African Journal of Range and Forage Science

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An overview of themes in the agrarian and environmental history of the Karoo since c.1800

William Beinart


This article explores some themes in the agrarian and environmental history of the Karoo since 1800. It argues that environmental change cannot be understood without incorporating social, economic and political history. This is especially so in the case of the Karoo because the landscape and ecology was transformed by intensive commercial livestock production in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The scale and economic significance of sheep farming and wool production up to the 1960s is generally underestimated in histories of the Cape and South Africa. The article outlines the patterns of economic growth and also the technologies required, such as fencing and water provision. The environmental impact of intensive livestock farming was recognised from the late eighteenth century and new scientific approaches helped to define understandings of environmental change. Environmental degradation was at its height in the first half of the twentieth century; simultaneously, conservationist ideas were developed and gradually implemented. In the second half of the twentieth century, these approaches, together with socio-economic factors that led to lower levels of stocking, resulted in a stabilisation and even some environmental recovery.

Keywords: conservation, environmental degradation, environmental stabilisation, Karoo agrarian economy

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