RCR

Summary of RCR research

The research unit (RU) will investigate resilience, collapse and reorganisation in complex coupled social-ecological systems (SES) in Africa. Contemporary research shows that Africa not only is the continent most comprehensively affected by global climatic change and environmental transformations, but that societies, economies and environments are also massively impacted by forces of internal mobility and differentiation, violent conflict, economic globalisation and global environmental governance.

 

We acknowledge that Africa related pessimism has deep historical roots and that numerous allegedly catastrophic environmental shifts were rather based on the wish for political control of rural populations than on factual observation. However, we surmise that the present social and ecological challenges are path-breaking and lead to profound transformations of African SES. The savannahs of South and East Africa and especially wetlands within these drylands seem particularly suited to study these processes. On the one hand, savannahs are inherently unstable systems due to major variability of precipitation. On the other hand, pertinent processes of land use change (e.g. land reform in South Africa, voluntary sedentarisation in East Africa) and globalisation (e.g. establishment of horticultural industries in wetlands of East Africa, savannah and wetland orientated conservation efforts and tourism) currently affect savannah systems and the wetlands embedded within them profoundly.

 

Resilience and vulnerability in coupled savannah SES have attracted considerable attention in both the social and the natural sciences. On the one hand, a great number of scientific contributions and political strategies have dealt with aspects of vulnerability in savannahs. Savannah environments were depicted as overtly fragile and prone to desertification. Local populations have been framed as poor, destitute and underdeveloped. On the other hand, recent ecological literature has stressed the resilience of savannahs and anthropologists have pointed out to the enormous capacity of dryland communities to absorb severe ecological and economic shocks. In contrast to vulnerability and resilience, collapse and reorganisation are processes within SES that are abrupt and highly visible but empirically often difficult to grasp. They have therefore not played a major role in past research. However, these major transformations are crucial for the understanding of the functioning of SES and the emergence and demise of their constituents.

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