Assessing livestock farmers’ ecological knowledge and adaptation to climate and environmental change in arid regions of South Africa

by Khululiwe Ntombela

Title of thesis/research question: Assessing livestock farmers’ ecological knowledge and adaptation to climate and environmental change in arid regions of South Africa

Type of thesis (undergraduate/masters/doctoral/postdoctoral): Master’s 

University affiliation: University of the Western Cape, Natural Sciences Faculty, Biodiversity and Conservation Biology

When the research was undertaken: February 2014 – March 2017


The challenge of climate change projections at smaller scales results in the insufficiency of our understanding of local climatic changes and appropriate adaptation strategies. Local indigenous communities are thus left to rely on their local knowledge for appropriate adaptation practices. Livestock farmers in indigenous communities have for many years accumulated local ecological knowledge; and it is from this knowledge that their farming decisions are made. With the rapid rate of climate change, local ecological knowledge has been the center of adaptation strategies by indigenous people who live especially in dry regions. Previously, there had been less research and documentation of local ecological knowledge related to climate change adaptation and variability research. It is only recently that it is being considered to be critical in formulating adaptation and mitigation policies. My research investigated how communal livestock farmers from the Nama tribe in dry areas of South Africa understand climate change and how they apply local ecological knowledge (indigenous knowledge) to climatic and environmental change impacts.

While various other studies highlighted the lack of awareness and understanding of climate change among livestock communal farmers, my study found that over 70% of the livestock farmers had an understanding of climate change. Instead of using the term climate change, the livestock farmers prefer to use the term “seasonal shifts” to explain climate change. Even though media, NGOs, and research experts contribute as sources of information for the farmers, a huge part of their adaptation strategies originates from their local ecological knowledge. Their adaptation strategies include transhumance, supplementary feed, and alteration of the lambing season. The farmers referred to the “agt-dae-reen” (eight-day-rain) as an indication to move between grazing seasons. However, due to climatic changes, they no longer experience this eight-day-rain, meaning they currently do not know when is the best time to move between grazing seasons.

1. What were the most important or surprising findings of your work?

Local livestock farmers are very knowledgeable about climate change, as the climatic changes they observed were similar to recorded scientific data. As much as the livestock farmers live in remote areas, they are eager to learn through telecommunication to enhance their knowledge base. To summarize it all, livestock farmers are scientists in their own way, as they observe a problem, try out new things to test what works and does not work, and make decisions based on what they found.

2. What did you struggle with during the research and/or writing process, and how did you overcome these issues?

As a student with a pure scientific background, I found it challenging to analyze interviews as data. To overcome this challenge, I attended workshops on transdisciplinary research data analysis that my university offered. Since at the time of my research local/indigenous knowledge research on climate change was scarce, it was a challenge to find literature to support my arguments.  I overcame this by using my skill of holistic thinking and of finding ways to link existing literature 8to my research.

3. What are you doing now, and what are your plans for the coming year?

Currently, I am studying towards my PhD at the University of the Western Cape. My PhD research is focused on investigating the knowledge base and gaps of livestock farmers on land reform farms in South African in terms of knowledge production, access, sharing, and use. I chose this research focus because if the current world wants to move towards sustainable agricultural production, then this needs to be centered around an improved understanding of farmers’ knowledge and learning processes. How a farmer understands their farming environment, captures and transfers knowledge are all crucial for farming decision-making processes.

4. Per the above, did your research impact those plans in any way?

My current research will tap into the indigenous knowledge systems that I discovered a passion for during my previous research. It will link with my previous research by looking at how land reform farmers prepare for and adapt to (before and after) a drought that they recently experienced.

5. Do you have any advice for people who are undertaking this type of research?

Indigenous knowledge systems is a very comprehensive and exciting field to venture on because it broadens your skills to be an interdisciplinary researcher that looks at how things are linked and impact one another. Entering this field did not only develop me as a researcher, but developed my personal and spiritual being that grounds me when I get overwhelmed with any situation. My advice would be to learn to be open-minded and to not box yourself in one particular field, have some basic knowledge of different aspects that might be related or affect your research.

Read the full thesis here:

Author Bio: Khululiwe Ntombela is a PhD student at the University of the Western Cape, and affiliated with the Agricultural Research Council-Animal Production-Range and Forage Sciences, where she focuses on knowledge systems of livestock farmers in land reform farms for sustainable agriculture in a changing world. Her previous study on people’s perception of climatic changes inspired her to enter the indigenous knowledge field and conduct transdisciplinary research for rangeland and livestock management. 

Categories Student Work

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