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Posted on January 10th, 2013

Back to School – The Mountains of Africa

Researchers from the University of Sussex in the UK and Rhodes University in South Africa conducted a study utilizing GIS to assess the socioeconomic conditions of the mountainous regions in the southern portion of the African continent – specifically Lesotho, South Africa and Swaziland. Their idea arose from talks about sustainability practices in metropolitan and rural areas which lacked any consideration to the specific needs of mountainous zones. Due to their sparse population and relatively small total acreage compared to other land classifications (e.g. prairie, wetland, etc.), the mountainous regions were dubbed ‘invisible.’ In an earlier study, the Mountain Catchment Areas Act 63 found that nearly 25% of South Africa could be labeled as mountainous with 15% of this total defined as ‘hill country’ by international standards. That makes a full 10% of the country ‘mountainous,’ and therefore certainly worthy of giving it specific attention.

This study looks at three ways of designating landscapes as mountainous using a combination of topography, vegetation and culture. For the topographic definition, the researchers used the digital topographic database, GTOPO30, to devise a categorization of ‘mountainous.’ Elevation, slope gradient and elevation range are all adjustable variables which will change what is deemed mountainous. The researchers decided to use the most stringent topographic definition so that approximately 10% of Southern Africa was classified as mountainous.

The dark black areas on the map indicate regions dubbed as mountainous with a minimum elevation of 850 meters, a range of at least 300 meters and a slope gradient of at least 5%.

The second method of consideration, vegetation, used data from ENPAT to assign biome classifications based on known common species and structures. To do this, the researchers identified vegetation and growth patterns that matched those commonly found in mountainous regions. This classification resulted in an increase in what should be considered mountainous for Southern Africa to nearly 14%.

The third method was based on cultural characteristics as a proxy variable for topography. Considerations for this approach were based on name classifications in a gazetteer for South Africa only. The keywords of focus were: mountain, mountain range and highlands. Of the 629 names that involved one of the chosen handles, 500 referred to mountains, and 49 to mountain ranges. All of the named areas were at least 850 meters at their lowest points.

Attempts were then made to assess poverty in mountainous areas using a commonly accepted definition of poverty. Mountain people had less access to flush toilets and electricity than did metropolitan and rural, non-mountain people, but had higher access to public taps than either other category. Mountain people also had a lower average household income.

Mountains play a major role in biodiversity and water diversion. If people that live in mountainous regions are unable to access modern resources, they will be more reliant upon nature, and we risk potential overuse or abuse of our limited natural resources. However, any policy changes that could affect mountain people can create even greater socio-cultural problems if their specific needs are not addressed, hence it is an area of research that needs further consideration.

Justin Harmon

Staff Writer

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