Articles | Volume 72, issue 4
Geogr. Helv., 72, 465–474, 2017

Special issue: The trouble with forest: definitions, boundaries and values

Geogr. Helv., 72, 465–474, 2017

Standard article 15 Dec 2017

Standard article | 15 Dec 2017

Forest transitions: a new conceptual scheme

Christian A. Kull Christian A. Kull
  • Institut de géographie et durabilité, Université de Lausanne, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

Abstract. Forest transitions have recently received much attention, particularly in the hope that the historical transitions from net deforestation to forest recovery documented in several temperate countries might be reproduced in tropical countries. The analysis of forest transitions, however, has struggled with questions of forest definition and has at times focussed purely on tree cover, irrespective of tree types (e.g. native forest or exotic plantations). Furthermore, it has paid little attention to how categories and definitions of forest are used to political effect or shape how forest change is viewed. In this paper, I propose a new heuristic model to address these lacunae, building on a conception of forests as distinct socio-ecological relationships between people, trees, and other actors that maintain and threaten the forest. The model draws on selected work in the forest transition, land change science, and critical social science literatures. It explicitly forces analysts to see forests as much more than a land cover statistic, particularly as it internalizes consideration of forest characteristics and the differential ways in which forests are produced and thought about. The new heuristic model distinguishes between four component forest transitions: transitions in quantitative forest cover (FT1); in characteristics like species composition or density (FT2); in the ecological, socio-economic, and political processes and relationships that constitute particular forests (FT3); and in forest ideologies, discourses, and stories (FT4). The four are interlinked; the third category emerges as the linchpin. An analysis of forest transformations requires attention to diverse social and ecological processes, to power-laden official categories and classifications, and to the discourses and tropes by which people interpret these changes. Diverse examples are used to illustrate the model components and highlight the utility of considering the four categories of forest transitions.

Short summary
The concept forest transition refers to a pattern in which historical deforestation is replaced by forest regrowth. The concept normally points to economic, social, and political causes. This paper proposes a new analytical model that focuses attention on four interrelated processes: changes in tree cover; changes in forest quality; change in the ecological, socio-economic, and political processes that create particular forests; and changes in the way we think about and categorize forests.