Ecology and Society Ecology and Society
E&S Home > Vol. 20, Iss. 1 > Art. 41 > Abstract Open Access Publishing 
Toward an analytical framework for understanding complex social-ecological systems when conducting environmental impact assessments in South Africa

Rebecca Bowd, School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal
Nevil W. Quinn, Department of Geography and Environmental Management, University of the West of England
Donovan C. Kotze, School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal


Full Text: HTML   
Download Citation


Consideration of biophysical impacts has historically dominated environmental impact assessment (EIA) practice. Despite the emergence of social impact assessment, the consideration of socioeconomic impacts in EIA is variable, as is the extent of their integration in EIA findings. There is growing recognition for the need to move EIA practice toward sustainability assessment, characterized by comprehensiveness, i.e., scope of impacts, integration, i.e., of biophysical and socioeconomic impacts, and a greater strategic focus. This is particularly the case in developing regions and in countries like South Africa, which have statutory requirements for the full consideration of socioeconomic impacts in EIA. We suggest that EIA practice could benefit from incorporating evolving theory around social-ecological systems (SES) as an effective way of moving toward sustainability assessment.
As far as we are aware, our study constitutes the first attempt to apply and formalize SES constructs to EIA practice within a regulated procedure. Our framework goes beyond conventional scoping approaches reliant on checklists and matrices by requiring the EIA practitioner to cocreate a conceptual model of the current and future social-ecological system with the implicated communities. This means social and biophysical impacts are assessed integratively, and that communities participate meaningfully in the EIA process, thereby helping address two of the most common shortfalls of EIA practice. The framework was applied in two case studies, establishment of community-based accommodation linked to existing tourism infrastructure (Eastern Cape, South Africa), and a proposed wine estate (KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa). The framework revealed impacts, which would not be considered in a biophysically-oriented EIA, and helped identify development synergies and institutional and governance needs that are equally likely to have been overlooked. We suggest the framework has value as a counterpoint to established approaches and could contribute to improving the quality of EIAs with respect to the complex SESs that characterize the developing world.

Key words

ecosystem services; environmental impact assessment (EIA); framework; participation; social-ecological system (SES); sustainability assessment

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087