Afromontane pioneering sustainable mountain research

Mountains and highlands have always played an important role in the history of mankind. They produce economically essential goods and services (such as fresh water), host unique biodiversity, and offer unique recreational and tourism opportunities. Mountains are also a place for spiritual sanctuaries and are often used for journeys of self-reflection through pilgrimage.

In addition to these ‘feel good’ benefits, mountains are hazardous areas for communities and infrastructure and are vulnerable to natural disasters. Mountainous areas are also often natural borders defining geopolitical entities, but in the process splitting and marginalising communities, creating economic shadow zones and sometimes becoming highly militarised areas.

“Southern African mountains provide enormous opportunities for holistic research as social-ecological systems, with some of the most interesting and least academically explored environments on Earth,” said Dr Vincent Clark, Director: Afromontane Research Unit (ARU) on the UFS Qwaqwa Campus.

The Afromontane Research Unit

The Qwaqwa Campus of the University of the Free State (UFS) is the home of the ARU, a multidisciplinary flagship group addressing the largely under-researched mountainous landscapes of southern Africa.

Research in the ARU is promoted around three broad themes to foster inter- and multidisciplinary discourse: (1) conservation and sustainable use of Afromontane biodiversity; (2) sustainable futures for the people of the Afromontane; and (3) living and doing business in the Afromontane – with the intention of creating a sustainability science hub to bring the three themes into the ambit of solution-oriented transdisciplinary research, centred in the sustainable development goals and sustainability research in general.

Continental leader

To achieve its vision of becoming a continental leader in African mountain research, the ARU is positioning itself as a mountain-knowledge generator and interchange by developing key relationships locally and internationally. The most valuable local partnership is with the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), with which the ARU will be sharing a Research Chair.

The Chair will contain strong expertise in the Social Sciences to complement the existing strong Natural Science element in both the ARU and SAEON. The Sustainability Science component is being built through inter alia a mutually-reinforcing relationship with the University of Tokyo and United Nations University, Tokyo.

The future

“In tandem with robust collaborations to achieve its goals, the ARU provides an envious capacity-building programme for its early career campus academics, postdoctoral and postgraduate students,” said Dr Clark.

The scale of influence of the ARU is prioritised as ‘back yard first’, namely solution-oriented research that benefits Phuthaditjhaba, Qwaqwa, Golden Gate Highlands National Park and Royal Natal National Park. Thereafter, the ARU seeks to facilitate research that encourages the sustainable development of the Maloti-Drakensberg as a unique social-ecological system in Africa, and from there facilitate research in the intellectual vacuum that is the southern African mountains. With time, the ARU aims to take the intellectual lead as an Africa-based leader in African mountain research. The success of this will depend on how carefully the development of human infrastructure can be balanced with that of the myriad opportunities presented.”

With a diverse and motivated team, situated in one of the most attractive environments in Africa, the ARU is here to change the way we think about African mountains and what they mean for us all. 

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