2016 WUN workshop – compelling new issues for old African mountains

AAREA’s research at Engaruka, Tanzania, along with the wider work of AAREA’s advisor, Dr. Rob Marchant, featured in Dr. Sue Taylor‘s recent article.

This article was originally published on the Mountain Research Initiative‘s website.

African mountain researchers are adventurous people.

African mountain researchers will walk miles in 50 degree Celsius temperatures to fly a drone that films geological fault lines in the Rift Valley. They will spend years in a Massai village near Mt Kilimanjaro eating blood and porridge to study life in an African pastoralist culture. They will dig up ancient citadels of stone. They will visit mountain villages and study what makes poor people ill. They will study high altitude grasslands and measure the carbon from long ago fires. And of course, they do attend workshops.

All Africa House and Cape Town WUN workshop 2016


Scientists aren’t the only ones to work hard! Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

A grant from the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), allowed Dr Rob Marchant ( York University, UK), Lindsey Gillson (UCT), Brigit Obrist (Basel University ) and Chris Gordon (University of Ghana) to bring a group of these energetic people together to sit down for a moment and discuss their work with colleagues at the University of Cape Town’s All African House postgraduate centre.

The WUN workshop discussions focused on African mountains and change (climate, population, health, land use) over the past 100 years and the future trajectory of this change. The workshop group aims to write a position paper and develop a grant application to a large donor, to further develop an African mountain research network. The World Universities Network grant brought together colleagues from the Universities of Ghana, Basel, York, Nairobi, Pretoria, Dar es Salaam, Stellenbosch and Cape Town for these invigorating discussions.

Stakeholders past and present


Dr Rob Marchant

Dr Marchant’s research team works across East Africa and has been recently carrying out extensive stakeholder consultations in Tanzania to investigate the modern drivers of landscape change according to various climate change and social economic scenarios. The stakeholder work was a very large and complex process to gather a range of opinions on ‘land degradation’ versus a ‘greener future’ and envisage future African scenarios. Marchant says, taking the ‘green future’ path will require legislation and enforcement, as well as increased agricultural efficiency through new cultivars, fertilizers and irrigation.


Excavated stone-lined water channel, Engaruka excavations 2002 (Photo: Daryl Stump)

Rob’s palaeo-agricultural research seeks to integrate records of past land-use in and around African mountains over past hundreds and thousands of years. The idea is to document socio-ecological processes from the past and determine what could apply to a future under climate change. The aim of Marchant’s work is also to identify equitable routes to a more sustainable future for African mountains. The climate of African has always been changing and people have adapted in various ways, in some cases by having sophisticated cultivation and irrigation systems. At Engaruka, Tanzania, Marchant and his group are involved in a project called Archaeology of Agricultural Resilience in Eastern Africa (AAREA) – led by Daryl Stump the AAREA project is excavating an ancient, yet sophisticated agricultural system that stretches over the landscape with fields, walls and irrigation ditches which allowed for cultivation in an otherwise hostile landscape. Throughout Africa, there are many examples of these types of advanced palaeo-cultivation systems.


Elephants as landscape engineers of the past

There was some discussion on the fact that it wasn’t only humans that modified the African landscape. It is now know that ivory exports increased dramatically between 1500 and 1900, with perhaps 100,000 elephants killed for ivory every year between 1803 and 1858. This meant that there were many more elephants in the past and that they would have had a huge impact on the vegetation prior to their ‘removal’. In particular, the woody vegetation would have been modified by elephants. It could be said that the removal of elephants may be contributing to the increased bush encroachment being seen in savannah areas in Africa.

Mountains and health

image003Prof Brigit Obrist, along with Dr Gueladio Cissé, from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute at the University of Basel, spoke about public health and emerging diseases in mountainous areas in Africa, notably malaria. Prof Obrist also told the group that the World Health Organisation produced a report in 2014 which was a quantitative risk assessment on Climate change and selected causes of death in the 2030s and 2050s. The major causes of death from climate change are expected to be linked to:

  • Health and flood related mortality
  • Malaria and Dengue fever (vector-borne diseases)
  • Drought and malnutrition
  • Water-borne diseases
  • Famines, malnutrition, conflict and migration.

Prof Obrist noted that malnutrition is a big thing in remote mountain areas, and that schistosomiasis is becoming a problem in high altitude lakes. She also mentioned that aging populations around the world is an important research area and public health concern of some note, with the realisation that Africa, like the rest of the world, has a huge aging population, and that this population and their issues will be important in the future as Africa’s population grows enormously.

Alien invasive species and mountains


Dr. Ralph Clark

Dr Ralph Clark from Rhodes University, South Africa, spoke about alien invasive species in African mountains, posing the question, how extensive is this problem? Eucalyptus is a big problem in arid areas, along with Prosopis, but are also considered a resource by local people, for example, in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian highlands where local forests have been removed.

