African Mountain Research Times - September 2018
AfroMont Sept 1AfroMont is a communication and networking organisation interested in research and policy relating to African mountains. Afromont aims to highlight experiences from research, field projects and innovation and best practice in sustainable mountain development and climate change adaptation in African countries.

Photo: Long distances to walk in remote rural areas near central Drakensberg Amphitheatre, South Africa. December 2017. Photo SJ Taylor.

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Editorial – Brokering a stable ‘peace’ between society and nature.


International peace-brokering processes and why they so often fail (a workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand, August 2018).

The keynote presentation of this workshop was by Prof Erin McCandless, an Associate Professor at Wits School of Governance, Johannesburg. Prof McCandless is highly experienced in investigating how peace processes work (or fail) around the world and focusing on Africa. Peace agreements are brokered after contested elections or after long and violent conflicts (Prof McCandless mentioned Cyprus, Bosnia, Tunisia and South Sudan), and may require external interventions. Yet, international methods to resolve conflicts are not always effective, peace does not always hold, with the peace-building processes often being criticised as being too ‘Western’ and with not enough authentic engagement with the structures ‘on the ground’.

Typically, although there is optimism at first, after some time the peacekeeping compact begins to fail and parallel structures of power emerge which further undermine the peace. This failure is often because the negotiations were not based on the confrontation of real and often severe underlying issues, did not get down to hear the voice of actual communities, or did not uncover and engage with existing power structures that may be hidden. This means that to develop peace building and nation-building processes, there is a need to understand how contested territories function socially and politically – with the hope that this knowledge will avert some of the negative consequences of a poorly negotiated peace deal.

Also, out of these negotiations must come a robust National Social Contract – a national agreement between the state and society, including the different groups in society, on how to live together and how power is distributed and exercised. If done carefully, this should secure peace.

Peace deals between people and nature

My interest in the topic of peace deals came about because of the need for more effective mountain governance in Africa. In this regard, Prof McCandless’s talk was very exciting in the possibilities it offered for environmental management - and yet unnerving. The issues she spoke of were very complex. This is not the type of research investigation that one can do in a week or two. Trust has to be built; war zones must be visited; violent partners need to be engaged with and win-win situations need to be developed.

It would be interesting to apply Prof McCandless’ approach to understand how better environmental governance could be achieved in Africa, approaching this as a conflict between two ‘warring parties’ – people and nature. I am convinced that much of the frustration that results when conservation practitioners try to resolve land use change issues or try to create sustainable natural resource management platforms is because they do not understand the hidden political factors within society that are not altruistic and may block change. Perhaps by understand these relationships better, a lasting ‘peace’ between people and ecosystems could finally be brokered.

Do Biosphere Reserves effectively broker a secure ‘peace deal’ between people and nature?

I hope to apply Prof McCandless’ approach to thinking about whether the theory of international peace deals could help build better environmental governance and land management in South Africa, with a focus on the UNESCO Vhembe Biosphere Reserve (VBR) as a case study. Vhembe BR is in northern Limpopo province and this area has a relatively large and rapidly growing human population with a high unemployment rate contributing to severe negative impact on natural resources. The area also suffers from the legacy of apartheid planning and the social and environmental impact of the homelands system. The Vhembe biosphere reserve aims to promote an integrated approach to sustainable development, ensuring that essential ecosystem services are maintained, human development and wealth creation are stimulated through better communication and training while conserving the unique ecosystems, species and cultural resources of the region.[1]

Protected areas and borders

The location of biosphere reserves and transboundary parks is often on borders, either provincial or national, and the complexity of these borders must be acknowledged as a risk and threat to the long-term persistence of the biosphere reserve arrangement. However, these protected areas are often intended to be part of peace-keeping processes between nations (Büscher 2005a; Büscher 2005b; Büscher and Fletcher 2018; Barquet et al 2014; Ramutsindela 2017). Büscher (2005a) warns that often the negotiations in setting up transfrontier parks or biosphere reserve, while aimed at being part of a peace-building process, may negotiated at a national level and leave out local people. Importantly, the negotiations may not have engaged with ‘hidden power structures’ within society, setting up future conflicts.

Afromont Sept Figure 1
Figure 1: Baobab and Soutpansberg Mountains in the distance. Limpopo province, South Africa. These mountains are in the centre of the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve.

The Vhembe Biosphere Reserve (VBR) (established 2011) is proclaimed Biosphere Reserve of UNESCO, and shares a border with Zimbabwe, a soverign nation, while Limpopo Province itself shares borders with Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique. Vhembe BR also encompasses the Southpansberg Mountains (see photo and map above). Vhembe BR is in the far north of South Africa and has very fascinating vegetation, including the most southernly boabab forests.

However, these are volatile border areas (see map below). South Africa is subjected to high rates of migration from both Zimbabwe and Mozambique, much of it the undocumented movements of foreign workseekers. Border issues may have an impact on the management of the VBR.

Afromont Sept Figure 2
Figure 2: Map of Vhembe Biosphere Reserve, Limpopo Province, South Africa, showing borders with Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Photographic source (Baobab and Soutpansberg mountains, South Africa):

Photographic source: Vhembe Biosphere Reserve map.]


Barquet K, Lujala P, Rød JK (2014). Transboundary conservation and militarized interstate disputes. Political Geography 42: 1 – 11.

Büscher B. (2005a). Peace parks in Southern Africa: Bringers of an African Renaissance. The Journal of Modern African Studies. 43(2): 1 – 24.

Büscher B. (2005b). Conjunctions of Governance: the State and the Conservation-development Nexus in Southern Africa. The Journal of Transdisciplinary Environmental Studies 4(2): 1 – 15.

