January 6, 2014

PARTNERS: Building a Socio-Ecological Understanding of Reforestation in the Tropics

By Robin Chazdon, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Connecticut

In the final days of 2013, the Landscapes Blog reported on new efforts underway to enhance forest landscape restoration, including agroforestry and reforestation activities. Today, Professor Robin Chazdon introduces a collaborative project just getting its feet off the ground, which will further cross-disciplinary research, synthesis, and outreach around reforestation themes. In particular, she notes the critical importance of employing integrated frameworks to address an issue with such complex social and ecological interactions.

Tropical regions are home to two-thirds of the Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity and provide essential ecosystem services for local, regional, and global populations. Despite the global importance of these irreplaceable ecosystems, large-scale deforestation dynamics have shifted the balance from intact forests to fragmented landscapes dominated by varied forms of agricultural land use. Hope for the future of tropical forests lies in protecting remaining old-growth forest areas and in reforestation—the reestablishment of forest cover through natural regeneration, active forest restoration, agroforestry, or forest plantations. Forest cover is, in fact, increasing in many tropical countries. And such reforestation can rehabilitate impoverished soils, prevent erosion, store carbon, and provide timber and non-timber products, while protecting biodiversity and avoiding catastrophic shifts towards increasing degradation.

Reforestation is already recognized as an issue of global importance. The Bonn Challenge, launched in 2011, targeted 150 million hectares of land worldwide for reforestation. Additionally, targets 14 and 15 of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 adopted by the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity focus on restoring environmental services, rural livelihoods, and well-being of local communities, as well as enhancing ecosystem resilience, conserving biodiversity, and mitigating climate change through reforestation of degraded ecosystems. Although the commitment to reforestation is strong, the trails to these targets are not yet blazed.

An integrated framework for understanding reforestation in the tropics is a critical scientific and policy need. Ecological studies increasingly recognize effects of prior land use and landscape properties on forest succession. But forest restoration projects often fail to incorporate socioeconomic issues. Social science research has focused on the human drivers of forest transitions, and effects of payments for environmental services and local governance on forest-based livelihoods, with little emphasis on important ecological characteristics, such as the shift from predominantly old-growth to predominantly second-growth forests. Species composition, ecosystem services, and support for rural livelihoods all change when new types of forest cover replace former old-growth forests. From both social and ecological perspectives, reforestation is not the reverse of deforestation. Rather, different forest transition pathways and reforestation methods yield vastly different environmental and social outcomes.

Finding this balance between forest conservation and reforestation, and the need for social and economic development in a global economy poses a seemingly insurmountable challenge for developing tropical nations. This challenge motivated the formation of the Research Coordination Network called PARTNERS (People and Reforestation in the Tropics: a Network for Education, Research, and Synthesis). Reforestation transcends boundaries between practitioners in forestry, agronomy, and conservation as well as between researchers in numerous academic fields in the social and natural sciences. Accordingly, PARTNERS brings together anthropologists, economists, forest ecologists, foresters, geographers, landscape ecologists, political scientists, sociologists, and wildlife biologists from around the world who share a deep interest in forest regrowth in the tropics.

Involving an international group of stakeholders from multiple disciplines and sectors, PARTNERS’ activities will focus on four major themes, motivating the production of scholarly documents, educational modules, case studies, and policy briefs by working groups.

Theme 1. Drivers of forest transitions in tropical regions: Understanding the drivers of increasing forest cover in different social, political, and ecological contexts will provide key insights into how to guide landscape-scale reforestation programs in different regions.

Theme 2. Resilience of tropical landscapes: Understanding the social and ecological factors that affect forest resilience is essential for evaluating prospects for long-term sustainability of forest economies and environmental services.

Theme 3. Interactions between climate variability and reforestation: Changes in rainfall, seasonality, and temperature are already affecting tropical regions, but we do not know how these climatic changes or their variability affect tree growth, reforestation success, agricultural production, and water availability in tropical regions. Forest regrowth can potentially mitigate effects of climate change on local rainfall or temperature regimes.

Theme 4. Tradeoffs of reforestation in tropical regions: Different forms of reforestation vary in their ecological and social costs and benefits. Information regarding ways in which landowners and users manage these tradeoffs is necessary in order to model how societies might optimize economic returns and environmental services through different reforestation scenarios.

Serious gaps remain in conceptualizing social and ecological outcomes as linked processes. Furthermore, current reforestation and biofuel policies often serve narrow political and economic interests, creating perverse incentives that lead to further land degradation, new deforestation, displacement of indigenous populations, and increasing historical inequalities. To realize our goal of actionable science, PARTNERS is developing collaborative linkages with organizations with broad policy interests and a history of engagement in reforestation, conservation, climate change mitigation, and sustainable development in the tropics. A suite of partners will provide important conduits for our synthetic products, policy documents, and training materials, as well as access to stakeholders from academia to agroforestry, and to a wide range of policy makers and concerned individuals around the world.

The formation of a collaborative, interdisciplinary, international network of researchers represents the most plausible way forward to understand the coupled natural and human dynamics of reforestation. An integrated understanding of the causes and consequences of alternative reforestation pathways will promote effective inclusion of reforestation in the United Nations’ REDD+ program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation and related pro-forest actions), will help guide nations in their efforts to meet the CBD Reforestation Targets, and lead to longer-term sustainability of complex forest landscapes.

We invite more organizations to join in PARTNERS activities. Membership in PARTNERS is open to students, researchers, educators, reforestation practitioners, policy-makers, foresters, government and non-government organizations, and the general public. Current partner organizations include the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative, the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners, WeForest, the World Resources Institute, the Global Partnership for Forest Landscape Restoration, and Landscapes for People, Food, and Nature Initiative. Please visit our website for more information or contact Dr. Robin Chazdon, the Principal Investigator. Financial support for PARTNERS is provided by the U.S. National Science Foundation Program on Coupled Natural and Human Systems.  

Photo courtesy of Robin Chazdon
More In in Staying Current


  • MUNOZ, Canecio
    January 12, 2014 at 8:19pm

    Indeed balancing sustainability needs is very challenging. In a particular tropical peat landscape of about 700,000 hectares in Sumatra, we initiated the UNESCO Man-and-the Biosphere approach of landscape management through a private-public partnership … together nurturing a sustainable future for people and nature. The Giam Siak Kecil Biosphere Reserve is the first biosphere reserve co-managed by the private sector.

  • Shrikant S. Hiwale
    January 7, 2014 at 2:16am

    Your views are very correct unless and until the effects of climate change are clearly brought out it will not be posssible to say concretely the effects.