Divergent land use pathways for secondary forest succession in Panama’s Azuero Peninsula
Restoring ecosystem function to deforested areas in the tropics is central to sustaining human well being, conserving biodiversity, and storing carbon. A major challenge for reforestation research is how to increase tree cover at large scales, from landscapes to regions. To address this challenge, patterns of land cover change must be quantified over a large spatial extent. We used high-resolution aerial photographs and Google Earth imagery to quantify forest cover change in Panama’s Azuero Peninsula from 1998 to 2014; this protocol allowed us to quantify patterns of land use change and relate to potential underlying processes. By hand-digitizing forest cover change and using expert opinion to classify forest cover types, we were able to develop high-resolution maps of forest cover change. We predicted changes in secondary forest cover with predictor variables, including parcel information from a cadastral dataset and the distance to existing forest patches. Drivers of reforestation in the Azuero are similar to many cattle ranching landscapes across Latin America, in which land abandonment has resulted in reforestation. Thus, we anticipate our methods and results will be applicable to a range of countries where policymakers have identified forest restoration as a conservation priority.
The management of ecosystem services is critical for ensuring a sustainable future. In Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, forest transition theory would predict enhanced forest cover over time due to social drivers such as economic development. We found an overall increase in secondary forest cover, supporting forest transition theory; however, our results also revealed high spatial heterogeneity in reforestation, much of which is due to variation between parcels. In fact, we found that parcels directly adjacent to one another often undergo completely different land use change pathways. This result highlights the importance of considering landowner decision-making in forest landscape restoration. Our research supports the value of high resolution mapping techniques for restoring tropical forest cover and provides key insight into restoring Mesoamerican tropical dry forest, a critically endangered ecosystem.