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Bernardi, R. E., M. Buddeberg, M. Arim, and M. Holmgren. 2019. Forests expand as livestock pressure declines in subtropical South America. Ecology and Society 24(2):19.
Research, part of a special feature on Seeking sustainable pathways for land use in Latin America

Forests expand as livestock pressure declines in subtropical South America

1Resource Ecology Group, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands, 2Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management Group, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands, 3Departamento de Ecología y Gestión Ambiental, Centro Universitario Regional Este (CURE), Universidad de la República, Uruguay


Forests, savannas, and grasslands are prevalent across the landscapes of South America. Land uses associated with these ecosystems have influenced economies from household to country scales, shaping social-ecological organization across the region since pre-Hispanic societies. Recent studies suggest that tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas, and forests represent alternative ecosystem states. Transitions between these ecosystem states can be promoted by changes in disturbance regimes and by land uses determined by the organization of societies and their activities. We analyzed how changes in agriculture, fire, and livestock management influenced forest cover over a 45-year span (1966-2011) in the Campos region, an extensive subtropical ecotone between rain forests and grasslands of South America. We found that forests contracted in areas with high crop agriculture, whereas forests increased in those grasslands where livestock densities had been reduced. These patterns were strongly associated with soil and topographic conditions because they broadly determine the potential land productivity and use. Our results show that current land use and disturbance regimes explain the large extent of grasslands across the South American Campos and suggest that changes in land use and disturbance regimes could facilitate or prevent transitions between subtropical forests, savannas, and grasslands altering the provision of ecosystem services linked to them.
Key words: agriculture; Campos; cattle; ecological transitions; ecosystem services; grasslands; sheep; tree cover; Uruguay; vegetation shifts


The global distribution of forests, savannas, and grasslands has been studied since the first observations by early naturalists that related vegetation structure and composition to local environmental conditions (Darwin 1890, Von Humboldt and Bonpland 2009/1807). Tree cover increases from grasslands to forests as climates become moister and warmer to facilitate tree growth. However, the probability of finding grasslands, savannas, or forests in any particular place results from the complex interplay of resource conditions, land use, and disturbance regimes. Indeed, across the tropics and subtropics, fire occurrence and herbivory can maintain open grasslands and savannas in regions with enough precipitation to support closed-canopy forests (Hirota et al. 2011, Staver et al. 2011, Lehmann et al. 2014, Dantas et al. 2016, Staal et al. 2018, Bernardi et al. 2019). Forests, savannas, and grasslands provide different types of environmental services and configure cultural views that strongly influence economic activities and social organization (Berkes et al. 2000, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). In turn, socioeconomic activities are associated with land uses that can shape ecosystems and landscapes (Foley et al. 2005, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005, Aleman et al. 2016).

In South America, forest loss resulting from land conversion to agriculture has been significant (Boletta et al. 2006, Ribeiro et al. 2009, Redo et al. 2013, González-Roglich et al. 2015). Croplands tend to occupy the more fertile soils, and their expansion at the expense of forests can be linked to global and local drivers such as demands from international markets and local agricultural practices (Geist and Lambin 2002, Richards et al. 2012). Tree expansion into grasslands has also been observed in South America (Gautreau 2010, Chaneton et al. 2012, Müller et al. 2012, González-Roglich et al. 2015) and correlated to land uses and disturbance regimes (Chaneton et al. 2012, Müller et al. 2012, Blanco et al. 2014, Bernardi et al. 2016b, Brazeiro et al. 2018). Although the transition from forests to grasslands as a direct consequence of agricultural spreading has been fairly well established (Paruelo et al. 2006, Vega et al. 2009), the net result of this process with the opposite trajectory of tree expansion into grasslands remains less well understood, despite the major ecological and economic consequences. We echo the call for assessing changes in forest cover spanning large temporal periods and scales (González-Roglich et al. 2015).

