Skip to main content

Whither the forest transition? Climate change, policy responses, and redistributed forests in the twenty-first century

Abstract

Forest transitions occur when net reforestation replaces net deforestation in places. Because forest transitions can increase biodiversity and augment carbon sequestration, they appeal to policymakers contending with the degrading effects of forest loss and climate change. What then can policymakers do to trigger forest transitions? The historical record over the last two centuries provides insights into the precipitating conditions. The early transitions often occurred passively, through the spontaneous regeneration of trees on abandoned agricultural lands. Later forest transitions occurred more frequently after large-scale crisis narratives emerged and spurred governments to take action, often by planting trees on degraded, sloped lands. To a greater degree than their predecessors, latecomer forest transitions exhibit centralized loci of power, leaders with clearly articulated goals, and rapid changes in forest cover. These historical shifts in forest transitions reflect our growing appreciation of their utility for countering droughts, floods, land degradation, and climate change.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    The dynamics of land abandonment have also followed some anomalous, alternative paths. For example, land abandonment also drove a transient forest transition in Eastern Europe after the 1989–1991 collapse of the Soviet Bloc regimes, but in these settings the differential loss of state subsidies after the collapse shaped land abandonment patterns. Agricultural collectives located on prime agricultural lands experienced the largest losses in subsidies with the regime change, so much of the land abandonment and reforestation occurred on these prime, machine-friendly agricultural lands (Taff et al. 2010). As with the adjustment-driven patterns of forest cover expansion in Western Europe described by Mather, these eastern European increases in forest cover stemmed from shifts in political–economic arrangements that led to a kind of passive reforestation in which forests regenerated spontaneously on abandoned agricultural lands. With economic recovery after the collapse of the eastern bloc, farmers have reclaimed some of these abandoned lands and put them back into production (Kuemmerle et al. 2015; Meyfroidt et al. 2016).

  2. 2.

    The WRI-CAIT website (http://cait2.wri.org/pledges/#/profile) contains summary descriptions of each country’s plans for emissions reductions. These plans frequently describe reductions to be achieved through increases in carbon sequestration in expanding forests.

References

  1. Abatzoglou, J., and P. Williams. 2016. Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western U.S. forests. PNAS 113: 11770–11775.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Aide, T.M., M. Clark, H. Grau, D. López-Carr, M. Levy, D. Redo, M. Bonilla-Moheno, G. Riner, et al. 2013. Deforestation and reforestation of Latin America and the Caribbean (2001–2010). Biotropica 45: 262–271.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Allen, C., A. Macalady, H. Chenchouni, D. Bachelet, N. McDowell, M. Vennetier, T. Kitzberger, A. Rigling, et al. 2009. A global overview of drought and heat-induced tree mortality reveals emerging climate change risks for forests. Forest Ecol Manag 259: 660–684. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2009.09.001.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Alywin, J., N. Yanez, R. Sanchez. 2014. Chile: Tree plantation companies and indigenous rights, a longstanding conflict. World Rainforest Movement, Bulletin 199. http://wrm.org.uy/articles-from-the-wrm-bulletin/section1/chile-tree-plantation-companies-and-indigenous-rights-a-longstanding-conflict/.

  5. Ansharyani, I. 2018. Barriers to climate change adaptation and livelihoods: Conflicts in knowledge, policy, and management of forests, Batulandeh Watershed, Sumbawa, Indonesia. Ph.D. Geography. Rutgers University.

  6. Austin, K., M. González-Roglich, D. Schaffer-Smith, A. Schwantes and J. Swenson. 2017b. Trends in size of tropical deforestation events signal increasing dominance of industrial-scale drivers. Environ Research Letters. http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa6a88/meta.

