Modern man has moved away from a clear commitment to a responsible land ethic. This conviction is expressed by Ken Coetzee of Conservation Management Services, in the revised second edition of his book, Caring for Natural Rangelands. This land ethic must be restored, he claims. In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the dire need for the restoration of land to stop the loss of once productive land to barren deserts.

“The land is simply used as a medium for commercial exploitation, for economic gain and without any spiritual connection to it. As natural resources diminish because of expanding human populations, the economics of survival play an increasingly important role,” says Ken.

A small piece of land that could support an agricultural family a century ago, cannot provide a reasonable income anymore. A different value system and the higher cost of living put more pressure on the land as people try to gain more profit from it just to make ends meet. Yet, the same is true even where landowners live comfortably off the land. The unsustainable exploitation of natural resources could then be the result of greed or ignorance.

Lost memory of a land ethic

Whatever the reasons for the deterioration, it seems that modern man has lost all memory of land ethic. Ken explains this in a quote from Aldo Leopold, an American conservationist, scientist, and writer, who in 1933 wrote as follows about land ethics in his book A sand county almanac. “All ethics so far involved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? ‘Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species.

“A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources’, but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and respect for the community as such.”

Ancient land ethic

Land ethic was an essential part of the life and survival of ancient cultures, including the Native Americans, the Australian Aborigines, African KhoiSan, Asian Eskimos, and Central Asian nomads. These people understood that their survival depended on an intimate, careful, and reverential relationship with the natural environments that supported them.

“The Native Americans clearly recognised that death was a gift of renewal to the living and that only a sustainable use of this gift would ensure their survival. The discerning nature of this identification with the animals and plants of their world was fundamental to their holistic view of life, and their sustainable use of the wildlife and plants that fed them,” observes Ken.

As human populations grew in numbers and started moving around, they learned new hunting and agricultural skills from others, such as the use of fire and the plough. Technology developed. When sinking a borehole became an option, herdsmen who before had to follow pastures after seasonal rains, could stay in one place. And so, they forgot how to use rotational grazing. Over time, new values based on technology and not the ancient knowledge passed from father to son became the norm. And these ancient land ethics upon which their survival depended were forgotten.

“With this forgetfulness comes the degradation of natural landscapes because of unsustainable land use practices,” states Ken.

Time for a new ethic

The task of modern range managers is to reverse landscape deterioration. “A land ethic must be reborn, and it must be instilled in every land management practitioner from owner to the humble worker.”

However, Ken acknowledges that this is easier said than done. Environmental education programmes and training courses can provide information about the building blocks of any environmental system, interdependence, and the interrelationships that make any system function. Instilling a land ethic requires much more than this basic, but vital information. For that purpose, an emphasis on the appreciation of land as a basic but exhaustible resource is required. “The teaching of a land ethic must thus be an intellectual as well as an emotional process. A suitable land ethic must be willingly and enthusiastically pursued by range managers as a way of life rather than yet another new-age method for increasing production,” says Ken.

In Leopold’s words: “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.”

What can be done?

There are many ways to take care of the land, but often complicated solutions do not necessarily solve the problems. Land management problems are often complex and involve a chain of inseparably connected aspects.

For example, the rehabilitation of a river may involve soil erosion control in the river catchment area, as well as a change in land use from sheep and cattle grazing to wildlife and tourism, which will have a reduced impact on the land. Solutions should be carefully considered. The manager must be committed to land care. A new land ethic that will restore the pioneering spirit, as well as pride in every effort, will be the first steps to restoration.

Taking a fresh look

It is important to look at the land with new eyes. Look at the problem, find out what caused it, and work out what to do about it. “Making the right decisions at this early stage of any land care project is critical for the outcome to be successful as well as cost-effective.” Do not look at the size of the problem and the scale of the rehabilitation.

“One committed person can make a difference, albeit tiny, to start the healing of the land. It takes only commitment and a fresh look at the age-old problem,” says Ken.

Small steps

Ken believes one must not be daunted by the apparent high cost of rehabilitation management. “Quick solutions to rehabilitation problems are sometimes effective but are always expensive,” he says. Cheaper options might provide the same results.

For instance:

  • Using hand labour instead of mechanisation is more appropriate in areas where unemployment is a problem.
  • Natural organic products are preferable to synthetic, manufactured chemical fertilisers.
  • A self-help approach, driven by a commitment to a sound land ethic, is often more effective than using expensive rehabilitation contractors.
  • Small but effective steps are required and will be more affordable.

Ken suggests that one must try to imagine the completed project and then work backwards through the steps that must be taken to get there. Do not worry about what every step will cost. Ask yourself how each step in the vision can be achieved, but do not let negative and limiting thoughts block the process. “It is all about commitment to a responsible land ethic.“

Contact details Conservation Management Services Ken Coetzee and Wallie Stroebel.

Ken: (+27) 76-227-5056 or

Wallie: (+27) 82-493-1441 Website: