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close this bookThe Improvement of Tropical and Subtropical Rangelands (BOSTID)
close this folderPart I
close this folderThe nature of tropical and subtropical rangelands
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentRange classification
View the documentSocial system-ecosystem interactions
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Social system-ecosystem interactions

Most environmental systems are highly modified by human activity. Hence, an understanding of the biological and use potential of these systems benefits greatly from analyses of environmental change over time (National Research Council, 1981). Such analysis is also important in defining ecosystems and in identifying cause-effect relationships that have contributed to changes in the composition and productivity of these systems.

Indigenous social systems, through selection and adaptation, are functionally associated with local ecosystems through flows of energy, material, and information (4) (Rambo and Sajise, 1984). Changes in either the social or environmental system result in changes in the other. Hence, each system must be thoroughly understood if positive change is to be realized. In many, perhaps most, instances, highly disruptive changes are responses to external stimuli. Many examples could be cited. For example, the highly regulated land-use systems of many societies (see the discussion of the hema system in case study 9, Part II) were commonly transformed into open-access systems through the imposition of European public-domain law often combined with land expropriation, a situation that, in many regions, has led to intense use pressure and severe environmental degradation. Similarly, colonial era introductions of cattle into inappropriate areas (such as Zone 5 of the above classificatory system) has led to severe degradation and zonal compression (National Research Council, 1983b). The fixing of boundaries, at national and sub-national levels, has reduced or eliminated strategies of mobility that are crucial to these areas. In addition, increasing market integration has converted highly conservative systems of land use into opportunistic systems that impose greater pressure on available resources. In some cases, this has destroyed the subsistence base that supported the coping strategies of local populations, and has reduced the range of economic options available to them. Wildlife, honey and beeswax, gums and resins, cordage, tannin, and medicinals are among the economic products lost through the de gradation of environmental systems in Africa and Asia.

Characteristically more subtle, but equally important, impacts on socioeconomic and environmental systems result from destructive modifications of indigenous systems of values, ideology, knowledge, and social organization. An unfortunate consequence of past efforts in international development is that so much attention was directed toward the transformation of what are now belatedly recognized to be critically important social adaptations, without corresponding effort being made to understand the context or consequences of the changes promoted.

In addressing issues of range management in the tropics and subtropics, many of the most important clues as to appropriate actions for governments and development agencies reside in the analysis of traditional adaptations to local environmental systems. Growing awareness of the importance of traditional adaptations is contributing to a shift of emphasis by governments and development agencies from open-field cultivation and plantation forestry to more biologically complex agroforestry or agro-sylvo-pastoral systems (National Research Council, 1983a). The growing interest in camel husbandry in the drylands of Africa and Asia similarly reflects pre-colonial strategies of rangeland utilization. In West Africa, for example, camel-based livestock systems were commonly replaced by cattlebased systems by colonial administrators unfamiliar with the characteristics of the drylands of West Africa in relation to the requirements of cattle. By so doing, these administrators contributed greatly to the current environ mental emergency in Africa ( National Research Council, 1983a). An overview of selected African and Asian pastoral adaptations is contained in Douglas Johnson's The Nature of Nomadism (1969).


1. In this report, the terms "tropics" and “tropical” are expanded to include the subtropics (Tropical and Subtropical Steppe, Tropical and Subtropical Desert, Mediterranean or Dry Summer Subtropical, and Humid Subtropical climatic regions) as well.
2. Moisture indexes provide expressions of climate derived from monthly rainfafl and evaporation, with the estimate of evaporation based upon measures of radiation, temperature, saturation deficit, and wind speed, weighted for altitude and latitude. They are calculated on the basis of Thornthwaite's concept of moisture indexes (1948), combined with Penman's estimate of evaporation (1948) .
3. In many areas of the tropics, a livestock unit is taken to be a mature zebu cow with calf at Soot (averaging about 300 kg liveweight and having a daily dry matter requirement of 6.5 to 8.5 kg).
4. In an ecological context, information is simply organized or patterned energy or material that tells the observer something about the past, present, or probable future state of an ecosystem or its components. Human response to environmental information is unique compared with that of other organisms because it occurs largely at the cognitive level where cultural conditioning affects both perception and the selection of appropriate responses.