In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Forest Transition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Defining and Monitoring Reforestation and Secondary Forests
  • Historical Cases of Forest Transitions
  • Contemporary Forest Transitions in Tropical and Developing Countries
  • Contemporary Reforestation Dynamics in Temperate/Developed Countries
  • Cross-Country Statistical Analyses of Forest Cover Changes
  • Social and Livelihoods Outcomes of Forest Transitions
  • Forest Transitions and REDD+ Policies
  • Partnerships and Projects of Forest Restoration

Environmental Science Forest Transition
Patrick Meyfroidt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0010


The term forest transition was proposed by geographer Alexander Mather to describe an empirical regularity observed in several countries, namely a national-scale shift from a shrinking to an expanding forest area. This concept derived initially from historical studies of long-term trends of forest cover in European countries, and it was then applied to contemporary dynamics in developing and tropical regions. Such forest transitions result from multiple trends—natural regeneration of forests, forest plantation, adoption of agroforestry, continuing deforestation—that combine in various ways through time and space. Studies of forest transitions address several key issues. The first is defining and monitoring forest cover trends. It has been long recognized that forests, deforestation, reforestation, and even forest transitions can be defined in multiple ways, that monitoring is fraught with methodological issues, and that various types of forests are not equivalent. Second, m any studies have explored the causes of forest transitions. A central debate focuses on the respective roles of structural, long-term driving forces in the economic, technological, and demographic realms versus contextual and contingent processes, in particular social and political dynamics triggered by key individuals and events. Some studies focus more on the social and livelihoods impacts of forest transitions, noting that these effects are intimately linked with the social dynamics causing forest transitions. Third, assessing the environmental impacts of forest transitions goes far beyond the narrow field of forest transition studies. Studies investigate the effects of forest recovery on carbon stocks, biodiversity, water flows, soils and erosion, and a range of other ecosystem services. Drawing on these three key themes, the current frontier of research on forest transitions explores issues of (1) the role of international dynamics and globalization in forest transitions, including the relation between forest transitions in one place and land use dynamics in other places through trade in land-based products; (2) how the knowledge and theories of forest transition can contribute to the formulation of policies to reduce deforestation or expedite forest transitions while ensuring food security and economic development, in particular as a way to frame the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) policies; (3) how human-modified forests can support biodiversity, ecosystem functions, and the delivery of ecosystem services; and (4) the prospects, constraints, and pathways to achieve a forest transition on a global scale. This article covers all these themes. Considering the ecological importance and the rapid dynamics of both deforestation and forest transition in the tropics, this review often focuses on studies conducted in tropical regions, but entry points for other regions are also provided.

General Overviews

The literature on forest transitions is primarily composed of (1) a large set of case studies at various scales, from local to country to global scales, (2) a series of cross-country studies using various statistical tools, and (3) a few more general or theoretical papers, which synthesize knowledge from the case studies and propose theoretical formulations. The key papers below constitute the main entry points to that literature. Mather 1992 is generally considered the seminal paper on forest transitions. Meyfroidt and Lambin 2011 is a recent review covering most of the themes discussed in this article. Rudel, et al. 2005 proposes a theoretical advance by introducing two major archetypal pathways of forest transitions, with some empirical evidence. Kauppi, et al. 2006 expands the initial idea beyond the forest area to explore the other attributes of forest that change along with a forest transition. Walker 1993 is a seminal alternative proposition introducing econometrics and economic theory to the study of forest transitions. Chazdon 2008 and Chazdon 2014 are fundamental introductions to ecological processes of secondary forests.

  • Chazdon, R. L. 2008. Beyond deforestation: Restoring forests and ecosystem services on degraded lands. Science 320:1458–1460.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1155365

    General discussion of environmental issues associated with different types of forest recovery, and strategies to restore forests for ecosystem services delivery.

  • Chazdon, R. L. 2014. Second growth: The promise of tropical forest regeneration in an age of deforestation. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226118109.001.0001

    Recent synthesis on all aspects of tropical secondary forests formation, succession processes, legacies of human actions, and restoration pathways.

  • Kauppi, P. E., J. H. Ausubel, J. Fang, A. S. Mather, R. A. Sedjo, and P. E. Waggoner. 2006. Returning forests analyzed with the forest identity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103.46: 17574–17579.

    DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0608343103

    This paper introduces the Forest Identity, i.e., the equation Q = A × D × B × C, with Q being the carbon stored in forest, A forest area, D growing stock, B biomass density, and C carbon density per biomass unit, as a tool to analyze and discuss different country trajectories of forest transition with various outcomes on these dimensions.

  • Mather, A. S. 1992. The forest transition. Area 24.4: 367–379.

    Although Mather’s book Global Forest Resources (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1990) already contains a discussion on forest transition, this is considered the seminal paper introducing the concept of forest transition, as a change from decreasing to expanding forest area in some countries. It discusses the historical evidence for developed countries and makes links with the contemporary situation in developing countries.

  • Meyfroidt, P., and E. F. Lambin. 2011. Global forest transition: Prospects for an end to deforestation. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 36:343–371.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-environ-090710-143732

    This review synthesizes knowledge on the monitoring, occurrence, causes, theories, and ecological impacts of both historical and recent forest transitions and reforestation dynamics and examines the prospects and policy options for a forest transition on a global scale.

  • Rudel, T. K., O. T. Coomes, E. Moran, et al. 2005. Forest transitions: Towards a global understanding of land use change. Global Environmental Change 15.1: 23–31.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2004.11.001

    This paper proposes a general introduction to forest transitions and discusses two major nonexclusive pathways for forest transitions: the economic development path and the forest scarcity path. It also discusses the importance of forest transitions for environmental services, including biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and soil conservation.

  • Walker, R. 1993. Deforestation and economic development. Canadian Journal of Regional Science 16:481–497.

    Alternative formulation of a historical relationship between economic development and forest cover, postulating a “landscape turnaround” point beyond which factors driving deforestation cease and forests recovery occurs.

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