The Eastern Cape is characterized by sharp gradients in biophysical and human systems, making it a key location for identifying and studying the sensitivity of coupled socio-ecological systems to rapid change. Currently, social systems in the Eastern Cape region reflect historically recent but massive shifts in national politics and international influence. In addition, the region is characterized by significant geologic and topographic gradients from inland to the coast, and some of the most intense climatological gradients globally. Offshore, the warm waters of the Agulhas current influence important coastal intertidal food resources like shellfish, while the region also represents the transition between more northerly tropical waters with cooler water systems to the south. Largely due to these large biophysical gradients, the region has been named a biodiversity hotspot (Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany) and has high levels of species’ endemism. Moreover, future projections for change indicate vulnerability in both social and physical systems to multiple drivers such as climate and changes in land use.
As a result, the Wild Coast region represents a landscape in transition – both socially and biophysically. Understanding how this transition manifests through time and across heterogeneous settings requires a deeper understanding of how social-ecological systems are historically linked and how they can be expected to change in the future. It is worth noting that the Wild Coast is also a significant location for anthropological research. South Africa preserves among the earliest evidence showing when and how early modern humans developed the suite of social, symbolic, and technological behaviors that define humanity today. Much of that evidence suggests that coastal environments and resources were especially critical to the survival and cognitive development of humans during the last 300,000 years, and especially during ice ages.
In modern times, the inhabitants of the Eastern Cape have inherited a rich cultural heritage, but populations were marginalized and investment limited under previous regimes. In particular, colonial and apartheid governments established political-economic-spatial systems of segregation that disenfranchised the majority African population. These historical systems remain persistent in shaping social and ecological landscapes, as well as in terms of their coupled dynamics. The communities located around Eastern Cape protected areas are also on the margins of larger municipalities and subject to overlapping local, regional and national jurisdictions. Furthermore, the governmental and administrative system in South Africa has only been in place since 1994 and is still evolving.
There is a strong reliance on the natural system by communities to meet basic livelihood needs. This includes water for subsistence, agriculture and household use. Various wild plants and animals products are used for medicinal, food and cultural purposes. This strong reliance on the natural resources makes communities vulnerable to global climate change and environmental influences. The area is poverty stricken and highly reliant on government social grants. The maintenance of ecosystem services is thus a critical issue.
The Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast is, therefore, ideal for studying natural systems in the context of changing climate and land use; social systems in the context of still evolving governmental structures faced with the imperatives of poverty reduction and land redistribution; and the interactions between human and natural systems both past and present. It provides a unique local context for addressing major global challenges of food, health and energy security, as well as biodiversity conservation, while highlighting the intersection of global, national and local goals and needs.
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