Forty Years and More Trees: Land Cover Change and Coffee Production in Honduras

By Bass, J. O. Joby | Southeastern Geographer, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Forty Years and More Trees: Land Cover Change and Coffee Production in Honduras


Bass, J. O. Joby, Southeastern Geographer


Geographers interested in vegetation change increasingly focus on forest transitions. Several studies have documented an increase in forest cover in tropical America. This paper examines the nature of land cover change between 1954 and 1992 in a mountainous region of western Honduras. Analysis of aerial photographs indicates that tree cover increased by 17% around the town of Marcala. The accuracy of the aerial photograph analysis was assessed by field reconnaissance in 2004, which suggested that the increase in trees consisted largely of shade coffee fincas. More than 80% of the 46 field sites visited in this study experienced an increase in tree cover, which consisted of pine forest and several types of shaded tree canopies for the growth of coffee.

KEY WORDS: Honduras, tropical forest transitions, aerial photograph interpretation, shade coffee, Marcala

INTRODUCTION

Landscapes change constantly and vegetation is a particularly dynamic component of land cover. Geographers from a variety of sub-disciplines (e.g., biogeography, landscape ecology, and cultural geography) have long studied patterns and processes of vegetation change as part of an older and larger concern with human-environment relationships and their impacts (e.g., Thomas 1956; Turner et al. 1990). Of increasing attention within this body of work has been forest transitions, specifically deforestation (see Williams 2003 for a thorough diachronic perspective).

Much of the research on vegetation change has focused on the American tropics, such as early geographical studies by W.H. Hodge (1947), William Denevan (1961), Carl Johannessen (1963), David Harris (1965), and Clarissa Kimber (1966). More recent work has examined the multi-scaled and multiple processes behind vegetation changes and patterns (Moran et al. 1994; Klooster 2000, 2003; Mather and Needle 2000; Sandoval 2000; Southworth, Tucker, and Munroe 2002, 2004). Some of these studies provide evidence of tropical reforestation taking place alongside the well known and controversial practice of deforestation. Recently, Hecht (2004) found an increase in forest cover in parts of E1 Salvador, while Southworth, Tucker, and Munroe (2002, 2004) documented forest cover expansion in an area of western Honduras.

In an earlier study using repeat photography, Bass (2003, 2004) found an unexpected increase in trees in a large part of Honduras. Oblique landscape photo pairs indicated that there were more trees in 2001 than in 1957. An important point to make about such a finding in this region of Honduras is that 'more trees' does not necessarily mean 'more forest.' The vegetation changes consisted of different types and arrangements of trees (see Bass 2004). These results were verified by examining parts of the study area from a different perspective and scale using aerial photographs obtained from the Honduran Instituto Geografico Nacional (National Geographic Institute) (IGN) that span roughly the same time period as the repeat photography study. The IGN photographs also showed an increase in tree cover, which mirrors the results of other studies of western Honduras (Southworth, Tucker, and Munroe 2002; Redo 2004).

The purpose of this paper is to provide a more detailed assessment of an area covered by one of the aerial photograph pairs. The study area is centered on the mountain town of Marcala, a small regional center in western Honduras. As this study demonstrates, the Marcala study area witnessed a large increase in tree cover between 1954 and 1992, which makes the notion of wholesale tropical deforestation problematic and thus prompts us to view vegetation change in more complex terms. This study also demonstrates the need to couple remote sensing with field work to determine the exact nature of landscape change.

STUDY AREA

Marcala is located in the department of La Paz in western Honduras at an elevation of 1,240 m (Fig. 1; Pineda 1997, 67).

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