During the twentieth century, the 20,000 hectares commons surrounding the village of Paulshoek as well as the neighbouring privately-owned farms have been significantly influenced by evolving land-use practices driven largely by socio-economic and political change in the broader Namaqualand and South African region. Land-use practices in the communal lands of Namaqualand were based initially on transhumant pastoralism, then on extensive dryland cropping associated with livestock production under restricted mobility, and more recently on a sedentarized labour reserve where agricultural production now forms a minor part of the local economy. For the first half of the twentieth century, farmers on communal and privately-owned farms shared similar transhumant pastoral practices and both moved across unfenced farm boundaries. By the middle of the century, however, fence-lines were established and commercial farming on privately-owned farms was increasingly managed according to rangeland science principles. As the population grew in the communal areas, families gravitated to new ‘service’ villages such as Paulshoek and became increasingly dependent on migrant labour and state welfare. While the majority of former croplands are now fallow, many of them for decades or more, communal livestock populations have remained relatively high, fluctuating with rainfall. The impact of this history of land use can be compared with that of neighbouring privately-owned farms where low stocking rates, coupled with a variety of state subsidies, have had a very different environmental outcome. This article charts the environmental transformations that have occurred in the area of Paulshoek as a direct result of the region's political history and the evolution of the regional economy. We present a variety of evidence drawn from archival sources, oral history, repeat aerial and ground photography, and detailed climate, cropping and livestock records to show that events far beyond the borders of Namaqualand's communal areas have had a profound influence on their environments.