“I came here for the land to sustain me”: Land-use change and smallholder decisions in a tropical agro-forest frontier

In the last six decades land-use and land-cover changes have affected around a third of the world’s surface. An increasing world demand for agricultural products has promoted the conversion of tropical forested landscapes into landscape mosaics dominated by agriculture and other land-uses.

Smallholder farming is responsible for most of the world’s agricultural production, thus smallholders as land-use decision makers play a crucial role in the conversion of forest to agricultural land-uses. Marqués de Comillas located in the southern portion of the Lacandona Rainforest was densely covered by forest and inhabited in low densities mainly by the Lacandón indigenous group. This drastically changed during the 1970s when the government incentivised the colonisation of the region by farmers from other parts of Mexico.

The aim of this thesis was to assess the social-ecological factors that have shaped land-use change (historically) and smallholder land-use decisions (currently) in two neighboring villages in the Marqués de Comillas agro-forest frontier region. The studied villages, Loma and Chajul, share some similarities but also exhibit differences regarding their land-use types and composition. This thesis was grounded on an empirical comparative case study. A mix-methods approach was used which consisted on qualitative (ethnographic work, oral histories, semi-structured interviews, farm visits, Photovoice method, among others) and quantitative (land-use change analysis using remote sensing, soils data and statistical modelling) methods.

I reconstructed the land-use change history and assessed the resulting land-use types in the study area from 1976-2019. Each village had its own unique land-use change and land-tenure history. The landscape mosaics of each village were the result of the complex historical events and intricate interactions among multiple social-ecological drivers at different spatial and temporal scales. I determined the land-use composition across farms in the two villages, and evaluated the social-ecological drivers (at three scales: local, regional and national) that shape smallholder land-use decision making in the study area.

Differences in land-use composition across farms per village were tested drawing on farm-level data. The driving forces of smallholder land-use decisions per community were assessed using generalized linear models. At the farm level there were seven land-use types: agriculture, pasture, primary and secondary forest, rubber, oil palm and reforestation. The two communities significantly differ in regards to pasture and primary forest. The generalized linear models indicated that drivers of land-use were not universal but differed between villages.

Social-ecological drivers at different scales shape farmers’ land-use decisions at the local level, but they affect land-uses and communities differentially. I explored the role of smallholder perceptions in shaping land-use decisions in the study area using the Photovoice participatory methodology. Perceptions about what farmers value most in their everyday lives are reflected on their farm land-use decisions. Similar perceptions sometimes result in similar farm land-use compositions.

Nevertheless, similar perceptions do not always result in similar land-use compositions, because alongside perceptions other social-ecological factors, e.g., farm size and PES subsidies, also play important roles in smallholder land-use decisions. Hence, in land-use change analysis and land-use policy formulation and design, smallholder perceptions should be taken into account as part of the set of social-ecological factors driving local land-use decisions.

Land-use change and smallholder land-use decisions in the study area are complex, context-specific, non-linear processes and shaped by multiple social-ecological factors at different scales. Understanding how land-use change unfolds and how smallholder land-use decisions are made has implications for the formulation and (co)design of more effective, flexible, tailored and contextual-based agricultural development and conservation policies.