Towards multifunctional landscapes in tropical deforestation frontiers

To determine the social-ecological drivers of forest landscape change (changes in forest quantity, quality and spatial pattern) in human-modified landscapes and the consequences for landscape multifunctionality.

Most of the world’s remaining tropical forests are degraded forests located inside human-modified landscapes (HMLs). HMLs consist of a mosaic of land-uses and are dynamic, especially when recently colonized. Little is known about how HMLs evolve and under what conditions forests can persist and contribute to the maintenance of multiple landscape functions and services. This seriously hampers land-use planning, resulting in a rapid loss of natural habitat, biodiversity and landscape functions.

I study a humid tropical region in Chiapas, Mexico. This region (~1000 km2) was recently colonized by 38 agricultural settler communities and exhibits a high diversity of landscape configurations. Communities migrated from wide range of locations, and thereby represent a high diversity of sociocultural backgrounds and variation in local ecological knowledge. This, together with community characteristics (e.g. population density), biophysical characteristics and external influences, is expected to have shaped land-use decisions, landscape configurations and landscape functions.

I will mechanistically link social-ecological drivers to forest landscape characteristics and landscape multifunctionality, using an interdisciplinary framework and combining techniques from functional ecology, remote sensing and sociology.

Specifically I ask:
1. What is the variation in landscape configurations and what does this mean for multiple landscape functions?
2. What forest landscape characteristics (forest quantity, forest quality and spatial pattern) underlie the variation in landscape multifunctionality?
3. What social-ecological drivers best explain differences in landscape configurations and landscape multifunctionality?
4. What landscape configurations avoid negative trade-offs and optimise multifunctionality?

The work plan is made operational through the following steps, corresponding with the research questions:
1. Mapping land-uses and related functions
2. Quantifying forest landscape characteristics and landscape multifunctionality
3. Identifying social-ecological drivers of landscape multifunctionality
4. Exploring landscape configurations that optimize multifunctionality

The challenges faced in the study region are widespread (trade-offs between conservation and agricultural production and changing landscape governance) which makes the research outcomes relevant across the humid tropics. The high diversity of landscape configurations allows unravelling the main social-ecological drivers of landscape changes and their consequences for globally and locally relevant functions and services. Insights into the drivers of landscape change are essential for understanding the trade-offs and synergies between land-uses and their functions. Balancing and minimizing negative trade-offs is an essential step towards reconciling local actor needs and global conservation goals.

This project is embedded within the FOREFRONT programme; targeting nature's benefits in agro-forest frontiers: linking actor strategies, functional biodiversity and ecosystem services.