The spontaneous emergence of silvo-pastoral landscapes in the Ecuadorian Amazon: patterns and processes

Published in Regional Environmental Change, v. 15(7):1421-1431 

Lerner, A.M., Rudel, T.K., Schneider, L.C., McGroddy, M., Burbano, D.V. and Mena, C.F.

Publication year 2015
  • Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Robertson Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 08544, USA
  • Department of Human Ecology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, 80901-8520, USA
  • Department of Geography, Rutgers University, 54 Joyce Kilmer Avenue, Piscataway, 08554, NJ, USA
  • Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA
  • Department of Geography, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
  • Colegio de Ciencias Biológicas y Ambientales, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Quito, Ecuador
IAI Program


IAI Project CRN3036


With the continuing decline in the global extent of tropical forests, agriculture-dominated landscapes now cover approximately 50 % of the tropical biome. In this context, our ability to understand and influence biodiversity and carbon sequestration in the tropics depends in large part on our understanding of actively managed landscapes. Approximately two-third of deforested lands become pasture in the Neotropics, and therefore, significant changes in their structure represent a potentially important development in terms of carbon sequestration and biodiversity, especially as ecosystem service payment schemes such as REDD+ emerge. The spontaneous emergence of silvo-pastoral landscapes, or pastures with trees, in formerly treeless pastures in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon represents just this kind of potentially significant shift in the structure of landscapes. In this paper, we try to explain this change in pastoral landscapes. Field surveys indicate variable densities of trees in pastures, with stem densities ranging from 30 to 400 per hectare. Analyses of interviews with the heads of small cattle ranching enterprises suggest that cattle ranchers pursue an intentional management strategy of allowing trees to regrow in working pastures to an extent that is ecologically significant. These findings confirm that even cattle ranches, albeit small in scale, can simultaneously produce food and provide important ecosystem services like carbon sequestration.