This article uses the concepts of ‘human stewardship’ and ‘ruined landscape’ as a theoretical framework for analysing the community's perception of landscape change in the ancient tula well system of Borana in southern Ethiopia. The ancient tula well system, the main permanent water source, has been in operation for more than five centuries and it closely links human activity and the environment. The welfare of the tula well system and the performance of the Borana pastoral system are directly related. Borana management of the tula wells uses concepts such as laaf aadaa seeraa and laaf bade to differentiate between ‘land managed by customary laws’ (hereafter human stewardship) and ‘lost’ or ‘ruined’ land (laaf bade). The cultural landscapes of the ancient wells have undergone changes from ecosystems featuring ‘human stewardship’ (before the 1960s), that is, laaf aadaa seeraa to ‘ruined landscapes’ (after the 1960s), that is, laaf bade. Our interest is in understanding how the Borana perceive the impact of land use changes from these two conceptual perspectives. In group discussions, key informant interviews and household surveys across five of the nine well clusters, we found that the society described the changed tula cultural landscape in terms of drivers of well dynamics (i.e. use and disuse), break up of land use zonations, patterns of human settlement (traditional versus peri-urban), expansion of crop cultivation, and changes in environmental quality. Using the two concepts, we analysed linkages between changing patterns of land use that transformed the system from laaf aadaa seeraa, which ensured human stewardship, to laaf bade, which resulted in ruined landscapes. From these we analysed environmental narratives that showed how the society differentiated the past human stewardship that ensured sustainable landscape management from the present ruining of tula well cultural landscapes.