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Land abandonment, landscape, and biodiversity: questioning the restorative character of the forest transition in the Mediterranean

Iago Otero, Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin; Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA), Autonomous University of Barcelona
Joan Marull, Barcelona Institute of Regional and Metropolitan Studies (IERMB), Autonomous University of Barcelona
Enric Tello, Department of Economic History and Institutions, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Barcelona
Giovanna L. Diana, Barcelona Institute of Regional and Metropolitan Studies (IERMB), Autonomous University of Barcelona
Manel Pons, Barcelona Institute of Regional and Metropolitan Studies (IERMB), Autonomous University of Barcelona
Francesc Coll, Barcelona Institute of Regional and Metropolitan Studies (IERMB), Autonomous University of Barcelona
Martí Boada, Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA), Autonomous University of Barcelona

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-07378-200207

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Abstract

The effects of land abandonment on biodiversity have received considerable attention by scholars, but results are far from conclusive. Different cultural traditions of scientists seem to underlie the contrasting ways in which land abandonment is understood. Although the forest transition (FT) framework considers land abandonment as an opportunity for biodiversity conservation, European landscape ecologists characterize it as a threat. We use insights from both traditions to analyze the effects of land abandonment on landscape and biodiversity in a mountain area of metropolitan Barcelona. We do so through an in-depth historical case study covering a period of 160 years. A set of landscape metrics was applied to land-cover maps derived from cadastral cartography to characterize the landscape ecological changes brought about by land abandonment. Cadastral data on land uses were used to understand how landscape ecological changes could be explained by changing socioeconomic activities. Information on past land-management practices from semistructured interviews was used to shed light on how peasants shaped the capacity of landscape to host biodiversity. Our results point to a remarkable landscape deterioration along with the disappearance of the peasant land-use mosaics and the ensuing forest expansion. By using insights from landscape ecology in a historically informed manner, we (1) question the alleged relationship between land abandonment and ecosystem recovery; (2) show that the assumed restorative character of the FT is based on the underestimation of the ecological importance of nonforest habitats; and (3) point at a remarkable trade-off between FT and biodiversity in the Mediterranean. Finally, the case study also serves to illustrate some of the strengths and challenges of using historical approaches to land abandonment.

Key words

biodiversity; cultural landscape; forest transition; land abandonment; landscape changes; landscape structure; land-use change; land-use mosaic; Mediterranean; peasant management

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087