Summary of RCR research

The research unit (RU) has taken steps to progress the current debates on changes in human-environment relations in East African and South African savannahs by developing common ground on the dynamics of coupled socio-ecological systems (SES). It has operationalized key concepts and theoretical frameworks in an interdisciplinary approach between the social and natural sciences.

Coupling and regulation processes within complex social-ecological systems

The figure on the right presents the main focus of the RU, namely coupling and regulation processes in the bio-physical, political-institutional and symbolic-cultural spheres within complex SES. 

To better understand coupling and regulation processes in SES, this RU analyses the resilience and regulation / reorganization of human-environment relations within African savannahs and wetlands within savannahs ('wetlands within drylands'). Before the beginning of activities of the RU, little empirical evidence has been gained of how resilience emerges or declines as a structural property of a particular SES, and how individual risk-minimizing strategies translate (or not) into the resilience of the overall system. Studies on vulnerability so far have not sufficiently addressed the question under what conditions a deficiency or failure of coupling mechanisms has led to a weakening or even a collapse of the SES (Scoones 1999). Similarly, a convincing methodology to describe resilience in complex SES that is driven largely by anthropogenic influence is still lacking. 

A main focus of the RU has thus been and still is the question as to which responses to different forms of collapse and rapid change are able to lead to long-term resilience of SES. An overarching goal in phase two is to reach a common perspective on regimes of social-ecological regulation. Within this context, the interdisciplinary RU was established to analyze ecological change as well as socio-economic and cultural dynamics in Africa, by gathering empirical evidence on resilience, collapse and reorganization in SES situated in Kenya’s and South Africa’s savannahs, with the following objectives:

(a) develop an understanding of the interrelationship of processes of transformation such as collapse and reorganization and their effects on the coupling dynamics within complex SES; 

(b)  understand the constitution of such processes; and to

(c)  bridge the academic gap in discourse by building common ground on key concepts of regulation, resilience, collapse and reorganization of SES.

Lessons learned so far

The systems and situations around which the RU crystallized its joint interdisciplinary activities have been conducted in different tenure and rangeland management systems in the grassland and savannah biomes of South Africa, as well as in regions of contested limited resources for agriculture and agro-industry in savannah landscapes and wetland systems in Kenya. These selected research sites are highly suitable for studying the interacting SES. They represent significant diversity in terms of system complexity and cover the main biophysical factors and contrasting socio-political situations of a wide range of stakeholders and actors interacting within savannahs and wetlands imbedded in them. Interlinkages and coupling mechanisms between the biophysical and the socio-economic spheres of the SES under study are intense and complex. Key finding of the interdisciplinary research conducted across the three clusters of the research unit include the following observations:   

  • Changes in biophysical attributes are both driven by social and political factors and are themselves affected through various feed-back mechanisms.

  • Biophysical thresholds can only be interpreted in conjunction with socio-cultural factors and vice-versa.

  • Generally intense coupling of ecological and human spheres are apparent in the Kenyan subsystems.

  • Partial decoupling of ecological and management variable characterizes the South African SES.

  • Conflicts between resource users at all study sites are driven by social and institutional/political factors rather than by resource shortages.