Pastures With and Without Trees: How do we explain the differences?

With the continuing decline in the global extent of tropical forests, agriculture dominated landscapes now cover ~50% of the tropical biome. In this context our ability to understand and influence tropical biodiversity depends in large part on our understanding of actively managed landscapes. Given that pastures cover most agricultural lands in the Neotropics, significant changes in their biodiversity, like the emergence of more trees, represent a potentially important development. The numbers of trees in pastures in the Ecuadorian Amazon appear to have increased during the past two decades, at least on some cattle ranches. To explain this shift in pasture management, we have studied 100 small farms, both mestizo and Shuar, in a predominantly cattle ranching region in southern Ecuador Amazon. Changes in the composition of ranching households, variations in distance to seed sources, and differences in soil qualities all, potentially, play a role in these landscape changes. If confirmed, these patterns would outline, in yet another context, the ecology of small-scale sustainable agriculture. These changes also have implications for who benefits from the implementation of REDD+ policies in Ecuador during the next five years. More specifically, this study explores the possibility that small scale cattle ranchers could benefit from payments for environmental services, in particular payments for carbon sequestration.


To analyze these patterns in pasture management we interviewed 100 small farmers from two ethnic groups, mestizos and Shuar in the four villages depicted in the map on the right. We asked our respondents about their households, the history of land use on the farm, their pasture management practices, and their other sources of incomes. In addition the farmers accompanied us to their fields where we took soil samples to measures subsoil carbon and the density of trees in a representative sample of pastures in each farm. These data have been supplemented by remote sensing analyses of the landscapes containing the farms under study. We also interviewed key informants about crucial political and economic changes in Ecuador during the three decade period of time under study.

    With Trees                                                                                  Without Trees

Results (So Far)

We are still in the midst of analyzing the variations across farms in the density of trees in their pastures, but we have done some analyses of the different trajectories of mestizo and Shuar farms in the regions. The results of this work are displayed in the table on the lower left. The findings can be summarized as follows.

Recent efforts to explain the persistence of rural poverty have made frequent use of the concept of poverty traps, understood as any ‘self-reinforcing mechanism that causes poverty to persist’ (Azariadis and Stachurski 2004:33). The dynamic dimension of the poverty trap concept makes it a potentially useful tool for understanding conditions of persistent poverty, especially in circumstances where outside interventions ‘shock’ the system with the intention of ending poverty and disadvantage. This paper describes one such effort among a populous group of lowland Amerindians, the Shuar of Ecuador’s Amazon region. Three small household surveys conducted at different points of time during the last twenty-five years suggest that the Shuar, despite having obtained access to land through a combination of their own efforts and outside interventions, have become enmeshed in a natural resource degrading poverty trap. Mestizos with land in the same region avoided this trap only by emigrating in large numbers. The inability of secure access to land to prevent the emergence of a poverty trap among the Shuar reflects, in large part, the difficult macro-sociological and ecological conditions faced by smallholders in Latin America during the last decades of the 20th century.