Land use transitions in the tropics: Going beyond the case studies

TitleLand use transitions in the tropics: Going beyond the case studies
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsUriarte, M, Schneider, L, Rudel, TK
Accession NumberLUQ.966
Keywordsland use change, socioecological systems, sustainable land management

Estimates of the percent of Earth’s land surface that has either been transformed or degraded by human activity range between 39 and 50 percent, with agriculture accounting for the vast majority of these changes. Although much of the focus of research on land use and cover change in the tropics has been on deforestation, ongoing socioeconomic changes both locally and globally have made land transitions in the tropics extremely fluid. In addition, feedbacks between land cover change and human behavior constrain the extent and trajectories of land transitions. The sustainability of land use systems in the tropics depends on an understanding of coupled human–natural systems that can lead to general frameworks for management and prediction. The unprecedented availability of land use/cover data together with ecological data collected at large spatial scales offer exciting opportunities for advancing our understanding of socioecological systems. We rely on six studies of land transitions in the tropics to illustrate some promising approaches and pose critical questions to guide this body of research.

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Changes in land-use and land-cover in the tropics are persistent, and when aggregated at a global scale affect key aspects of the earth system functions including global, regional, and microclimate, biodiversity, and ecosystem services (Lambin et al. 2006). Such changes also determine the vulnerability of places and people to climatic, economic, and sociopolitical perturbations at both global and regional scales (Turner et al. 2008). Land cover change studies in the tropics are not limited to deforestation; they expand to other complex transitions such as agricultural and urban expansion, pasture development, and secondary vegetation re-growth (Lamb et al. 2005, Grimm et al. 2008, Crk et al. 2009). Developing theories of land change dynamics in the tropics and predicting the future of tropical ecosystems require that we consider how these transitions influence not only ecological processes, but also economies and livelihoods. This is a challenging task due in part to the unique socioecological context of each region and therefore, the need to integrate perspectives from the earth, biological, and social sciences. The complex and often unpredictable nature of the relations among environmental responses and the changing political and social conditions of tropical regions further hinders our ability to abstract general lessons from individual case studies.Until recently, the interaction between land change science (LCS) and ecology has been limited, mainly due to differences in the scale of analysis and the restricted use of interdisciplinary approaches in ecology relative to LCS. In the last few decades, increased availability of spatially explicit datasets (e.g., Landsat images) and technological developments (e.g., image processing software, cheap radio, and satellite location devices) have facilitated interaction between the fields including dramatic growth in the field of landscape ecology and an increased interest by ecologists in incorporating socioeconomic variables as factors influencing ecological processes (Carpenter et al. 2009). However, interaction between land change scientists and ecologists has not yet reached its full potential. There are several reasons for this lag. First, LCS is a relatively recent discipline that aims to uncover the dynamics of land transitions to inform the science of global environmental change and sustainability. For this reason, land change scientists have tended to study land change dynamics from an interdisciplinary perspective, an approach that has limited the development of theory to some degree. In contrast, ecology has relied on theory development as a guide to empirical work but often with a narrow disciplinary focus (Haila & Jarvinen 1982). As a result, the disciplines have historically lacked a common language. Second, the intellectual development of ecology occurred hand in hand with the rise of environmental thought (Haila 1997). The early development of boundaries between natural (wild) and unnatural (human modified) environments influenced the scope and focus of ecological science. Historically, much of ecology has focused in the study of pristine rather than human-modified ecosystems, and if human actions were incorporated they were considered as disturbances. Only recently, global climate change, the loss of important ecological habitats, and large biodiversity losses contributed to the shift in the focus in ecology in the same manner that these same issues motivated the creation of LCS in the early 1990s. For instance, despite the increasing importance of urban migration and its potential effects of rural and protected ecosystems (Grimm et al. 2008), the first urban Long Term Ecological Research in the United States was not funded until 1997. This false dichotomy between the natural and the wild has also resulted in a neglect of the influence that adaptive human behavior at either the community or political level can have on molding human–environment interactions although the topic has received increasing attention in the last decade (Folke et al. 2004). Such issues have been central in LCS, which aims to elucidate critical pathways of change in land systems and determine which institutions enhance decision making and governance toward sustainable pathways including system resilience and vulnerability (Liverman 2004). Finally, at the core of LCS is the study of land change processes through the use of spatial knowledge and information. For this reason, one of the objectives of LCS is to advance remote sensing methods and other spatial analysis tools while ecology has devoted less attention to the improvement of these techniques. Ecologists are increasingly becoming aware of the critical importance and utility of these methods in providing answers that accurately reflect ecological processes and can be used for policy development.In this special feature we present several projects that establish bridges between these separate lines of inquiry. The projects illustrate how land transitions in the tropics relate to ecological processes, economies, and livelihoods and how interdisciplinary methods could contribute to understanding such transitions and meet sustainable land management practices in a variety of ecosystems around the tropics. The six papers presented in this special issue weave together three interacting themes in ecology and LCS: (1) What methodological and socioecological criteria should we consider in establishing land cover categories and detecting change? (2) What theoretical frameworks are most promising in the study of the effects and consequences that land transformation have on ecosystems and human livelihoods? (3) Can we predict regime shifts, constraints, and resilience of land transformation in the tropics?The special issue is the outcome of the workshop ‘Land Use Transitions in the Tropics’ held in March 2008 at Rutgers University and Columbia University, and sponsored by MaGrann funds from the Department of Geography, Rutgers University, the ADVANCE program at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (see details at The purpose of the workshop was to develop synoptic approaches for the study of three critical land transformations occurring in the tropics and presented in this special issue: (1) deforestation, (2) agricultural change, and (3) forest recovery. The papers range from a meta-analysis of the sustainability of slash and burn agriculture in the tropics (Lawrence et al. 2009) to the role that rural–urban migration and climate change have on forest dynamics in Argentina (Carilla & Grau 2009). They provide examples of integrated approaches to understanding human–landscape interactions at multiple scales and through various combinations of empirical study, GIS, remote sensing analysis, and statistical modeling. Our goal was to synthesize findings from these different studies and systems to reveal general principles that can provide insight into the dynamics underlying landscape transformations in the tropics and guide effective sustainable landscape management. In our synthesis, we argue for the need to link both theoretical and methodological frameworks from LCS and ecology in order to better understand land transitions in the tropics.