Tree cover promoted in semi-arid Sahelian farms – new publication in Nature Geoscience

More people equal more trees in semi-arid West Africa – Our new study published in Nature Geoscience questions ‘received wisdom’ as concerns the relationship between human agency and woody vegetation of West Africa. We demonstrate that in low-rainfall areas woody cover is denser in cultivated areas than in savannas, and close to settlements rather that further away, thus rejecting simplistic Malthusian ideas of a negative relationship between population density and woody cover.

These findings challenge the traditional view on agricultural expansion in semi-arid lands and this has implications for the understanding of effects of agricultural expansion on ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration. Also, these findings throw light upon the process of land degradation/desertification which contradicts commonly believed narratives on human expansion in drylands causing fuel-wood crisis, deforestation, soil depletion, erosion and desertification.

 The study is part of an unprecedented NASA project (lead by CJ Tucker), which aims at applying commercial DigitalGlobe satellite imagery with a spatial resolution of 50 cm to map the size of each individual tree and shrub in African dryland ecosystems. Our team had access to thousands of these images, and this study is the first allowing a wall-to-wall map of woody cover based on individual trees.

In contrast to traditional case studies prone to sampling errors and bias by the prevailing societal discourse, the woody cover map includes 40,000 villages, passing a technical tipping point in dryland environmental research.

Article in Nature Geoscience:

Brandt, M., Rasmussen, K., Hiernaux, P., Herrmann, S., Tucker, C.J., Tong, X., Tian, F., Mertz, O., Kergoat, L., Mbow, C., David, J.L., Melocik, K.A., Dendoncker, M., Vincke, C., Fensholt, R., 2018. Reduction of tree cover in West African woodlands and promotion in semi-arid farmlands. Nature Geoscience 1.

Further read in Nature Geoscience News (summary by Niall Hanan):