Büscher B and Fletcher R. (2018). Under Pressure: conceptualising Political Ecologies of Green Wars. Conservation and Society AOP: 1-9.

Petursson JG and Vedeld P. (2015). The ‘nine lives’ of protected areas. A historical-institutional analysis from the transboundary Mt Elgon, Uganda and Kenya. Land Use Policy 42: 251 – 263.

Ramutsindela M. (2017). Greening Africa’s borderlands: The symbiotic politics of land and borders in peace parks. Political Geography 56: 106 – 113.

Potential for conflict? – the Renaissance Dam and relations in the north-east of Africa

AfroMont Sept image 3

Egypt depends on the Nile River to secure 95% of the water needed for different purposes as drinking, household uses, agriculture, fishing source, water transportation, tourism, electricity generation from the High Dam and industry. Although, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is essential to Ethiopia’s development, many research pointed out its negative impact on Egypt (El-Nashar and Elyamany, 2017). The agriculture of both Egypt and the Sudan is set to be disadvantaged as Ethiopia begins to control the flows of the Nile River.

There are concerns about the huge potential for conflict over water because of the construction of the Renaissance dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. The article by … .warns that a reduction in the flow of water through Sudan and Egypt caused by the dam will force a country like Egypt to reconsider its agricultural plans and move different types of crops to other areas, thereby disadvantaging millions of small-scale rice and sugarcane farmers, for example. It seems that there is uncertainty over whether Ethiopia will keep the Renaissance Dam full to release water to downstream users, or keep it full to generate electricity. The dam will finally end the cycles of floods waters and dry years that the region has depended on for millennia (Noureddine, 2018).


Walaa Y. El-Nashar and Ahmed Elyamany (2017). Managing risks of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Egypt. July 201. Ain Shams Engineering Journal. DOI: 10.1016/j.asej.2017.06.004.

Predict how hot your home town will be in the future

How different cities and regions experience an increase in 32-degree days depends in part on how well adapted to heat they already are. Check out this website to see how many days above 32 deg C you can expect in the future, as well as what the temperatures were like in the past. Worldwide, high temperatures have been found to increase the risk of illness and death, especially among older people, infants and people with chronic medical conditions. Lower-income populations, which more often lack access to air conditioning and other adaptive technologies, are also more likely to suffer the impacts of extreme heat.

Challenges in career management in the sciences

Challenge #1: Making the right career moves

Early-career researchers are those scientists starting out and beginning to encounter a variety of challenges in getting established. Their confidence for building a career for themselves begins with a good post-graduate promoter and mentor. At some point, they will ask themselves (for the 100th time) how this whole academic system works. Young scientists need know how the ‘game’ works to make the right moves and find mentors and collaborators that will assist them with research management training. Research management includes establishing a research group, leading research, finding start-up funding and funding for equipment, as well as attracting and mentoring good quality students. Submitting and publishing original research findings is central to their careers. Their scientific career success will depend on producing a body of publications that colleagues will notice and respect and that granting agencies and tenure committee will accept as proof of research accomplishments. As researchers get established, they are also become responsible for the publication success of their post-graduate and post-doctoral students. Good quality students will help the researcher get good research done, leading to quality publications. New researchers will need to focus on getting their work published as peer-reviewed, full-length articles. Other types of publications count for little. These are by far the priority of both tenure committees and the study sections of grant offices.

Challenge #2: The problem of keeping up with new paradigms and thinking and methodology

What was once the Victorians’ science of Natural History has become Quantitative Biology through the new analytical possibilities of the information age, specifically remote sensing and GIS, and multivariate statistics. New areas of research quickly become very specialised (molecular systematics and phylogeography, environmental geology, hydrogeochemistry, palaeoclimatology and palaeoecology and geolimnology) and multidisciplinary (incorporating social science and elements into science). Also, molecular biology has added to the complexity with which we study living organisms. When one reads contemporary biodiversity papers there are many new paradigms (biogeography, bioinformatics) and terminology like ecosystem services, global change to understand, as well as new methods (remote sensing, GIS, multivariate states). Biodiversity research can now include the social sciences, livelihoods, adaptation and even science communication. It really is a challenge just to keep up with the published literature in your field – and having online search engines has made this much easier than it used to be (anyone still remember sitting in the library going those books of abstracts, CAB abstracts, and actually photocopying papers?) I do!

Challenge #3: Keeping up with trends and methodologies

In the health care profession (health workers, doctors, specialists, psychologists) there is a requirement for continuing adult education, for which practitioners get points. Health practitioners have to keep up in their fields, and use the scores to enable their continued registration as professional health workers. This also means that there are a myriad of short courses available to fulfil this need. Not so in the biological sciences. It is a big problem, the problem of ‘keeping up’. Going to conferences can help, but this is not the same as working in the field and actually using the new techniques.

Challenge #4: What to do with that big research idea?

OK, so you have a wonderful big research idea, but you find yourself wondering how to take this forward and build a research programme with international impact. You confidence in your idea wanes as you realize that there are not enough years left in your life to master all the methods, read all the papers, network withal the potential collaborators and then do all the field work, to make your idea a reality. You realize that you can up-skill yourself to some extent, but there are often academic divides that are just too great to breach. You cannot be a phylogeographer and a social scientist and a soil scientist at the same time. Ok, you realize that you will need to find partners with the expertise you need, rather than trying to get those skills yourself.

Challenge #5: Doing research in remote locations.

How do new scientists and mid-career scientists and scientists in remote, under-resourced settings keep themselves up-to-date with new paradigms and skills?   Sometimes even accessing publications can be a challenge is the bandwidth is in short supply. One way is through student exchanges, sabbaticals, post-docs in foreign countries. Many of these opportunities do the rounds, passed along by emails and smart phones.