The Campos grasslands are an ecotone between the subtropical Atlantic and Araucaria forests of southern Brazil and the temperate grasslands of Argentina. The whole of Uruguay is within this ecoregion. The Campos are mostly covered by grasslands under livestock extensive management and have remarkably low tree cover (∼5%) for their precipitation levels (∼1200 mm). These ancient, “old-growth” grasslands (Veldman et al. 2015) evolved during drier, colder periods in the Pleistocene that were marked by frequent droughts (Behling et al. 2007, Piovano et al. 2009, Jeske-Pieruschka et al. 2010, del Puerto et al. 2013). During the Holocene, loss of large herbivores and increased fire frequency, possibly associated with the first human settlements, probably occurred across the Campos as has been described for southern Brazil (Behling et al. 2007, Blanco et al. 2014). More recently, since the 17th century, extensive livestock production expanded to become the dominant land use form across the Campos grasslands. Humans have therefore exerted strong influences through land conversion and the modification of disturbance regimes that can affect forest cover. Recent field experiments and observations indicate that fire and livestock currently limit forest expansion across southeastern South America (Pillar and Quadros 1997, Müller et al. 2012, Blanco et al. 2014, Bernardi et al. 2016b, Etchebarne and Brazeiro 2016, Brazeiro et al. 2018). Indeed, livestock densities in the Campos are among the highest in South America, which may also explain the low fire frequencies of this region (Di Bella et al. 2006, Bernardi et al. 2016b). Understanding how these disturbances can affect vegetation structure is therefore particularly relevant. We analyzed changes in native forest cover over a 45-year period in Uruguay in relation to fire occurrence, livestock density, agricultural land cover, climate, soils, topography, and road density.


Forest cover and environmental variables

We analyzed changes in native forest cover for the whole of Uruguay (Fig. 1), in the Campos region of the Rio de la Plata Grasslands (Soriano 1992). Uruguay’s native forests have been classified into broad categories based on physiognomic and topographic criteria. Riparian forests are the most abundant type and, like ravine forests, form well-defined strips along watercourses. Hillside forests occur on higher elevations and rocky formations, often forming patches within grasslands. Palm and coastal forests (“Psamófilo”) can be found in localized regions (Brussa and Grela 2007). Very small areas of savannas, or “park forests” of Prosopis and Vachellia spp. remain, mostly to the west of the country, having been severely diminished by human activities. We merged Uruguay’s forests into a single “forest” category, including its park forests, which occupy a marginal fraction of the overall forest area. Forest cover change was estimated as the difference in forest cover between the forest cartography of the year 2011, based on Landsat images for that year (Ministerio de Ganadería Agricultura y Pesca [MGAP] 2012), and the first hand-drawn forest cartography, based on the interpretation of aerial images taken in 1966/1967 (; MGAP 1979).

Scanned images of the first forest cartography were georeferenced and projected onto the Yacaré Global Coordinate System, and the quality was checked when original aerial images were available. We used a semiautomated procedure to convert images into polygons. In the case of the 1966/1967 historical map, we considered a hand-drawing accuracy of 0.5 mm (Kramer et al. 2011). At a scale of 1:250,000, this translated into an estimated error of 125 m. The root-mean-square error of the georeferencing procedure was estimated as ∼40 m (Iliffe and Lott 2008, Kramer et al. 2011). Distortions in the alignment of the aerial photographs were corrected using local references, although some problems of alignment persisted, particularly in the north of the country, where fewer stable points for the georeferencing were available, because of fewer settlements and roads, and rivers were used. These problems did not affect the total forest cover area. We did not include commercial tree plantations for any year. Analysis was done using the administrative land units of the agricultural census, which are the smallest administrative division with available data of the National Agricultural Census. We considered each agricultural census division as a data point. Land use and environmental variables were averaged within each division. We excluded census units with a surface area below 100 km² or with urban land cover above 20% to exclude periurban areas. A total number of 184 units were included in the analysis, with an average area of 850 km² (standard deviation ±490 km²).