The problem of invasive species seems worse in arid areas, and south of the Zambezi River, invasive woody species are becoming of concern in mountain and other regions. Ralph also mentioned that we often hear that mountains are ‘highly vulnerable’ to climate change, and yet some mountains may be very resilient because of where they are located, e.g. mountains close to the coast and receiving moist oceanic air coming inland. We need to understand more about this phenomenon as this may help mountain species in these mountains persist as other areas change because of climate change. Ralph also noted that Africa is still in the ‘age of investigation and species discovery and identification’ and that much work still needs to be done to produce species checklists, but also to verify species audits for key biodiversity areas like mountains. Some of these audits were done 100 years ago and there have been vast changes in African landscapes since them.

Movements of people into mountains due to climate change

There was some discussion on, how, over time, it is expected that the increased migration of people from the African lowlands into mountainous areas in Africa will further threaten mountain biodiversity. This movement will include subsistence farmers as well as the rich. This climate-linked migration to cooler highlands is expected to come at the same time that the lowlands have become degraded from unsustainable forms of agriculture. This situation needs to be planned for and managed. Changing land ownership patterns in Africa is also a very important and emerging issue and will have a very important influence on how land is used and by whom. Lands nearer cities will also change to urban residential development and will not be used for agriculture, and this could put additional pressure on more distant landscapes to produce food and firewood.

Planning for resilience


Devil’s Peak, part of Table Mountain, formed the backdrop for the 2016 WUN workshop

Another interesting comment was that, while we cannot predict the future, we need to plan anyway to create resilience in Africa’s complex socio-ecological systems. We need to develop adaptive management programmes for areas which need to be managed effectively , and this will need to be done most often in the absence of perfect data.

Dr Lindsey Gillson, from the University of Cape Town’s Plant Conservation Unit and Botany Department, explained how important stakeholder considerations were in designing management plans for sensitive areas, and how much scientific, traditional knowledge and cultural knowledge must be brought to bear to decide how these landscapes are to be managed. We also have to investigate the past range of landscape possibilities and use this to envisage future scenarios where possible. We ideally need to know what the key drivers of change are in the landscape and begin to understand resilience and thresholds through monitoring, experiments and modelling. Key factors are the environmental and social uncertainties, but these have to be identified as best as possible, often through stakeholder discussions. Dr Gillson has recently published a book titled ‘Biodiversity Conservation and Environmental Change : Using palaeoecology to manage dynamic landscapes in the Anthropocene’ (Oxford University Press).

Mountains must link to other mountains

In discussions, it was mentioned that in order to get climate-resilient protected areas and protected areas in mountains, there are a number of interventions that need to be made – for example, the protected areas need to be expanded or even more important, corridors in the landscape need to be created for species to move about the landscape. Unfortunately, with the increased agricultural transformation underway in African countries, it is not going to be easy to do this type of regional landscape planning that can link protected areas and mountains.


Some of the WUN workshop participants (Left to right): Dr Sue Taylor (AfroMont, University of Pretoria), Dr Ralph Clark (Rhodes University, South Africa); Dr Ben Ofori (University of Ghana); Dr Lindsey Gillson (University of Cape Town, South Africa); Prof Brigit Obrist (Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute – Swiss TPH), Univ of Basel); Dr Vendelin Simon (University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania); Dr Dr Gueladio Cissé (Swiss TPH); Dr Lydia Olaka (Nairobi University, Kenya ); Dr Wendy Foden (IUCN), Prof Pius Yanda (University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania) and Dr Rob Marchant (York University, UK).

People and Mt Elgon, Uganda

Dr Lydia Olaka from Nairobi University, Kenya, spoke about Mt Elgon and population pressures. She showed the group a Landscan population map for Mt Elgon. Each 1km2 grid has the number of persons living in the grid, and using Landscan maps it is very easily to see the human settlement pressure that Mt Elgon is under. Landscan information could be sourced for all of Africa’s mountains to understand population pressures on mountain landscapes.

Some of the WUN workshop participants (Left to right): Dr Sue Taylor (AfroMont, University of Pretoria), Dr Ralph Clark (Rhodes University, South Africa); Dr Ben Ofori (University of Ghana); Dr Lindsey Gillson (University of Cape Town, South Africa); Prof Brigit Obrist (Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute – Swiss TPH), Univ of Basel); Dr Vendelin Simon (University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania); Dr Dr Gueladio Cissé (Swiss TPH); Dr Lydia Olaka (Nairobi University, Kenya ); Dr Wendy Foden (IUCN), Prof Pius Yanda (University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania) and Dr Rob Marchant (York University, UK).

Devil’s Peak, part of Table Mountain, formed the backdrop for the 2016 WUN workshop

All Africa House, University of Cape Town, South Africa – the 2016 WUN workshop was held in this lovely postgraduate centre

The Worldwide Universities Network (WUN)

The Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) is a global higher education and research network made up of 18 universities, spanning 11 countries on five continents. The network members work to drive international research collaboration and address issues of global significance. WUN has 90 active research initiatives which are committed to addressing some of the world’s most urgent challenges and are supported by prolific partners such as the United Nations Foundation, World Bank, OECD and World Health Organization.

Source of Engaruka, Tanzania, image. https://aarea-project.eu/aims/

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