This area in Peru was cleared for agriculture, but slowly the vines and trees crept back in, creating a dense jungle. (Photography by Lauren Weinhold, CC BY 2.0)

Temperate forest

A new book examining the world’s natural landscapes challenges the idea of “the empty and the wild.”

“You can’t understand most forests in the world without understanding human history with them,” said Susanna Hecht, LAB’68, AB’72. A professor of urban planning at UCLA and a scholar of political ecology in the Amazon, Hecht is also an unapologetic contrarian when it comes to conservation: optimistic about the fate of the world’s forests and critical of reflexive efforts to wall them off from all human contact. The notion of “the empty and the wild,” she argues, is flawed and oversimplified, sometimes even harmful. “These are places,” she said, “that have a deep sociality to them.”

At Ida Noyes this past April, Hecht and UChicago anthropology professor Kathleen Morrison spoke to students and faculty about The Social Lives of Forests (University of Chicago Press, 2014), which the two coedited with ecological anthropologist Christine Padoch. The book grew out of a 2008 conference of the same name, sponsored by UChicago’s Program on the Global Environment.

In more than two dozen articles by scholars in ecology, paleoecology, archaeology, anthropology, botany, geography, biology, and environmental history, the book calls into question “some of our most cherished stories about nature and about change,” Morrison said. “It turns out there was not a simple story about forest loss, or a simple correlation between humans and degradation.”

The book examines woodlands in Europe, Africa, South Asia—where Morrison’s research is focused—Southeast Asia, North America, and the Latin American tropics, offering sometimes dramatic examples of upended narratives and overlooked complexity. Citing one chapter, Morrison noted that until recently, afforestation—the increase in forested land—“is not something that people even thought to measure.” Assessment surveys were structured to assume a decline. “So perhaps it’s not surprising that using these techniques, you get these frightening looking downward facing lines.” In fact, argues University of Leeds geographer Alan Grainger, worldwide tropical moist forest area has changed very little over the past 30 years “That doesn’t mean that there’s been no deforestation,” Morrison said, “but it does mean that afforestation has also taken place.”

Researchers find that many forests considered primitive and “feral” in fact show long legacies of human manipulation. More than 1,000 years after the Mayan city of Dos Hombres in Belize was abandoned, vegetation surveys found that forests there contained a greater than expected number of tree species that were once important to the ancient Maya, Morrison said. Other evidence shows that the Amazon, “once seen as the largest pristine tropical forest in the world, an outpost of nature,” was home to a large and complex human population long before colonization.

In Bolivia, areas relatively recently cleared of vegetation revealed a huge ring-shaped ditch six feet deep and an extensive network of pre-Columbian raised fields and canals. “All underneath this presumably pristine tropical forest,” Morrison said. The Amazon’s famous “dark earths,” islands of lush fertility and rich soil—once thought to have been created by winding riverbeds—“are artifacts of human occupation,” Morrison said. “They’re full of the debris of past occupants and the result of large-scale composting and active intervention by previous residents.”

Similarly, Hecht’s research in Latin America finds some of the most vigorous forest resurgence in densely inhabited areas with growing populations and sometimes large industries: El Salvador, northern Mexico, northeastern Brazil. These are places with histories of catastrophic forest loss and ecological collapse, but since the mid-2000s, they’ve been coming back, even where the forests are not completely isolated.

The reasons are complicated, Hecht said. They have to do with changes in agriculture and the shifting structure of local and global economies, the rise of civil societies and the demise of authoritarian regimes. Today about 60 percent of Amazonia is under land management “that involves inhabited forest,” Hecht said. There has been an “extraordinary transformation,” she explained, in the ideology of landscapes, from thinking of them as necessarily separated into urban, agricultural, and wild to something more integrated. “What this says is that livelihoods can be forest based and that they can keep forests up,” Hecht said.

A common thread in The Social Lives of Forests is a criticism of nature set-asides as the default conservation model. “Anthropocene literature is actually shockingly ignorant of the human-environment interactions before about the last 300 years,” Morrison said. Reconstructing landscape histories in the Americas and South Asia—using everything from texts and oral histories to pollen grains and isotopic signatures in the soil—researchers found no single pattern of forest loss and renewal, of human destruction and harmony, but many. “The Malthusian models aren’t really holding,” Hecht said: more people doesn’t necessarily mean less forest and never has.

Different standards also complicate the issue of forest conservation: Mediterranean shepherds are encouraged to stay on their forest-adjacent lands while east African Massai pastoralists and Toda pastoralists from southern India are evicted. Parks, preserves, and other set-asides harm livelihoods and disenfranchise local people, Morrison said, sometimes unnecessarily. And they “risk failure if it turns out that some forms of human action are actually needed to achieve” conservation goals.

These are contentious, even radical, arguments. “There’s plenty of controversy about everything I’m saying,” Hecht said. During the Q&A that followed the presentation, one listener, a UChicago student and former Eagle Scout who grew up visiting the national parks, asked whether US conservation should be moving in a different direction. Yes and no, Morrison said. “It’s not that it’s not important to have any set-asides or that there shouldn’t be any national parks or wildlife preserves.” But, she argued, there’s a balance to be struck. “We have to understand those processes well so that we can make policies in a sensible kind of way.”


Stemming from the Program on the Global Environment’s 2008 Social Lives of Forests conference, this follow-up panel discussion from May 14, 2014, explores woodland resurgence and how forests throughout the world are closely integrated into the lives of their inhabitants, from the city of Chicago to the rainforests of the Amazon.