Feature publication

The development-driven forest transition and its utility for REDD+

Sloan, S. 2015. Ecological Economics 116: 1–11

By T. Trevor Caughlin, Publications Editor

Widespread evidence for large-scale forest regrowth in tropical question begs the question: can policymakers engineer a forest transition? This is one question addressed in an interesting new paper by PARTNERS member Dr. Sean Sloan from James Cook University, Queensland, Australia. Sloan quantified socioeconomic drivers of forest recovery in 388 Panamanian counties from 1990-2008 using fine-scale data, including 12 million respondent-level census records.

Although Sloan observed significant increases in forest cover, with a net increase of hundreds of km2 over the 20-year study period, his research suggests that pathways leading to this change have multiple socioeconomic dimensions and can be spatially variable. Using multivariate statistics to synthesize social and agrarian trends, Sloan identified two major pathways for forest recovery, (1) rural affluence leading to non-agricultural economic activities, and (2) economic ascendancy, leading to decreases in agricultural employment. Each pathway incorporates multiple drivers, from female employment rates to household dependence on farms for sustenance, and even within Panamanian counties that experienced forest recovery, the dominant pathways leading to reforestation were variable.

These conclusions complicate the narrative of forest transitions in Latin America as a consequence of rural-urban migration and demonstrate the value of time series of fine-scale socioeconomic data to measure the non-linear and highly variable land change trajectories. From a policy perspective, the paper highlights the challenge of engineering a forest transition: in Panama, at least, it is difficult to single out a simple economic mechanism that could be manipulated by policymakers to promote reforestation.

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