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Rural-Urban Dynamics in the East African Mountains

Sylvain Racaud
Bob R. Nakileza
François Bart
et al.


Greg Greenwood

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1This volume stands at the intersection of several different but complementary themes in current global change research. Although its authors are members of, and use the vocabulary of, a different intellectual tradition, that of European geography, the work herein clearly portrays the apprehension of mountain regions as social-ecological systems (Ostrom 2009). Mountain research, at least in the temperate and boreal regions of Europe and North America, has historically tended to consider mountains as marginal regions, afflicted with cold climates and exaggerated hazards, a difficult and isolated habitat for humans with low population densities and rudimentary institutions, generally peripheral to life of the nation. While these northern regions could nonetheless have been characterized as social-ecological systems, the ecological system, meaning both the biotic and abiotic features of the environment, was more frequently the target of inquiry, relegating the social to a secondary intellectual position.

2The work herein presents an entirely different conception of mountains. Here in East Africa, mountain regions are the preferred human habitat, typically well-watered and fertile zones surrounded by vast but more difficult savannah and desert environments. The human density of these highlands with the attendant development of complex institutions to regulate resource use places the social back in appropriate balance with the ecological. It may well be that we will see a more complete development of the idea of mountains as social-ecological systems in the context of tropical highlands, such as these described for East Africa, than we will in the temperate and boreal regions, where mountains, though more fully integrated into national life now than in the past, are still more frequently seen as stores of resources, by the mineral, energy or recreational, than as habitable spaces in themselves.

3This book however goes beyond the conception of mountains as rich human habitat to address the relationship between these places and the expanding urbanization of the planet. More than half of humanity now resides in urban areas, making urbanization a key feature of the Anthropocene. Mountains regions, in the North as well as in South, have significant urban centers. Yet at a recent global conference on global change research in mountain regions, few if any of the presentations examined the relationship between urbanization and mountain regions (Gleeson et al. in press). Mountain research continues to lag behind the reality of mountain regions.

4Urbanization is a key theme in the new Strategic Research Agenda of Future Earth (2014). It accompanies other themes more familiar to the mountain research community, those of protecting natural assets and promoting sustainable rural livelihoods. The authors of this book have managed to encompass all of these concerns within a single volume. We need more such work as this!



Future Earth. 2014. Future Earth Strategic Research Agenda. Paris: International. Council for Science (ICSU).

Gleeson E, Wymann von Dach S, Flint C, Greenwood G, Price MF, Balsiger J, Nolin A, Vanacker V. (in press). Mountains of our Future Earth -Defining Priorities for Mountain Research. Mountain Research and Development 37.

Ostrom E. 2009. A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems. Science 325: 419-422.


Director of the Mountain Research Initiative, Institute of Geography, University of Bern

© Africae, 2016

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