A turtle swims over a reef

Tropical Futures

Informing sustainable pathways for people and nature throughout the tropics

The tropics are of undisputed social and environmental importance, holding the vast majority of the world’s people, languages, species and ecosystems. Yet they also concentrate some of the world’s greatest challenges, as they include some of the poorest people and nations and have the highest rates of species loss and ecosystem change. Lancaster Environment Centre’s multi-disciplinary tropical futures research challenge is aimed at understanding some of these issues and trying to foster better outcomes for both people and the environment.

We aim to achieve this through strong collaborative links, co-designing and co-producing research with people and partner institutions across the tropics, in communities, academia, civil society, government and business. We draw on diverse disciplinary strengths including ecology, political ecology, biogeochemistry, governance, and earth science, to tackle a range of issues from both disciplinary and cross-disciplinary perspectives. The breadth of disciplines in one department fosters and enables innovative interdisciplinary approaches among staff and students

Our tropical research spans South America, Africa, and Asia and includes environments such as tropical forests, agricultural systems, coral reefs, mountains and volcanoes, and urban settings. The key challenge areas that we are working on include:

  • Understand and address biodiversity change in hyper-diverse tropical ecosystems
  • Examine social and environmental vulnerability, understand responses to environmental change, and support efforts to build greater resilience
  • Tackle pervasive injustices to enable a more equitable future for people in the tropics
  • Identify strategies to deliver fair and nutritious food security for all
  • Determine levels of environmental pollution and appropriate mitigation measures in tropical settings

Challenge Leader


Our researchers are working with UK, international and local partners on projects to address these challenge areas throughout the tropics. This includes taking disciplinary and cross-displinary approaches to questions of biodiversity, food security and environmental protection across in grasslands, forests, tropical reefs and in urban settings.

FAIRFISH: Hidden Hunger, Forgotten Food

Researchers: Christina Hicks, Eva Maire, Antonio Alegretti

Funder: European Research Council

Fish are particularly high in many micronutrients essential to human health, but a systematic understanding of which species have the greatest concentrations of key nutrients, and barriers to access, are hindering their use in food security policy. This project is establishing the ecological and environmental determinants of nutrients in fish and uncovering the social practices, power, and institutions that mediate access to fish by the most vulnerable.

Find out more: https://lec-reefs.org/

Restoring African degraded landscapes with plant biodiversity and livestock management (ReDEAL)

Researchers: Mariana Rufino, John Quinton, Janine Morley, Gabriel Yesuf, Carmen Medina-Carmona

Funder: Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)

ReDEAL aims to reverse degradation trends in grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa by exploiting plant biodiversity and livestock management. The project seeks to integrate quantitative modelling techniques, field and laboratory measurements as well as household surveys to assess the potential for rapid restoration of soil functioning to support plant production for grazing livestock in smallholder production farms.

Find out more: http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/restoringafricangrazing/

Conservation Litigation

Researcher: Jacob Phelps

Funder: UK Government through the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund

Conservation litigation uses liability lawsuits to demand that those who harm biodiversity be held responsible for providing remedies to fix that harm. In many countries, existing laws would allow for such conservation lawsuits, but they are not being used yet; our team of conservationists, lawyers, and economists is working to change that.

Find out more: https://www.conservation-litigation.org/

Implications of nutrient flow and feedbacks across the seabird-island-reef system

Researchers: Nick Graham, Casey Benkwitt

Funder: Bertarelli Foundation

Summary: In the absence of invasive rats, tropical islands can host abundant seabird colonies that transfer large quantities of nutrients from the open ocean to the island ecosystem and surrounding marine environment. This project seeks to quantify the importance of seabird nutrient subsidies to nutrient cycling and effects on island ecosystems, coral reef ecology, and coral reef geomorphology, and the feedback loop through this system.

Find out more: https://lec-reefs.org/

The response of foliar traits and phosphorus fractions to fertilization in tropical forests: Understanding plant acclimation to phosphorus limitation

Researchers: Emma Sayer, Faming Wang

Funder: Royal Society - Newton Mobility Grant and National Natural Science Foundation of China

We are comparing tropical tree responses to long-term nutrient additions on two continents, to advance understanding of how tropical forests maintain productivity on phosphorus-poor soils. To determine the physiological and ecological adaptation mechanisms of tropical trees to phosphorus limitation, we are studying how trees allocate phosphorus (P) to different structures and processes and determining how the differences in phosphorus allocation are linked to photosynthesis and growth.

