The future of African ecosystems in the balance

Africa contains more than half of the remaining potentially arable land in the world – most of this land is currently “untransformed” – i.e. it has not been ploughed or converted to urban landscapes, although it is heavily utilised by the more than 150 million people who live in there.  The demand for food and economic opportunities mean that it is very likely that this land will be developed in future decades, but exactly how this happens could have a big impact on conservation and ecosystem processes in the region.  Large-scale commercial agriculture is one option, which South America has followed, but alternative approaches which involve multi-use landscapes have also been suggested.

A Miombo woodland ecosystem in central Zimbabwe. These systems are productive, but infertile, and are utilised by people for fuel wood, charcoal, food, medicine, and a range of other products. These systems extend from Angola to Mozambique and are currently under conversion to agricultural land in many areas.
Fire frequency across the African continent. Grassy vegetation and seasonal rainfall mean these ecosystems burn regularly, and fire emissions have impacts far beyond its shorts – fertilising ocean productivity and impacting climate. On the ground fires are key for renewing forage quality and controlling bush encroachment. Agricultural areas, however, hardly burn at all.


5th iLEAPS science conference

CAE academic Sally Archibald will be chairing a special session on “Ecosystem responses to agricultural transformation in Africa” at the iLEAPS conference in Oxford in September ( .  The session will have presentations on the current role of African ecosystems in the carbon and water cycles, and how biodiversity might be affected by alternative development pathways (the land-sharing vs land sparing debate).

Wits students Caitlin Ransom (MSc) and Sally Willson (MSc) will be presenting at the conference, which provides an opportunity for African academics and researchers in Africa to mobilise to identify key research priorities, and provide policy-relevant information at this key point in Africa’s development.

Sally Wilson, Wits MSc
Caitlin Ransom, Wits MSc