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Rick Rohde, Co-Investigator



The Future Pasts project gives me the opportunity to experience a very personal, subjective version of the ‘future past’. I first went to Namibia in the early 1990s at a formative time in my life – at the end of my career as a hill farmer in northwest Scotland, and the beginning of life as an academic researcher. Namibia had just become independent and the spirit of optimism and hope throughout the country was palpable. During ‘fieldwork’ as a post-grad student at the Centre of African Studies (University of Edinburgh), I was able to experience a new and exhilarating world of possibilities in Namibia during the next 5 years. I spent much of my time in what was then still known as Damaraland – one of the apartheid era’s last homeland creations – where my interest in environmental history grew into a lasting obsession. I was also able to indulge my interest in photography as a way of fulfilling the ethnographic requirements for an anthropology doctorate by giving disposable cameras to sixteen individuals and their families in the communal village of Okombahe, resulting in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Namibia (Rohde 1997). By revisiting the Okombahe photographers, rekindling friendships that were made in Damaraland during those years and further exploring the eco-social changes spanning multiple time-frames, I hope to document both the experiential and empirical aspects of the future past.


Between 1997 and today, I have been a member of several research teams based in southern Africa which involved the study of pastoralism, conservation policy, land reform, historical ecology, arid land hydrology and visual anthropology. My role within Future Pasts builds on these prior research interests where I have analysed ecological change in relation to colonialism, global warming, fire ecology, atmospheric CO2 -fertilisation and land-use. Repeat landscape photography, using archival images, is my main entry point for establishing the extent and causes of environmental change in Namibia over the last 130 years, and by surveying and analysing changes in plant species, habitat and ground cover at repeat photo sites in a variety of agro-ecological zones, trends related to climate change and land-use can be identified (Rohde and Hoffman 2012). Presently, my focus is on the arid western Erongo region including the adjacent Namib Desert, its ephemeral rivers and mining areas. This historical ecology research compliments an international project (FogLife) coordinated by the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in the Namib which aims to understand the effect of rising sea surface temperatures in the Benguela Current on fog and the fog dependent biota of this ancient desert. As one travels east away from the coast, rainfall and land use become ever more important determinants of vegetation change.  Preliminary analyses of both desert and semi-arid parts of the study region show that perennial vegetation cover has expanded during the twentieth century, revealing a trend that in some respects contradicts climate model forecasts that predict increased aridity and desertification. 


The more personal and subjective experience of returning to my research area, twenty years on, and re-establishing relationships with many of my Damara friends, has been both poignant and disarming. The vicissitudes of communal life in rural Namibia, the realisation of the future pasts in the lives of my friends and acquaintances, played out over two decades, present many insights into this harsh, resilient eco-social domain.  The history of politics, culture, religion and ecology are embodied in the lives of my friends and acquaintances, tempering my perceptions of ‘being there’ again, and making my own ‘future past’ experience all the more intense. Writing about this ‘repeat ethnography’ constitutes a substantial part of my role in the project.


My affiliations and research projects have included:

- The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) studying the historical ecology of rural agrarian systems of Eastern Africa Drylands;

- The Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa under an EU funded international programme studying communal rangelands in southern Africa in relation to global change;

- The Plant Conservation Unit, University of Cape Town, investigating the environmental history component of the German funded “BIOTA Southern Africa”; and coordinating the social science strand of ”Maposda"  (Management and policy options for the sustainable development of communal rangelands and their communities in Southern Africa), funded by the EU;

-CAS, University of Edinburgh, PI for the social science component of EU funded Global Change and Ecosystems: (WADE). I have been a Research Fellow and Honorary Fellow at CAS since 1997.


A list of my publications and activities can be found at the CAS website.

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