Human impact in two of the world’s most diverse habitats could be much greater than previously thought.

An international team of researchers, led by Lancaster University in the UK and the State University of Campinas in Brazil, has embarked on a £3.6 million research project in Brazil to predict how tropical forests will look in the coming decades.

Previous research has either focused on primary forests, or the devastating effects of deforestation driven by large-scale forest conversion into cattle ranches and crops.

But this new research will turn its attention to degraded and recovering forests – areas of forest that are growing back after clear-felling, or which have been damaged by human activities (such as logging, wildfires, and hunting) but not removed.

Forest degradation a major concern

Researchers believe the environmental impact of degraded and recovering tropical forests, which cover a land area 20 times the size of the UK, may have been underestimated and work is urgently needed to get a clearer picture of how this will affect the future.

“There is growing consensus that the combined impact of degradation on forest biodiversity and carbon stocks is of comparable magnitude to the impact of deforestation,” said Dr Jos Barlow, from the Lancaster Environment Centre, who is leading the research alongside Professor Carlos Joly at the State University of Campinas in Brazil.

“In areas where no intact forests remain, these heavily modified forests are the last refuges for many endemic species (such as the Golden Parakeet, Guaruba guarouba), yet we still have limited understanding of how these forests are functioning.

“We will focus our research on three widespread forms of human modification - selective logging, burning and regenerated forests. We will assess biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in these areas.”

A series of monitoring sites will be set up in areas ranging from intact pristine forest to severely degraded landscapes, and everything in between. Researchers will monitor traits, such as wood density, photosynthesis and leaf structure, of individual tree species in these different landscapes.

Future scenarios

Using computer modeling, they will then extrapolate to predict what could happen to tropical forests, and the wildlife they support, in alternative future scenarios.

“We aim to deliver a step-change in our understanding of the consequences of forest degradation and regeneration,” said Jos, following the first project meeting in Brazil last month. “This will enable us to better predict the responses of tropical forests to climate change, logging and deforestation.”

Fieldwork on the ECOFOR research project will take place in the Atlantic and Amazon forests. It is funded by the National Environment Research Council (NERC) in the UK, and the Foundation for Research Support of the State of São Paulo (FAPESP) in Brazil and will involve.

Creating a global understanding of tropical forests

"Considering the complexity of the two large Brazilian forests – Amazon and Atlantic Forest - the challenges posed by this Project are great,” said Carlos. “But this first meeting has shown that besides being extremely well qualified the research team is strongly committed and determined to tackle these challenges.

“We are not only willing to fulfill the goals promised to both research agencies – NERC and FAPESP – but also to leave as legacy a theoretical framework and an experimental design for long term research in Neotropical Human Modified Forests".

Dr Erika Berenguer, one of several early career researchers and PhD students involved in the project, said: “It is extremely exciting to be involved in a project that aims to develop our knowledge of how these human-modified forests function, allowing us to provide important evidence to decision makers regarding the conservation of these strongholds of biodiversity and carbon stocks.”

International partners

Partner institutions include Universities of Oxford, Leeds, Edinburgh and Imperial College in the UK, the University of São Paulo, the São Paulo Institute of Botany, Agronomy Institute of Campinas, EMBRAPA, INPA and the Goeldi Museum in Brazil, and the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden. The study builds upon the collaborative work of RAINFOR and ForestPlots.net.

“The power of a big consortium is that you can answer big questions across multiple sites. The inferences you can draw from what you do are much stronger because you can be sure they are not driven by a particular context,” Jos said.