Land degradation in South Africa: justice and climate change in tension.

Published online
28 Oct 2021
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
People and Nature

Mani, S. & Osborne, C. P. & Cleaver, F.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
Africa South of Sahara & South Africa


Land degradation is a global problem impacting biodiversity and livelihoods, with profound effects on resource-based livelihoods. As such, it impedes progress towards sustainable development goals (SDGs) and overcoming climate-related poverty. Interrelated biophysical and social factors are driving further land degradation, and, internationally, there is a range of policies and initiatives designed to address these. In this paper, we argue that analysis of land degradation must encompass three key dimensions: firstly, that the causes are both physical and social; secondly, that they are shaped by historically unjust land tenure and resource allocations; and thirdly, that outcomes are the result of entwined processes at the global, national and local levels. To do this, we modify an analytical framework derived from structuration theory and populate it with illustrative material from the case of rangeland management in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. In this way, we show how understanding land degradation requires an analytical approach that is simultaneously bio-social, historically informed and multiscalar. Land degradation caused by woody encroachment is a major bio-social issue for the rangelands of South Africa, exacerbated by intersecting factors including climate change, historical land tenure policies and post-apartheid reforms. However, contemporary land use policies in South Africa designed to redress historic land injustices and enhance rural livelihoods are not directly connected with those which prioritise the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity, or climate mitigation. Finally, South African policymakers face the challenge of reconciling political commitments to improve the lives of local populations whilst meeting international targets to address degradation, carbon emissions and SDGs. Whilst the South African case is unique, many countries face the simultaneous challenges of trying to prevent ecological degradation whilst mitigating historical patterns of unjust access to land and natural resources. More broadly, this talks of the global challenge of reconciling goals of poverty alleviation with climate mitigation.

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