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25 May 2020 | Story Dr Ralph Clark | Photo Charl Devenish
Afromontane research area in the Eastern Free State.

Africa could be called ‘the continent of mountain archipelagos’ for the unusual fact that most of Africa's mountains are isolated ‘islands’ rather than linear, continuous mountain systems such as those in Asia (e.g. the Himalayas), Europe (e.g. the Alps), and the Americas (e.g. Rockies and Andes). Even in Southern Africa, where we have the linear Great Escarpment (5 000 km long), this system is so old that it has been breached in innumerable places by erosion into a series of independent mountain blocks.

The result of this mountain disconnection is that Africa's mountains display biodiversity patterns more akin to islands than to mountains: rich, exciting, and unique, and full of very localised and interesting species. Likewise, mountain communities have established and evolved unique cultural ways of life and traditions in their particular mountains – isolated from other groups on other mountains. But in some mountains, internecine warfare and tribal conflict caused mountains to become boundaries rather than welcoming places. This was certainly the case during the Mfecane in Southern Africa, ultimately leading to the birth of Lesotho as the ‘Mountain Kingdom’. Colonialism took this to a new level, and – for most of Africa – mountains became international borders between empires, splitting ethnic groups into several nationalities and marginalising large segments of the population in these new countries. This same geopolitical situation continues today, with major implications for the sustainable management of mountain ecosystem services, natural capital, and socio-cultural sustainability in multinational contexts.

The Afromontane Research Unit (ARU) – a continental leader in African mountain research – seeks to explore these socio-ecological complexities in terms of sustainable development, providing research that can help to secure a positive future for the people, biodiversity, and goods and services provided by Africa's mountains. As part of its mission, the ARU is leading the way in encouraging a multidisciplinary community of practice that will drive a science-policy-action interface for Southern African mountains in decades to come. As virtually all of Africa's water comes from its mountains, this is a critical service to a region increasingly at risk from drought and the socio-political implications of rivers and taps running dry. 

Although the Qwaqwa Campus is the home of the ARU, the ARU is welcoming affiliations from across the UFS and beyond. Should you wish to become affiliated to the ARU, please contact the Director, Dr Ralph Clark at Visit the new ARU's website 

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