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PhD student

Petra Holden (de Abreu)

Thesis topic: A social-ecological approach to understanding drivers and effects of conservation in mountain catchments important for water supply in South Africa.

Supervisors: Prof M. Timm Hoffman, Dr Frank Eckardt (Environmental & Geographical Sciences), Dr Gina Ziervogel (Environmental & Geographical Sciences), A/Prof Martine Visser (Economics), Prof Mark New (ADCI), A/Prof Julian Smit (Geomatics) 
Office: Room 5.02, HW Pearson Building


MSc Conservation Biology, BSc (Hons) Zoology (University of Cape Town);
B-Tech, ND Nature Conservation (Cape Peninsula University of Technology)

Activities and Research Interests
Petra’s main research interests are in the fields of conservation biology and natural resource management. This includes in particular the effects of climate (at various scales) and governance on social-ecological change linked to water related challenges and opportunities in South Africa.

More broadly, Petra's interests lie in operationalising research-linked-management approaches and interfaces. This includes promoting the importance of spatially specific evidence bases for informing management, and developing workable frameworks and platforms for connecting science and research as well as society and managers from across disciplinary boundaries.

Petra moved to the Plant Conservation Unit to embark on a PhD in May 2014. Her PhD focuses on exploring patterns of social-ecological change in the Groot Winterhoek Strategic Water Source Area in the Western Cape, South Africa. Specifically, the research aims to use a complex systems thinking approach to understand the role of conservation-related policies and interventions on changes in social-ecological interactions, and to inform conservation policy and practise under future climate and social-ecological settings. Petra aims to use complexity theory as an overarching framework for integrating across theories and synthesizing different strands of knowledge for addressing changes in the system over time, considering past, present and future conditions. The project will include methods from across disciplinary boundaries including qualitative and quantitative surveys, vegetation sampling, repeat fixed-point photography, climate and hydrological station data analyses, remote sensing - aerial photography analyses and hydrological modelling.


Repeat photos (1970s left and 2014 right) illustrating change in vegetation compositional cover for the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area (~30 000ha). The Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area forms the main headwaters for the Twenty Four Rivers. Water from the Twenty Four Rivers is diverted into the Voëlvlei Dam, which plays an important role in water supply for urban areas in the Western Cape.

Petra is currently involved in a blog series called, "Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys", which will run for 6 months in 2018. 

Related work experience 
2011-2013: Climate Change and Restoration Ecology Consultant – developing adaptation projects for African and Asian countries under the Global Environment Facility and Adaptation Fund, including Myanmar, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Seychelles, and Nepal.

2013-2014: Long-Term Adaptation Scenarios Flagship Research Programme (LTAS)’s Project Management Team - working with CSA, SANBI and DEA to develop national adaptation scenarios for South Africa under a range of plausible future climates. This included 13 LTAS technical reports (6 sector specific and 7 cross sector reports).

Recent Peer Reviewed Publications

Bourne, A., Pasquini, L., Donatti, C.I., Holden, P., and Scorgie, S., 2017. Strengthening the role of local authorities to support community-based adaptation: The case of South Africa. In: (Eds) Atela J, Huq S, Ochieng C, Orindi V, Owiyo, T. Enhancing Adaptation to Climate Change in Developing Countries Through Community-Based Adaptation. African Centre for Technology Studies.

Bourne, A., Holness, S., Holden, P., Scorgie, S., Donatti, C.I., Midgley, G., 2016. A Socio-Ecological Approach for Identifying and Contextualising Spatial Ecosystem-Based Adaptation Priorities at the Sub-National Level. PLoS ONE 11(5): e0155235. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0155235

Crookes, D.J., Blignaut, J.N., de Wit, M.P.,  Esler, K.J.,  Le Maitre, D.C., Milton, S.J., Mitchell, S.A., Cloete, J., de Abreu, P., Fourie, H., Gull, K., Marx, D., Mugido, W., Ndhlovu, T., Nowell, M., Pauw, M., Rebelo, A., 2013. System dynamic modelling to assess economic viability and risk trade-offs for ecological restoration in South Africa. Journal of Environmental Management 120:138-147.