We related forest cover change to climate, soil and topography, land use, and disturbance regimes. Climate variables included the mean annual levels of precipitation and temperature, as well as indicators of how they change seasonally and interannually (Hirota et al. 2011, Holmgren et al. 2013). We included the following climate variables as averages for the period 1950-2000 (Hijmans et al. 2005): mean annual precipitation, mean annual temperature, coefficient of variation in precipitation, precipitation of the driest quarter, and temperature of the hottest quarter. We used two widely used national soil indexes: the soil productivity index CONEAT (Duran 1987) and the water holding capacity index (Molfino and Califra 2001). Altitude and slope were obtained from the national database of MGAP ( Because most forests in Uruguay occur alongside watercourses, we considered river density as a potential explanatory variable (Bernardi et al. 2016b). River density was derived from the HydroSHEDS database (Lehner et al. 2006). We included road density as an explanatory variable because it is strongly associated with population, urban development, and human access to land, which can result in land use change and deforestation (Cai et al. 2013), as well as in the introduction of invasive tree species (Chaneton et al. 2012). The road layer was obtained from the Ministry of Transportation and Public Works (, and road density was calculated with the Kernel density function in ArcGIS. Agricultural cover, a main driver of forest loss, was derived from the Land Cover Classification System map (Ministerio de Vivienda, Ordenamiento Territorial y Medio Ambiente; MGAP; and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2008) and expressed as a percentage of the area in each census division. Cattle and sheep densities for each census division for the period 2000-2011 were obtained from census data (,diea,diea-principal,O,es,0). Livestock values where expressed in livestock units (LU) of 380 kg equivalent standard weight. General conversion to livestock units for cattle was 0.75 LU/animal, and for sheep, 0.17 LU/animal. Specific conversion factors were used for each development stage of animals when available (Saravia et al. 2011). Average decadal livestock values in the 1996-2011 period were obtained from the National Agricultural Census (,diea,diea-principal,O,es,0) for the 19 departments of the country and assigned to the census division of each department to obtain changes in livestock densities. Fire frequency was calculated as the number of times a pixel burned over a 10-year period (2000-2009) derived from the MODIS MCD445A1 Burned Areas Monthly product (Roy et al. 2008).

Data analysis

Biophysical heterogeneity can influence of the patterns of land use in the region (Vega et al. 2009). To capture the main landscape features and their associated vegetation types, we used existing classifications of seven major “edapho-topographic” subregions of the country determined by their general soil and topographic characteristics (Panario 1988, Brazeiro 2015, Modernel et al. 2016; Fig. 2). The census divisions (Fig. 1) were assigned to the subregion that covered most of its surface. These subregions were clustered in two groups with agricultural crop cover above or below the national median value for all subregions (∼5% of the area). We used t tests to assess forest cover change differences between these two regions with the “t.test” package in R. Low agricultural areas included “Eastern Sierras” hill formations of the east and northeast of the country and the “Gondwanic Sediment” northeastern regions. It also included the “Basalt” region, characterized by shallow soils over a basaltic geologic substrate (Modernel et al. 2016). These regions are predominantly used for extensive livestock grazing and have had less expansion of agriculture because of their relatively less productive soils. High agricultural areas included the more productive soils of the west (“West Sediment”) and the south (“Cristaline Shield” and “Graven Santa Lucía”), where most of the crop agriculture is grown, and the plains of the Merín lagoon (“Graven Merín”) to the east of the country, which have a high cover of rice agriculture.

To relate forest cover change to explanatory variables (Table A1.1 in Appendix 1) we used generalized linear models. Models were selected using the package “bestglm” in R version 3.2.3 (McLeod and Xu 2011) using the Akaike information criterion (Table A1.2 in Appendix 1). A subset of the best five alternative models was assessed for comparison with the best model using cross validation. The partial contribution of variables in the best models (Table A1.3 in Appendix 1) was assessed with the package “rsq” in R (Zhang 2018). Spatial autocorrelation in the model residuals was assessed using Moran’s I. We found weak spatial autocorrelation indicated by rather low Moran’s I values (Table A1.2 in Appendix 1). All variables were considered in model construction; highly correlated variables (Pearson ρ ≥ 0.5) were tested independently. Dependent variables in plots were presented as partial residuals to visualize the effect of each single predictor variable (Sibly et al. 2012).


Four decades of forest cover change

Our analysis of forest cover change between 1966 and 2011 shows a small increase in native forest cover (∼7%) over this 45-year period. This increase is congruent with recent reports of woody plant expansion in the Campos and Pampas (Baldi and Paruelo 2008, Gautreau 2010, Müller et al. 2012) and in other grass-dominated systems (Brown and Carter 1998, Bond 2008, Gartzia et al. 2014, Stevens et al. 2017). This limited forest expansion has not occurred across the whole Campos of Uruguay. Increases in forest cover were prevalent in the eastern regions, mostly on hills and coastal plains (Fig. 1). These patterns can indeed be explained by land use and environmental variables (Fig. 1): Change in forest cover was negatively associated with agricultural cover (p = 0.01) and positively correlated with slopes (p = 0.015), road density (p = 0.032), and drier climate (p < 0.001). We recorded forest losses across the west and southwest of the country, as well as in the plains of the Merín lagoon to the east. These are regions with extensive agricultural activity where forest cover reductions were likely a result of land conversion to agriculture. Indeed, Uruguay has increased its agricultural crop production during the study period, from roughly 700,000 ha in 1970 to more than 1.7 million in 2010 (MGAP 2011).

