Exploring connections in social-ecological systems : The links between biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being in South Africa

Abstract: A key challenge of the Anthropocene is to advance human development without undermining critical ecosystem services. Central to this challenge is a better understanding of the interactions and feedbacks between biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being, which interact in dynamic and complex social-ecological systems. These relationships have been the focus of much work in the past decades, however more remains to be done to comprehensively identify and quantify them, especially at larger scales. In this thesis, a social-ecological systems approach is adopted to investigate connections between biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being in South Africa. The country’s high levels of biological and socio-economic diversity, as well as its emerging economy make South Africa an interesting case for exploring these connections. Using data from a variety of public sources, and at different sub-national scales, the thesis first identifies and analyses a variety of bundles of ecosystem service use. Based on these bundles, three social-ecological system archetypes were identified and mapped in South Africa, namely the green-loop (high overall use of local ecosystem services), transition, and red-loop (low overall use of local ecosystem services) systems. Further analysis explored the social and ecological drivers of these patterns, and found the distribution of systems mainly influenced by social factors including household income, gender of the household head, and land tenure. Second, this thesis uses human well-being indicators to construct, analyse and map multi-dimensional human well-being bundles. These bundles were found to spatially cluster across the landscape, and were analysed for congruence with the ecosystem service use bundles. Discrepancies in the expected overlap of ecosystem service use and human well-being were highlighted and concur with findings elsewhere and the ongoing debate in the literature on the impacts of time-lags, indicator choice and scale of these interactions. Third, biodiversity in South Africa was analysed by employing an indicator of biodiversity intactness (BII) at the population level. The BII was found to have declined by 18.3% since pre-industrial times. Biodiversity loss was linked to the potential supply of ecosystem services, as well as human well-being patterns. A potential threshold at 40% biodiversity loss was detected, beyond which population abundances decline sharply. Finally, the thesis examines multiple perspectives on ecosystem services in sustainability research, including the social-ecological systems perspective, and discusses the complementarity of the different perspectives in furthering a deeper understanding of the connections between people and ecosystems. The social-ecological systems perspective employed throughout the empirical work presented in this thesis contributed towards cross-cutting insights, the testing of new kinds of data and the development of new approaches, all of which represent important steps towards unravelling the connections between biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being, and contributing to the key Anthropocene challenge of sustainable development.