Heidelberg University

Resource Utilization, Land Degradation and External Interventions in the Peripheral Mountains of Lesotho,
Southern Africa

Project Team:

Duration & Funding:
    1999 - 2001: Volkswagen Foundation

    together with Dr. Stefan Grab, University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), Johannesburg, South Africa

    2001 - 2003: Habilitation Fellowship German Research Foundation


Selected Publications

The mountain plateau of eastern Lesotho is bounded by the rugged barrier of the High Drakensberg, the most prominent part of the Great Escarpment of southern Africa. The project focuses on the contrasting climatic conditions, vegetation types and different systems of resource utilization between the highlands of Lesotho and the adjoining lowlands of South Africa's province KwaZulu/Natal. Whereas the high altitude grasslands of Lesotho are used as pastures managed under a common property regime, the mountain forests and grasslands of the High Drakensberg in South Africa are managed as protected areas and the adjoining lowlands are used as farmland.

Repeat photography of wetlands and fire succession serve to demonstrate seasonal variations of resource potentials and multifunctionality of resource utilization. Human-ecological studies of land use and land cover change strongly depend on appropriate monitoring concepts.

Seasonality is the main driving factor for the local climate and vegetation in the wetlands. The overview photographs (A: 20.04.1999, B: 29.08.1999) show the wetlands near Sani Pass with distinct vegetation plots, intensively used all year round as pastures. Due to the large number of animals, degradation becomes apparent. The detailed photographs (C: 08.09.1998, D: 04.03.1999, E: 29.08.1999, F: 09.03.2000) show vast scarfs and depressions (10 to 20 cm deep) on the surface in a two years sequence. During the winter they fall dry and become covered with water during the summer. The degradation is the result of interactions between thawing and freezing, rodents (Otomys sloggetti), cattle treading and deflation.

The mountain kingdom of Lesotho is a land-locked country characterized by political and economic dependencies, dominated by South Africa. The evolution of resource utilization is marked by external interventions which in turn began during colonial times and continue until the present day. Settlement processes and the evolution of transhumance patterns in the Maloti Mountains started in the 1880s as a response to increasing degradation of the lowlands and foothills. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project has changed the focus on water, the most important economical resource of Lesotho. A series of projects on sustainable resource utilization and livestock rearing have been established in the mountains during the past 20 years. However, the possibilities for mountain dwellers to participate in the development process remain insufficient.

Since colonial times, the mountain kingdom of Lesotho has served as a prominent example for widespread land degradation. Over the last decades, land use has been confronted with accelerated soil erosion, turf loss and grassland degradation as a result of a generally high and continuous anthropo-zoogenic impact, e.g. grazing, grassland burning and fuelwood collection. Based on a comparative approach, the project analyses recent developments of pastoral resource utilization and subsequent vegetation change in the Sanqebethu Valley, situated in the eastern highlands of Lesotho (Mokhotlong District). The assessment of contemporary land use and land cover change is based on a time series of remote sensing data (Landsat TM) from 1989 and 1999, a recent ground survey and comparative data from 1988. High altitude grasslands show a slight reduction of vegetation cover, although the general intensity of pastoral utilization decreased significantly in the interim decade. Vegetation surveys and studies on erosion processes are combined with the intensity of resource utilization in order to analyze contemporary rangeland conditions and land degradation.

Lesotho 1
Water: 'The White Gold' of Lesotho
(M. Nüsser 1999)
Lesotho 1
Thatching a Roof with Maxmuellera
(M. Nüsser 2002)

  • GRAB, S. & NÜSSER, M. (2001): Towards an Integrated Research Approach for the Drakensberg and Lesotho Mountain Environments: A Case Study from the Sani Plateau Region. In: South African Geographical Journal 83 (1): 64-68.
  • NÜSSER, M. (2001): Ressourcennutzung und externe Eingriffe im peripheren Gebirgsland Lesotho. In: Geographische Rundschau 53 (12): 30-36.
  • NÜSSER, M. & GRAB, S. (2002): Land Degradation and Soil Erosion in the Eastern Highlands of Lesotho, Southern Africa. In: Die Erde 133 (3): 291-311.
  • NÜSSER, M. (2002a): Pastoral Utilization and Land Cover Change: A Case Study from the Sanqebethu Valley, Eastern Lesotho. In: Erdkunde 56 (2): 207-221.
  • NÜSSER, M. (2002b): Maloti-Drakensberg: Naturraum und Nutzungsmuster im Hochgebirge des südlichen Afrika. In Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen 146 (4): 60-68.
  • NÜSSER, M. (2003a): Landnutzung, Ressourcendegradation und Entwicklungsprobleme im Gebirgsland Lesotho. In: JEANNERET, F., WAST-WALTER, D., WIESMANN, U. & SCHWYN, M. (Eds.): Welt der Alpen Gebirge der Welt: Ressourcen, Akteure, Perspektiven. Festschrift zum 54. Deutschen Geographentag in Bern (= Jahrbuch der Geographischen Gesellschaft Bern 61): 117-125.
  • NÜSSER, M. (2003b): Political Ecology of Large Dams: A Critical Review. In: Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen 147 (1): 20-27.
  • NÜSSER, M. (2004): Krisen und Konflikte in Lesotho: Entwicklungsprobleme eines peripheren Hochlandes aus politisch-ökologischer Perspektive. In: GAMERITH, W., MESSERLI, P., MEUSBURGER, P. & WANNER, H. (Eds.): Alpenwelt Gebirgswelten: Inseln, Brücken, Grenzen. Tagungsbericht und wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen. 54. Deutscher Geographentag Bern 2003: 633-640.
  • Lesotho 1
    Mountain Dweller in the Lesotho Highlands (M. Nüsser 1999)