"We were surprised to find the highest deforestation rates in an area with low human population density and large distance to markets, while the area with highest population density had stable forest cover," says Thomas Elmqvist, Professor at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden.
The results, based on analyses of satellite images and vegetation on the ground, surprised the team of scientists from Sweden and the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar. As a result, they went further and also made a social inventory based on interviews with local forest officials and villagers. This inventory revealed that loss of forest occurred mainly in areas with insecure property rights, while areas with well-defined local norms, rules and property rights for forest management showed either regenerating or stable forest cover.
"Regeneration of tropical forests has so far mostly been studied by ecologists trying to understand factors like seed dispersal and soil quality, our study clearly shows the importance of an increased understanding also of the social context behind forest regeneration," says Elmqvist. The loss of tropical forests is a concern worldwide since these forests harbor more than 50 % of the terrestrial species richness in the world and have a large imp ortance in global climate regulation. Estimates of tropical forest loss are still uncertain and a 50 % margin of error appears possible. However, scientists know even less about regeneration of tropical forests.
"We now know a fair amount about the human social context in which tropical forest loss is embedded, but very little is known about the role of social institutions in influencing regeneration of tropical forests," says Maria Tengö from Stockholm university and one of the authors behind the new study.
The new study points to the large capacity of dry tropical forests to spontaneously regenerate if existing local rules and norms (including well-defined property rights) mitigate other drivers of deforestation and alternative land-use.