


  • What are the likely drivers of agricultural expansion in the future? 
  • Where is agricultural expansion most likely to happen in the future? 
  • How is expansion likely to happen, and how will its dynamics differ from historic patterns of expansion? 
  • Where and to what extent is agricultural expansion likely to overlap with areas of high biodiversity? 


Our methods

Past/present: To understand what the past drivers of agricultural expansion were, and what the nature of that expansion was, we will conduct a literature review and secondary data analysis. We will use land-use and land-cover (LULC) maps, satellite images and spatial analysis tools, supported by ground-truthing, to identify the location of past expansion. To assess how expansion has overlapped with areas of high biodiversity, we will use spatial analysis tools and statistical modelling. This national-level work will be complemented by field-level empirical research (at household and community level) in two sites per country, using a range of quantitative and qualitative methods to analyse how macro-level drivers influence the choices of farmers as regards to agricultural expansion, with special attention to intra- and inter-household differences.  

Future: To explore what the likely drivers of agricultural expansion will be in the future, we will use a combination of foresight methods to co-develop (with stakeholders in Africa) plausible alternative scenarios for agricultural development in Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia. These scenarios will then be combined with data on key drivers of food demand, in order to inform predictive models of land use change. We will also consider other factors, such as land use suitability, infrastructure and settlements expansion analysis, protected areas and other elements of government policy that will impact on future land allocation, to explore the likely location and dynamics of future agricultural expansion. Finally, we will use models and maps of biodiversity and ecosystem functions to understand what the likely overlap will be with expansion in the future.


Climate change had a devastating impact on agriculture in the Mount Kenya region, Kenya. Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity work is essential to tackle complex issues (Photo: CIAT/Neil Palmer via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Talking transdisciplinarity

How do we really achieve impact in our work?

Career Opportunity: IIED Agricultural Expansion Consultant

IIED is seeking a research consultant to work with us on research into drivers of agricultural expansion in sub-Saharan Africa.

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