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Forests as landscapes of social inequality: tropical forest cover and land distribution among shifting cultivators

Oliver T. Coomes, Department of Geography, McGill University
Yoshito Takasaki, Graduate School of Economics, University of Tokyo
Jeanine M. Rhemtulla, Department of Forest & Conservation Sciences, University of British Columbia


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Can social inequality be seen imprinted in a forest landscape? We studied the relationship between land holding, land use, and inequality in a peasant community in the Peruvian Amazon where farmers practice swidden-fallow cultivation. Longitudinal data on land holding, land use, and land cover were gathered through field-level surveys (n = 316) and household interviews (n = 51) in 1994/1995 and 2007. Forest cover change between 1965 and 2007 was documented through interpretation of air photos and satellite imagery. We introduce the concept of “land use inequality” to capture differences across households in the distribution of forest fallowing and orchard raising as key land uses that affect household welfare and the sustainability of swidden-fallow agriculture. We find that land holding, land use, and forest cover distribution are correlated and that the forest today reflects social inequality a decade prior. Although initially land-poor households may catch up in terms of land holdings, their use and land cover remain impoverished. Differential land use investment through time links social inequality and forest cover. Implications are discussed for the study of forests as landscapes of inequality, the relationship between social inequality and forest composition, and the forest-poverty nexus.

Key words

Amazonia; land inequality; land use and land cover change; path dependency; secondary forests

Copyright © 2016 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087