  7. Austin, K., A. Mosnier, J. Pirker, I. McCallum, S. Fritz, and P. Kasibhatla. 2017a. Shifting patterns of oil palm driven deforestation in Indonesia and implications for zero-deforestation commitments. Land Use Policy 69: 41–48.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Barney, K. 2008. China and the production of forestlands in Laos: A political ecology of transnational enclosure. In Taking Southeast Asia to market: Commodities, nature, and people in the neoliberal age, ed. J. Nevins and N.L. Peluso, 91–107. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Beckfield, J. 2010. The social structure of the world polity. American Journal of Sociology 115: 1018–1068.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Bremer, L., and K. Farley. 2010. Does plantation forestry restore biodiversity or create green deserts? A synthesis of the effects of land-use transitions on plant species richness. Biodiversity and Conservation 14: 3893–3915.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Chazdon, R.L., P.H.S. Brancalion, L. Laestadius, A. Bennett-Curry, K. Buckingham, C. Kumar, J. Moll-Rocek, I.C.G. Vieira, et al. 2016. When is a forest a forest? Forest concepts and definitions in the era of forest and landscape restoration. Ambio 45: 538–550.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Curtis, P.G., C. Slay, N. Harris, A. Tyukavina, and M. Hansen. 2018. Classifying drivers of global forest loss. Science 361: 1108–1111.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Delang, C., and Z. Yuan. 2015. China’s grain for green program: A review of the largest rural development and ecological restoration program in the world, 2015. New York: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Dobbin, F., B. Simmons, and G. Garrett. 2007. The global diffusion of public policies: Social construction, coercion, competition, or learning? Annual Review of Sociology 33: 449–472.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Foster, D. 1992. Land-use history, 1730–1990, and vegetation dynamics in central New England, USA. Journal of Ecology 80: 753–771.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Gerschenkron, A. 1962. Economic backwardness in historical perspective, 1962. Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Holmgren, P., E. Masakha, and H. Sjoholm. 1994. Not all African land is being degraded: A recent survey of trees on farms in Kenya reveals rapidly increasing forest resources. Ambio 23: 390–396.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Houghton, R.A. 1999. The annual net flux of carbon to the atmosphere from changes in land use 1850-1990. Tellus B 51: 298–313.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Jadin, I., P. Meyfroidt, and E. Lambin. 2016. International trade, and land use intensification and spatial reorganization explain Costa Rica’s forest transition. Environmental Research Letters 11: 035005. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/11/3/035005.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Kastner, T., K. Erb, and H. Haberl. 2014. Rapid growth in agricultural trade: Effects on global area efficiency and the role of management. Environ Research Letters 9(3). http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/9/3/034015/meta.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Klooster, D. 2003. Forest transitions in Mexico: Institutions and forests in a globalized countryside. The Professional Geographer 55: 227–237.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Kuemmerle, T., J. Kaplan, A. Prishchepov, I. Rylsky, O. Chaskovskyy, V. Tikunov, and D. Muller. 2015. Forest transitions in Eastern Europe and their effects on carbon budgets. Global Change Biology 21: 3049–3061.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Kull, C. 1998. Leimavo revisited: Agrarian land use change in the highlands of Madagascar. Professional Geographer 50: 163–176.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Lambin, E., and P. Meyfroidt. 2010. Land use transitions: Socio-ecological feedback versus socio-economic change. Land Use Policy 27: 108–118.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Leblond, J. 2014. Thai forest debates and the unequal appropriation of spatial knowledge tools. Conservation and Society 12: 425–436.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Maathai, W. 2003. The green belt movement: Sharing the approach and the experience. Herndon, VA: Lantern Books.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Marx, K. 1867. Capital, I. Preface to the First German Edition. Marxist Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/index.htm.

  28. Mather, A. 1992. The forest transition. Area 24: 367–379.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Mather, A. 2004. Forest transition theory and the reforesting of Scotland. Scottish Geographical Journal 120: 83–98.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Mather, A. 2007. Recent Asian forest transitions in relation to forest-transition theory. International Forestry Review 9: 491–502.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Mather, A., and J. Fairbairn. 2000. From floods to reforestation: The forest transition in Switzerland. Environment and History 6: 399–421.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Mather, A., and C. Needle. 1998. The forest transition: A theoretical basis. Area 30: 117–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Mather, A., C. Needle, and J. Coull. 1998. From resource crisis to sustainability. The forest transition in Denmark. International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology 5: 182–193.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Mather, A., J. Fairbairn, and C. Needle. 1999. The course and drivers of the forest transition: The case of France. The Journal of Rural Studies 15: 65–90.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Meyfroidt, P., and E. Lambin. 2008a. Forest transition in Vietnam and its environmental impacts. Global Change Biology 14: 1319–1336.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Meyfroidt, P., and E. Lambin. 2008b. The causes of the reforestation in Vietnam. Land Use Policy 25: 182–197.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Meyfroidt, P., and E. Lambin. 2011. Global forest transition: Prospects for an end to deforestation. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 36: 343–371.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Meyfroidt, P., T. Rudel, and E. Lambin. 2010. Forest transitions, trade, and the displacement of land use. PNAS 107: 20917–20922. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1014773107.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Meyfroidt, P., F. Schierhorn, A. Prishchepov, D. Müller, and T. Kuemmerle. 2016. Drivers, constraints and trade-offs associated with recultivating abandoned cropland in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Global Environmental Change 37: 1–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Nagendra, H. 2010. Reforestation and regrowth in the human dominated landscapes of South Asia. In Reforesting landscapes: Linking pattern and process, ed. H. Nagendra and J. Southworth, 149–174. Munich: Springer.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  41. Nanni, A., and H. Grau. 2014. Agricultural adjustment, population dynamics and forest redistribution in a subtropical watershed of NW Argentina. Regional Environmental Change 14: 1641–1649.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Nanni, A., and H. Grau. 2017. Land-use redistribution compensated for ecosystem service losses derived from agriculture expansion, with mixed effects on biodiversity in a NW Argentina watershed. Forests. https://doi.org/10.3390/f8080303.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Pan, Y., R. Birdsey, J. Fang, R. Houghton, P. Kauppi, W. Kurz, O. Phillips, A. Shvidenko, et al. 2011. A large and persistent carbon sink in the world’s forests. Science 333: 988–993.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Parés-Ramos, I., W. Gould and T. Aide. 2008. Agricultural abandonment, suburban growth, and forest expansion in Puerto Rico between 1991 and 2000. Ecology Society 13(2). https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol13/iss2/art1/ES-2008-2479.pdf.