Food insecurity and environmental risks in low- and middle-income countries

Researchers: Jasmine Fledderjohann (Sociology Department) and Luke Parry (LEC)

Funder: The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations

Food insecurity has far-reaching implications in terms of wellbeing across the life course and the inter-generational transmission of poverty and therefore represents an exigent challenge that must be addressed to promote sustainable and equitable economic growth. In this project, we are drawing on the Gallup World Poll individual and sub-national area data to understand both within- and between-country associations between physical and political-economic environmental factors and food insecurity.

Frightened fish and dark diversity in the Covid-driven anthropause

Researchers: Sally Keith, Lisa Bostrom-Einarsson

Funder: Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

We are exploring how the reduction of divers in the water as a result of the Covid-19 anthropause can shed light on mechanisms that underlie reef fish behaviour, and its potential impacts on wider coral reef function.

Find out more: https://lec-reefs.org/

Bioclimate: biodiversity responses to climate land-uses change in tropical forest ecosystems

Researchers: Jos Barlow, Filipe Franca, Erika Berenguer

Funder: Foundation BNP Paribas

BIOCLIMATE examines these climatic and local stressors to tropical forests by monitoring the climate resilience of human-modified forests, developing new methods to quantify changes in tropical forest fauna and their trophic interactions, and examining the role played by fauna biodiversity in forest recovery. The project is in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Oxford, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation and the French Museum of Natural History.

Socio-ecological resilience, territory and conflict in Western Pará, Brazilian Amazonia

Researcher: James Fraser

Funder: CNPq / British Academy

Based at the Federal University of Pará, Brazil

This project, with Mauricio Torres of the Federal University of Para, Brazil, is assisting the Saterê-Mawé indigenous people and traditional communities in obtaining territorial recognition and in resisting threats from loggers and land-grabbers in the Mamuru River valley, Brazilian Amazonia.

Beside a tropical river sits a wooden house on stilts with a large satellite dish outside

Key Publications

We share our research findings through academic, policy and public outlets. This includes scientific journals, such as those specialising in ecology, political ecology, biogeochemistry, governance, and earth science.

Barlow J, França F, Gardner TA, Hicks CC, Lennox GD, Berenguer E, Castello L, Economo EP, Ferreira J, Guénard B, Leal CG, Isaac V, Lees AC, Parr CL, Wilson SK, Young PJ, Graham NAJ (2018) The future of hyperdiverse tropical ecosystems. Nature 559: 517-526

Graham NAJ, Wilson SK, Carr P, Hoey AS, Jennings S, MacNeil MA (2018) Seabirds enhance coral reef productivity and functioning in the absence of invasive rats. Nature 559: 250-253

Hughes TP, Anderson KD, Connolly SR, Heron SF, Kerry JT, Lough JM, Baird AH, Baum JK, Berumen ML, Bridge TC, Claar DC, Eakin CM, Gilmour JP, Graham NAJ, Harrison H, Hobbs J-PA, Hoey AS, Hoogenboom M, Lowe RJ, McCulloch MT, Pandolfi JM, Pratchett M, Schoepf V, Torda G, Wilson SK (2018) Spatial and temporal patterns of mass bleaching of corals in the Anthropocene. Science 359: 80-83

Keith SA, Baird AH, Hobbs JPA, Woolsey ES, Hoey AS, Fadli N, Sanders NJ (2018) Synchronous behavioural shifts in reef fishes linked to mass coral bleaching. Nature Climate Change 8: 986-991

Childs JR, Hicks CC (2019) Securing the blue: political ecologies of the blue economy in Africa. Journal of Political Ecology 26: 323-40.

Hicks CC, Cohen PJ, Graham NAJ, Nash KL, Allison EH, D’Lima C, Mills DJ, Rosher M, Thilsted SH, Thorne-Lyman AL, MacNeil MA (2019) Harnessing global fisheries to tackle micronutrient deficiencies. Nature 574: 95-98

Leal CG, Lennox GD, Ferraz SF, Ferreira J, Gardner TA, Thomson JR, Berenguer E, Lees AC, Hughes RM, MacNally R, Aragão LE (2020) Integrated terrestrial-freshwater planning doubles conservation of tropical aquatic species. Science 370: 117-121

Neimark B, Mahanty S, Dressler W, Hicks C (2020) Not just participation: the rise of the eco‐precariat in the green economy. Antipode 52: 496-521

Chacón-Montalván EA, Taylor BM, Cunha MG, Davies G, Orellana JD, Parry L (2021) Rainfall variability and adverse birth outcomes in Amazonia. Nature Sustainability 1:

Yesuf GU, Brown KA, Walford NS, Rakotoarisoa SE, Rufino MC (2021) Predicting range shifts for critically endangered plants: Is habitat connectivity irrelevant or necessary? Biological Conservation 256: 109033

Customers and retailers around fresh fish laid out on tables in a tropical fish market

Research Highlights