Visions for rural African futures mean conflicting aspirations for coupling processes

by Anja Linstädter, Wulf Amelung, Jan Börner, Liana Kindermann, Maximilian Meyer, Alexandra Sandhage-Hofmann (Project A01 – Future Carbon Storage)

Social-ecological transformation may have tremendous consequences for the degree of coupling within social-ecological systems. Following Martín-López et al. (2019), two coupling mechanisms can be distinguished: First, the extent to which social actors depend on ecosystem services; and second, the extent to which social actors influence the management of ecosystem services. In a closely coupled social-ecological system, both coupling mechanisms should be strong. Cross-scalar interactions have triggered a decoupling of social-ecological systems worldwide. In certain cases, though, a recoupling can be observed, which means that local actors become more dependent on local ecosystem services again (Linstädter et al., 2016); and/or gain more influence on ecosystem service management. With a focus on multiple ecosystem services provided by soil and vegetation, project A01 “Future Carbon Storage” aims at exploring how coupling mechanisms in Namibia’s Zambezi Region change along two major pathways of social-ecological transformation (i.e. agricultural intensification, and conservation efforts in transfrontier conservation areas), using carbon storage as a common currency between agricultural economics, ecology and soil science.

We pose that conflicting visions for rural Africa – conservation versus agricultural intensification – come along with conflicting aspirations for the strength of local coupling processes (see Figure 1). For conservation, a recoupling is aspired, in particular for community-managed conservancies (Hoole and Berkes, 2010). On the other hand, agricultural intensification likely comes along with further decoupling within social-ecological systems. The degree of this decoupling depends on time (studied in A01 via space-for-time-substitutions; Fig. 1) and on the scale of observation. This indicates that telecoupling processes must likely be considered (Hull and Liu, 2018; Martín-López et al., 2019) to bridge processes across ecological system boundaries also in sub-Saharan Africa. Latter processes are studied in close collaboration with projects from Clusters B (Boundaries) and C (Linkages).


Hoole, A., Berkes, F., 2010. Breaking down fences: Recoupling social–ecological systems for biodiversity conservation in Namibia. Geoforum 41, 304-317.

Hull, V., Liu, J., 2018. Telecoupling: A new frontier for global sustainability. Ecol. Soc. 23.

Linstädter, A., Kuhn, A., Naumann, C., Rasch, S., Sandhage-Hofmann, A., Amelung, W., Jordaan, J., Du Preez, C.C., Bollig, M., 2016. Assessing the resilience of a real-world social-ecological system: Lessons from a multi-disciplinary evaluation of a South African pastoral system. Ecol. Soc. 21, 35.

Martín-López, B., Felipe-Lucia, M.R., Bennett, E.M., Norström, A., Peterson, G., Plieninger, T., Hicks, C.C., Turkelboom, F., García-Llorente, M., Jacobs, S., 2019. A novel telecoupling framework to assess social relations across spatial scales for ecosystem services research. J. Environ. Manag. 241, 251-263.

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