Woody encroachment as a social-ecological regime shift
CITATION: Luvuno, L., Biggs, R., Stevens, N. & Esler, K. 2018. Woody encroachment as a social-ecological regime shift. Sustainability, 10(7), 2221, doi:10.3390/su10072221.
The original publication is available at http://www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability
African savannas are increasingly affected by woody encroachment, an increase in the density of woody plants. Woody encroachment often occurs unexpectedly, is difficult to reverse, and has significant economic, cultural and ecological implications. The process of woody encroachment represents a so-called regime shift that results from feedback loops that link vegetation and variables such as fire, grazing and water availability. Much of the work on woody encroachment has focused on the direct drivers of the process, such as the role of fire or grazing in inhibiting or promoting encroachment. However, little work has been done on how ecological changes may provide feedback to affect some of the underlying social processes driving woody encroachment. In this paper, we build on the ecological literature on encroachment to present a qualitative systems analysis of woody encroachment as a social-ecological regime shift. Our analysis highlights the underlying indirect role of human population growth, and we distinguish the key social-ecological processes underlying woody encroachment in arid versus mesic African savannas. The analysis we present helps synthesize the impacts of encroachment, the drivers and feedbacks that play a key role and identify potential social and ecological leverage points to prevent or reverse the woody encroachment process.