By Peter Bridgewater (University of Canberra), Associate Editor for People and Nature.

This blog has been published ahead of the article discussed, but you can check out the author’s Plain Language Summary here.

A picture showing rangeland degradation in the form of woody species encroachment ‘Euryops floribundus’. Photo credit: UNDP-GEF5 SLM Project, Eastern Cape, South Africa

A recent paper in People and Nature demonstrates in a fascinating narrative the importance of understanding history. True anywhere, but in land management it is crucial. The paper is by Menelisi Falayi and James Gambiza, both at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, with Michael Schoon from Arizona State. They argue that most environmental challenges originate from governance failures, i.e., ‘the ghost’ of environmental history lingers in current natural resource governance. And from that standpoint, governance challenges in rural southern Africa are connected to the ‘ghost’ of environmental history.

Globally, rangelands are undergoing considerable change for direct and indirect human drivers. In Africa, the reliance on many communities for livelihoods from rangelands are exacerbated by these challenges as the IPBES Africa region report highlighted. High overgrazing, population growth, unsustainable land management – all reinforced by weak institutional arrangements – are linked to rangeland degradation in Africa.

The setting for the paper is the ongoing decline in sustainability of rangelands in South Africa, focusing especially on governance issues. There is very little recognition of the historical role of human agency in current environmental governance; and a clearer understanding of how agency and structure interact, given the ongoing alarming rates of rangeland degradation in Africa, is really needed. Understanding rangeland condition through Indigenous and local community knowledge can lead to a better understanding of the impacts of various drivers on natural resources and the effects of historical legacies – ‘the ghost of environmental history’ – on modern day ecosystems. The time span of their work was from a customary governance period (pre-1947), through the apartheid period (1948-1993), post-Apartheid (1994-2005), a five-year Rural Livelihood Support Programme (2005-2010), and the period up to 2017.

This study was conducted in five villages (Helushe, Boomplaas, Platkop, Qhoboshane and Gxojeni) in Machubeni communal lands in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. The authors used a range of interview and participatory learning and action workshop techniques to obtain the thoughts and feeling from the key actors. In the interviews, the authors particularly focussed on trying to extract memories on governance successes and failures from adults within the 50 to 70 years age group. This approach of using structured surveys to assess rangeland condition is increasingly being used globally. 

The authors examined the historical legacy of direct state interference in rangeland governance and management in South Africa through the Native Acts of 1913 and 1936, where the state controlled who held the land and how the land was managed in ways that differed from customary usage. Under the Native Acts, land was exclusively designated for Africans (80% of the total population), although only covering 13% of South Africa’s land area.  The degradation this state control resulted in was already recognised by 1932. And the situation only became worse with the arrival of the Apartheid system and did not change markedly even after Apartheid ended. There was a a short-lived “bounce” through the Rural Livelihood Support Programme. This million dollar plus programme attempted to change governance and management practice. A major focus was eradication of the invasive Asteraceae shrub Euryops floribundus within the rangeland, that was linked to a decrease in rangeland condition. Although grass biomass was high in moderate and heavily-invaded rangeland, the abundance of palatable grasses was continually reducing.

Post-1994, despite the lifting of many regulations linked with state control, most households in the study area relied on government welfare grants, livestock farming or remittance for cash and, coupled with ineffective governance structures, emphasised the degradation of the Machubeni landscape.

Application of governance objectives and attributes during the customary governance period was very good – more than any other period. In part this comes from better connection to the land, and specific measures, such as local community members playing a key role in influencing rangeland governance through the traditional court, the Nqileni, the fortnightly meeting of all males. However, that raises issues of gender, which continued through the subsequent periods through patriarchal influences.

The following periods have left a legacy of centralised planning and state control whose effects are still visible and widely felt to date – the authors’ “ghost of environmental history”.

The authors are clear that, despite its importance, good governance alone will not improve rangeland conditions. They argue that “placing human agency at the centre of rangeland governance and management is key, considering that agency emerges from interaction with history-beliefs, values and perspectives.” Disempowerment of people leads to the degradation of natural resources, and the residual impacts of the colonial drivers – the ‘ghost of environmental history’ – are evident at the landscape level. Transformative and adaptive governance can provide concrete insights for policymakers in working to improve institutional and structural processes of natural resource governance in post-colonial areas. And to ensure such transformative processes, we need actors of all kinds who are real “ghost-busters”!

Read the Plain Language Summary for this paper here.