Socio-economic transitions influence vegetation change in the communal rangelands of the South African lowveld
The importance of the human dimensions of vegetation change in rangelands is increasingly being acknowledged. However, surprisingly little research is directed at advancing our understanding of the relationships between socio-economic factors and state of the vegetation in these systems. There is therefore a significant gap in our understanding of the socio-economic drivers of change in rangeland vegetation. This paper uses the results of long-term research in the communal rangelands of the South African lowveld to demonstrate how socio-economic changes can influence resource use patterns, which in turn directly impact on the vegetation. Factors such as changes in institutional control, levels of unemployment and local perceptions of rights and responsibilities since democratic elections have resulted in a dramatic increase in harvesting of tree resources in these communal rangelands. Most noticeable has been the increased commercial harvesting of fuelwood. Increased harvesting has a significant impact on the vegetation, which in turn reduces local resource supply. This results in increasing reliance on resources purchased from commercial harvesters or on substitute resources. These changes in resource use patterns and the resultant impacts on the vegetation thus form a feedback loop between society and the natural environment. This paper emphasises the importance of understanding these relationships in order to adequately understand vegetation change in human-impacted rangeland systems. Research partnerships involving both the natural and social sciences will thus become increasingly important in rangeland ecology.