Welcome to my professional website! This is the space where I document and share my research, publication, teaching, outreach, and other professional development activities.

My name is Chuan Liao. I am currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Environmental Spatial Analysis Lab and International Forestry Resources and Institutions in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. My research interest lies at the intersection between resource conservation and community development. My current research focuses on large-scale land transactions and their impact on agroecological system and food/energy/water security in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the outcomes of forest investments in multiple developing countries. Previously I worked with pastoral communities in East Africa and Central Asia to study their migration patterns, risk perception, livelihood diversification, ethnobotanical knowledge, and interaction with external development agencies. My research also investigates vegetation states and transition pathways in the rangeland ecosystem at multiple spatio-temporal scales.

Science Letter Screenshot


Our research team recently published a letter in Science titled Insufficient research on land grabbing. We pointed out that the effectiveness of research on land transactions is hobbled by three problems. First, global data sets on land transactions underestimate the total number of transactions. Second, it is difficult to calculate how much commercial agriculture is taking place because not all of the transacted land is being developed. Third, findings reported in the literature rest largely on samples that are not statistically representative of the variation in factors such as geography, socioeconomic differences, and contractual arrangements that influence outcomes. Thus, we argue that a deeper understanding of land transaction outcomes requires studies that are more representative of the range of transactions. More systematic attention to case selection and causal effects of tenure changes is necessary to address research limitations. Improved representation will also enable more robust estimates of social, economic, and ecological effects of transactions.

Please visit here to view more details about our NASA- and NSF-funded research projects on studying the impact of large-scale land transactions.




Contact Information: lchuan at umich dot edu



PhD in Natural Resources (Dissertation: Complexity in the Open Grazing System: Rangeland Ecology, Pastoral Mobility and Ethnobotanical Knowledge in Borana, Ethiopia), Cornell University, 2015

MS in Natural Resources (Thesis: Chasing Water and Grass to Live: Livelihood Strategies, Migration Patterns, and Risk Perceptions of Pastoralists in Xinjiang, China), Cornell University, 2012

BS in Resource Science, Beijing Normal University, 2010
You can view my Google Scholar page here.




In the past five years, I conducted empirical research with pastoral communities in East African savanna in Borana, Ethiopia and Central Asian steppe in Xinjiang, China. Therefore, there is a strong field component in my research. I spend two months in Xinjiang, China for my MS research and eight months in Borana and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for my PhD research. I actively engage the indigenous people in my research. Their generous sharing of knowledge is crucial for my research on the sustainability and resilience of pastoral ecosystems.


Working with pastoral community in Borana, Ethipia.

I grew up in the city of Chongqing, a municipality on the Yangtze River in southwestern China.