Keeping cattle in a changing rural landscape : communal rangeland management in Okhombe, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
A research journey involving people, cattle, and the landscape in rural Okhombe in the western part of the province of KwaZulu-Natal and lying at the foot of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Mountain Range, South Africa, is the focus of this work. Using action research involving community members as co-researchers, it investigates why a rotational resting system for communal cattle grazing collapsed within six months of its launch. Despite having been designed in a participatory manner, the rotational resting system was not applied by cattle keepers. As a backdrop to the concern around the rotational resting system, it is necessary to understand how the current landscape of Okhombe was shaped. The history of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Region over the past two hundred years was, therefore, explored. Four historical episodes were distinguished: economic expansion, nature conservation efforts, colonial and apartheid legislation, and encounters between people all left their imprint on the landscape. Digitized maps of aerial photographs of Okhombe, taken between 1945 and 2004, showed how Government intervention changed people’s multifunctional use of the landscape to concentrated settlements and cropping fields in the valley and cattle grazing on the mountain slopes. A survey in Enhlanokhombe, one of the sub-wards of Okhombe, further investigates how cattle keepers use the rangeland commons, and what determines these practices. People are keeping fewer cattle than in the past. A 24% decrease in cattle numbers was recorded between 2001 and 2008. Cattle keepers perceive stock theft as the most important threat. Yet, figures of stock losses showed that cattle disease resulting in death is an equally pressing problem. The decline in authority of traditional leaders and the view that herding is a family task have compounded the dominant management practice of continuous grazing by cattle. Rotational resting was found to be unsuited to the majority of cattle keepers who want to keep a close watch on their herds as they graze on the lower hill slopes. People in Okhombe disagreed about the condition of the range and what comprised appropriate grazing management. A community initiative has emerged to form cattle patrols to address stock theft. If successful, it may further enhance collective action. The concern with communal grazing management investigated in this research and in the Okhombe Landcare project, of which it was part, aimed to reverse land degradation and overgrazing. An analysis of digitized maps of Okhombe taken in the period between 1945 and 2004, however, showed that soil erosion did not increase rapidly as is commonly assumed by conventional rangeland scientists and extension staff. Rather, an increase in bare soil coincided with a period of drought. The focus of the Okhombe Landcare project on combatting soil erosion and rehabilitate degraded lands was underpinned by a particular interest in and need to conserve the uKhahlamba Drakensberg as a near-pristine wilderness landscape which provides marketable ecosystem goods and services. As such, cattle keeping in Okhombe can be described as being embedded in a social-ecological system comprising a series of nested, self-organizing subsystems which are interconnected. Sub-systems include the cattle production system, cattle grazing management practices, the wider ecosystem, and government policies and regulations. A spatial-temporal and systemic approach is proposed to make meaningful, policy-related decisions regarding communal rangeland management in the future. Such an approach would enable cattle keepers, other rangeland users, and outside stakeholders, such as extension workers and policy makers, to respond effectively to changes in the landscape by taking into consideration and balancing a complex set of biophysical, socio-political, and economic variables.
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