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Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture #8 – Lieven Claessens

Our “Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture” series of interviews, which puts a face to the youth in agricultural research for development (ARD), hears their voices and obtains an insight into their roles, perspectives, experiences and aspirations, continues with Lieven Claessens. This young scientist talks about an event in Uganda that changed his life and how it has impacted his work today. This is the first of our interviews under the “Concerned with climate change” chapter. Click here to find out more about the series.

A model researcher at work

When the name Lieven Claessens is mentioned at the ICT-KM Program, everyone’s thoughts immediately turn to the tragic Ugandan landslides that killed more than 300 people and displaced thousands of others last year. You see, Lieven, an environmental scientist with the International Potato Center (CIP), had accurately predicted that these landslides would occur.

However, what Lieven was unable to foresee was the magnitude of human suffering that climate change and deforestation would bring to several rural Ugandan communities. Back in March 2010, as the swollen rivers flowing down Mount Elgon burst their banks, resulting in vast mud slides that wiped out entire villages, he could only watch the stark images unfolding on his television screen with a sense of sadness and frustration.

Three years earlier, Lieven had used a soil erosion model (the LAPSUS-LS model), which he had developed during his PhD studies at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, to assess the relationship between the landscape, land use and soil conditions on this mountain. However, the results, which were arrived at using existing data on landslides, were not passed along to policy makers who could have used the information to save lives – simply because the appropriate communication channels were not open to Lieven. Nonetheless, he is heartened to see that action is now being taken. Villagers have begun planting trees on the mountain slopes under a reforestation program that is helping to reverse soil erosion.

See Lieven’s video interview on these landslides.

Landscape models in practice

Today, Lieven, who is based at CIP’s regional office in Nairobi, Kenya, devotes much of his time to developing landscape and agricultural system models, as well as using these same models in his climate change work. An example of the latter is the Participatory development and testing of strategies to reduce climate vulnerability of poor farm households in East Africa through innovations in potato and sweet potato technologies and enabling policies project, which he has been coordinating for more than two years.

“It must be the project with the longest name ever,” says this jovial man. “We are now looking at ways of building on our past work by collaborating with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). We’re currently working with local partners in three countries in East Africa: Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. The focus, as the title of the project suggests, is on helping farmers who cultivate potatoes and/or sweet potatoes to adapt to climate change by evaluating alternative technologies and policies together with them.”

The ICT-KM Program recently visited CIP’s project in Kenya to collect farmers’ testimonials. Find out what one of these farmers had to say in this video clip or read about it in this CCAFS blog post. The video was recorded for the Adaptation and Mitigation Knowledge Network (AMKN), a platform that is being developed by CCAFS for accessing and sharing current agricultural adaptation and mitigation knowledge.

Lessons learned

As a result of the Ugandan landslides, Lieven and his colleagues place more emphasis than ever on the importance of communicating the results of their work to all stakeholders.

“A participatory component has been built into my current project from beginning,” he says. “So, in each of the study areas, we’ve been talking to the various stakeholders to try to identify the problems they’re facing, what they’re already doing to cope with ongoing climate change and variability, and what they see as potential future adaptation strategies. We’re testing these possible strategies with computer models to see if they have the ability to overcome the negative effects of climate change.”

Lieven and a colleague at work in the field

This native Belgian, who is also involved in the Tradeoff Analysis Project, a collaborative undertaking that provides modelling tools to assess the tradeoffs and synergies associated with changes in complex agricultural systems, talks enthusiastically about his early involvement with spatial analysis.

“I’ve always been fascinated, in some way or another, by agriculture and also the geography of agriculture and how it can vary globally in terms of soil, water, climate and landscape,” he says. “This fascination began while I was a young boy growing up in rural Belgium and eventually led me to study soil science in university, pursue my PhD in Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and carry out research in this area. I ended up making spatial models, which brought me to my development of the landslides model I used to predict the mudslides in Uganda. I’ve been working for CIP for six years now, and I’m still using these spatial models and spatial analysis to carry out my work.”

This busy father of three also devotes 25% of his working life to his old alma mater, where he works as an assistant professor. He currently teaches a course in global geomorphology, which looks at landscapes and the factors that shape them.

Adapting and sharing

Although Lieven seems to have slipped effortlessly into his chosen career, he’s the first to admit that his work has not been without its challenges.

As he explains, “Since arriving in Africa more than five years ago, I’ve had to learn to work across different cultural backgrounds while doing research and science. I’ve learned the hard way through my work with local farmers and national research institutes that you really can’t force your own way of thinking about research and science onto people with a different background – in my case, I have a more European way of thinking.

“I’ve also been challenged to find people working in the same area of research at CIP’s regional office in Nairobi, but the situation is better now and I’m collaborating with colleagues at the headquarters in Lima, as well as with other CGIAR Centers based in Nairobi. Fortunately, I’ve also found mentors and collaborators in the CGIAR’s Consortium for Spatial Information (CSI). The CSI has really been a great mentoring group over the years. There’s always a good atmosphere of collaboration with members, who are always keen to share their data, methods and experiences.”

Indeed, Lieven advises other young professionals who want to be more involved in spatial research to collaborate as much as possible with others in the field and to be open about their work.

The future of spatial analysis

Looking ahead, Lieven would like to keep improving his climate change and agricultural system models.

“In the context of climate change, we’re still struggling with a lot of uncertainty about the models and there’s still much to be done to make them more accurate,” he explains. “But I see the importance and the role of spatial analysis in research and also in targeting developmental research efforts. I also see the demand for spatial analysis growing as more and more spatially explicit data becomes available. I feel there’s going to be a huge development in spatial analysis in the near future.”

Lieven has already made a significant contribution to the development of climate change adaptation strategies, and it seems there is much more to come.