  45. Park, M. and Y. Yeo-Sang. 2016. Reforestation policy integration by the multiple sectors toward forest transition in the Republic of Korea. Forest Policy and Economics http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2016.05.019.

  46. Petit, C.C., and E.F. Lambin. 2002. Long-term land-cover changes in the Belgian Ardennes (1775-1929): Model based reconstruction vs. historical maps. Global Change Biology 8: 616–630.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Redo, D., H. Grau, T. Aide, and M. Clark. 2012. Asymmetric forest transition driven by the interaction of socioeconomic development and environmental heterogeneity in Central America. PNAS. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1201664109.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Reij, C. 2014. Re-greening the sahel: linking adaptation to climate change, poverty reduction, and sustainable development in drylands. In The social lives of forests: The past present, and future of woodland resurgence, ed. C. Padoch, Susanna. Hecht, and Kathleen. Morrison, 303–312. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  49. Reij, C., G. Tappan, and M. Smale. 2009. Agroenvironmental transformation in the Sahel: Another kind of green revolution. IFPRI Discussion Paper 914. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.

  50. Rudel, T.K., and C. Fu. 1996. A requiem for the southern regionalists: reforestation in the South and the uses of regional social science. Social Science Quarterly 77: 804–820.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Rudel, T., and P. Meyfroidt. 2014. Organizing anarchy: The food security - biodiversity - climate crisis and the genesis of rural land use planning in the developing world. Land Use Policy 36: 239–247.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Rudel, T., M. Perez-Lugo, and H. Zichal. 2000. When fields revert to forests: Development and spontaneous reforestation in post-war Puerto Rico. The Professional Geographer 52: 386–397.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Rudel, T., D. Bates, and R. Machinguiashi. 2002. A tropical forest transition?: Out-migration, agricultural change, and reforestation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. American Association of Geographers Annals 92: 87–102.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Rudel, T., O. Coomes, E. Moran, A. Angelsen, F. Achard, E. Lambin, and J. Xu. 2005. Forest transitions: Towards an understanding of global land use change. Global Environmental Change 14: 23–31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Rueda, X., and E. Lambin. 2013. Linking globalization to local land uses: How eco-consumers and gourmands are changing the Colombian coffee landscapes. World Development 41: 286–301.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Scott, J. 1999. Seeing like a State: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Shands, W. 1992. The lands nobody wanted: The legacy of the eastern national forests. In Origins of the national forests: A centennial symposium, ed. Steen, H.K., 19–44. Durham, NC: Forest History Society, 1992.

  58. Sikor, T. 2001. The allocation of forestry land in Vietnam: Did it cause the expansion of forests in the north-west? Forest Policy and Economics 2: 1–11.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Sikor, T., N. Tuyen, J. Sowerwine, and J. Romm. 2012. Upland transformations in Vietnam. Singapore: NUS Press.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Song, X., M. Hansen, S. Stehman, P. Potapov, A. Tyukavina, E. Vermote, and J. Townshend. 2018. Global land change from 1982 to 2016. Nature 560: 639–643.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Sunderlin W., A. Ekaputri, E. Sills, A. Duchelle, D. Kweka, R. Diprose, N. Doggart, S. Ball et al. 2014. The challenge of establishing REDD + on the ground: insights from 23 subnational initiatives in six countries. Occasional Paper 104, CIFOR, Bogor, Indonesia.

  62. Taff G., D. Müller, T. Kuemmerle, E. Ozdeneral, S. Walsh. 2010. Reforestation in Central and Eastern Europe after the breakdown of socialism. In Reforesting landscapes: linking pattern and process, eds. H. Nagendra and J. Southworth, 121–147, Springer Landscape Series Volume 10, Dordrecht.

  63. Tiffen, M., M. Mortimore, and F. Gichuki. 1994. More people, less erosion: Environmental recovery in Kenya. New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Van Holt, T., M. Binford, K. Portier, and R. Vergar. 2016. A stand of trees a forest does not make: Tree plantations and forest transitions. Land Use Policy 56: 147–157.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Wilson, S., J. Schelhas, H. Grau, A. Nanni, and S. Sloan. 2017. Forest ecosystem service transitions: The ecological dimensions of the forest transition. Ecology and Society 22: 38. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-09615-220438.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Wolosin, M. 2017. Large scale forestation for mitigation: Lessons from South Africa, China, and India. Washington, DC: Climate and Land Use Alliance.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Zhang, Z., J. Zinda, and W. Li. 2017. Forest transitions in Chinese villages: Explaining community-level variation under the returning farmland to forest program. Land Use Policy 64: 245–257.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

This paper is a product of the PARTNERS Research Coordination Network Grant #DEB1313788 from the U.S. NSF Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Thomas K. Rudel.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Rudel, T.K., Meyfroidt, P., Chazdon, R. et al. Whither the forest transition? Climate change, policy responses, and redistributed forests in the twenty-first century. Ambio 49, 74–84 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-018-01143-0

Download citation

Keywords

  • Forest gains
  • Forest transitions
  • Latecomer effects
  • Tree plantations