This paper describes an adaptive agent model of rangelands based on concepts of complex adaptive systems. The behavioural and biological processes of pastoralists, regulators, livestock, grass and shrubs are modelled as well as the interactions between these components. The evolution of the rangeland system is studied under different policy and institutional regimes that affect the behaviour and learning of pastoralists, and hence the state of the ecological system. Adaptive agent models show that effective learning and effective ecosystem management do not necessarily coincide and can suggest potentially useful alternatives to the design of policies and institutions. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.