The Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society (SAPECS) is a transdisciplinary, international research program that aims to advance stewardship of social-ecological systems and ecosystem services in southern Africa. It is linked to the international Program on Ecosystem Change and Society (www.pecs-science.org), a 10-year research initiative within the ICSU global change programs.

SAPECS consists of a network of researchers, both from within the region and abroad, actively engaged in researching social-ecological systems in a range of case studies at various scales in the southern African region. This research is conducted within a shared conceptual framework and focuses on a common set of core themes.


SAPECS aims to advance stewardship of social-ecological systems and ecosystem services in the Southern African region by:

  • Producing empirical evidence and developing innovative, practical theory and tools to improve understanding of social-ecological systems and ecosystem services in the region and developing country contexts.

  • Mainstreaming knowledge into policy and practice, and incorporating experiences from policy and practice into scientific understanding, in order to have a tangible impact and effect change in the governance and management of social-ecological systems in the region.

  • Growing the community of practice, including researchers, students and practitioners engaged in research and management of social-ecological systems and ecosystem services in the southern African region.


SAPECS focuses on the dynamics of interconnected social-ecological systems, which we understand to be complex adaptive systems subject to nonlinear behavior. We are particularly interested in:

  • How the dynamics of social-ecological systems in southern Africa are shaped by structures and processes at interconnected local, regional and global scales, as well as over a range of timescales from short to long-term.

  • How changes in social-ecological systems influence human well-being and equity in southern Africa, especially through their impacts on ecosystem services.

  • How different governance and management practices shape social-ecological systems, and their consequences for ecosystem services and human well-being.

  • How learning and changes in governance and management practices occur and can be leveraged to enhance stewardship of social-ecological systems, and bring about transformations in such systems.


The research questions being addressed by SAPECS focus on six key research themes, that represent important research gaps around which interesting collaborations and comparisons across individual research sites are possible. The first four themes focus on specific questions relating to the SAPECS conceptual framework, while the last two focus on the ways in which our research is done:

  • Links between ecosystem services and human well-being, with an emphasis on poverty and inequality.

  • How governance and management institutions and practices affect social-ecological systems, including the capacity for learning and transformation.

  • Potential traps and transformations in the structure and dynamics of social-ecological systems, and the consequences of different trajectories of development for human well-being.

  • Cross-scale connections that impact the structure and dynamics of social-ecological systems at different scales.

  • Transdisciplinary, collaborative approaches, with particular attention to transdisciplinary training.

  • Mainstreaming and communication.

In adopting a transdisciplinary approach we mean that our research should draw on and integrate perspectives and approaches from a variety of disciplines, while avoiding superficial work at the boundaries of disciplines by actively seeking depth of understanding from all perspectives. Another aspect of this transdisciplinary approach will be actively working with stakeholders and practitioners in the design and conduct of research. We will also pay particular attention to communicating and mainstreaming of our findings and insights in the conduct of our research. We believe that it is important that decision makers, civil society and students not only be given access to information but are actively  involved in co-discovering new possibilities and approaches to social-ecological stewardship.


Each of the researchers engaged in the SAPECS is working at the research frontier of developing tools and skills for transdisciplinary social-ecological research, and brings to the table one or more in-depth empirical case studies of social-ecological systems in the region. Currently these case studies cluster in a few regional nodes within South Africa, but the ambition is to engage with researchers in the wider region as SAPECS develops.

SAPECS itself is organized around a set of cross-cutting working groups that aim to compare and synthesize across these individual social-ecological case studies to develop new empirical insights or develop new conceptual advances. These working groups are proposed and led by different members within the SAPECS community and can change over time. SAPECS therefore functions as a community of practice and a platform for research collaborations, where researchers share skills and knowledge and develop new cross-cutting syntheses and collaborations.

Research within SAPECS links to a wide array of other initiatives within the region and internationally. SAPECS links to these initiatives through shared membership of individuals, presenting talks and organizing special sessions at related forums, and by organizing our own SAPECS colloquia to engage with the wider community of researchers, practitioners and policy-makers interested in social-ecological research.