Agriculture, Wildlife, Water and Changing Land Use in Sub-Saharan Africa

2012-15 Seed Grant

Africa’s mesic savannas are a 21st century hotspot of global change. This region contains one of the world’s largest remaining blocks of potential farmland, a rapidly growing population, and substantial exposure to climatic variability and change. This project aims to understand how the competing interests in agriculture, biodiversity, water resources, and carbon conservation can be balanced, and how climate change might impact this balance. Together Kelly Caylor, Dan Rubenstein, Lyndon Estes, and Tim Searchinger are employing 1) land use modeling to identify and map tradeoffs between these four major land uses; 2) crop simulation modeling and remote sensing to understand agricultural land use responses to climatic variability, and 3) novel landcover mapping techniques to better estimate cropland extent and characteristics (to support 2 and 3).

Educational Impacts

Water, Savannas, and Society: Global Change and Sustainability in Africa’s Hallmark Ecosystem course (EEB-ENV341) was redesigned by Estes to focus on the themes of this Grant, providing an overview of savanna ecology, human livelihoods, and global change within the mesic savannas of Africa. The course channels students to work in groups, guided by a land use model developed as part of class material, to evaluate future sustainability issues and tradeoffs between four key sectors; agriculture, water, carbon, and biodiversity. The class culminates in group presentations and a review-style, team-written final paper. Caylor and Rubenstein provide lectures in their respective areas of expertise during each semester. Additional guest lectures are provided by Princeton-based experts in resources economics, social ecology, and paleo-anthropology. The redesigned course was first taught in Fall, 2012, and is in progress during Fall, 2013.

A number of students have been directly involved in research related to the project, particularly with respect to developing the Mapping Africa project. This includes three undergraduates, employed either directly during the semester or as Grand Challenges summer interns.  In addition, Stephanie Debats, in conjunction with a key collaborator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Dr. Thomas Fuchs), has undertaken development of landcover mapping techniques based on computer vision and machine learning techniques. This work was supported by a Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s summer internship (2013), which helped to leverage the GC funds and expand the scope of the project.

Other Outcomes

To date, a manuscript providing an overview of the key environmental tradeoffs in the region is being revised for submission to Science (Searchinger et al.). This paper will be followed by spatially explicit land use tradeoff analysis based on a model developed for this project. Remote sensing was used to study how Zambian farmers change planting in response to hydro-climatic extremes (Caylor et al, 2012), and a novel crowdsourced mapping approach has been created (Estes et al, 2012), which will be used to train and test pattern recognition algorithms being developed in collaboration with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This project has also underpinned four larger grant applications (NASA, NSF, and Belmont consortium), which, if successful, will allow the scope and detail of these investigations to be greatly expanded.

Caylor, K.K., Estes, L.D., Chaney, N., Sheffield, J., Evans, T., & Sweeney, S. (2012) Examining Zambian farmers’ response to drought: a remotely sensed analysis of variability in crop phenology and yields. AGU Fall Meeting, B53F-0570. San Francisco.

Estes, L.D., Caylor, K.K., Choi, J.J., Guthe, W., McRitchie, D. & Zempleni, R. (2012) Turkers in Africa: A crowdsourcing approach to improving agricultural landcover maps. AGU Fall Meeting ED24A-07, San Francisco.

Searchinger, T., Thornton, P., Estes, L.D., Notenbaert, A., Beringer, T., Rubenstein, D. & Herrero, M. (2013) Do the savannas and sparse woodlands of Africa provide a low environmental cost land reserve? Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in revision.

Participating Department

Collaborating Institutions

Related Media and Press Coverage


Kelly Caylor
Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering and PEI
Professor, Chair, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and PEI
Lyndon Estes
Associate Research Scholar, Woodrow Wilson School and Civil and Environmental Engineering
Associate Research Scholar, Woodrow Wilson School

Research Associates

  • Stephanie Debats

Undergraduate Students