Because agricultural crop cover was identified as a main determinant of forest cover change at the country level, we clustered the edapho-topographic regions of Uruguay into two groups with agricultural cover above or below the median country value (Fig. 3). Forest cover change between these 2 groups differed significantly (t = 2.29, df = 182, p = 0.023). In regions with below-median agricultural cover, i.e., hills to the east and northeast of the country and the shallow basaltic regions of the northwest, net forest cover increased by 11% during these 4 decades. This increase was negatively correlated with mean annual precipitation (p < 0.001; Fig. 3b) and positively correlated with slope (p < 0.001; Fig. 3c) and reductions in livestock densities (p < 0.0034; Fig. 3d). These regions are predominantly used for extensive livestock grazing and have had less expansion of crop agriculture because of their relatively less productive soils. In regions with above-median agricultural cover, i.e., the alluvial plains of the Uruguay River and Merín lagoon and the granitic formations at the center-south regions of the country, forest losses exceeded forests gains (net forest decrease was 1%). This forest decline was associated with further increases in agricultural cover (p = 0.0011; Fig. 3e) and with precipitation in the drier quarter (p < 0.001; Fig. 3f).

Drivers of forest cover change

Distinguishing between regions with agricultural activity above or below the median country values improved our understanding of the drivers associated with forest cover change. In the regions with high agricultural activity, forest decline was likely favored by a drastic expansion of crops and driven by a spike in international prices and new agricultural practices (Vega et al. 2009, MGAP 2011, Modernel et al. 2016). This may have particularly impacted riparian forests, which are the most abundant forest type in Uruguay and are constrained by croplands (Bernardi et al. 2016b).

The increase in forest cover in the northeastern areas with steeper slopes was significantly associated with local reductions in livestock pressure. In these areas, there has been a large decline in sheep densities because of a fall in the price of sheep products associated with international market restrictions (Montossi et al. 2013). These reductions in sheep numbers resulted in lower herbivory pressure in rocky outcrops and hilly areas where replacement of sheep by cattle is not possible. This release of top-down control by herbivores is likely driving the expansion of forests observed in these regions. Rocky outcrops may have also facilitated tree establishment by protecting tree seedlings from browsing (Müller et al. 2012, Gartzia et al. 2014).

Forest cover also increased in areas with high road density. This increase was more pronounced in coastal, urbanized regions. This seemingly unexpected pattern of forest cover expansion in areas of easier human access and urbanization has been reported in other localities across the Campos and Pampas. Trees originally planted for ornamental or productive uses, e.g., as living fences and refuges for livestock, have included invasive exotic tree species, whose expansion into grasslands and native forests is raising significant concern (Carrere 2001, Nebel and Porcile 2006, Chaneton et al. 2012, Müller et al. 2012). Indeed, the spread of exotic species associated with coastal, highly populated regions, has been detected both for animal and plant species in the Campos (Masciadri et al. 2010).

Unexpectedly, we found that forest cover also increased in drier areas. During the study period, precipitation increased by 10-30% (Instituto Uruguayo de Meterología [INUMET], unpublished data). Increases in rainfall have been associated with increases in forest productivity in Uruguay (Lucas et al. 2017) and, globally, with trends of tree expansion into grasslands and savannas (Naito and Cairns 2011, Ratajczak et al. 2012, Stevens et al. 2017). The increase in precipitation has likely favored tree growth in Uruguay particularly in the drier regions of the country where its relative impact was likely higher.

We did not detect a significant role of fire in preventing forest expansion. A positive feedback between grass fuel and fire, resulting in open landscapes, has been found to determine the extent of grasslands, savannas, and forests as alternative states in regions with intermediate rainfall levels (1000-2000 mm) to which our study region largely belongs (Hirota et al. 2011, Staver et al. 2011). However, in the Uruguayan Campos, fire frequency is particularly low (Di Bella et al. 2006), which is likely a result of the very high livestock densities that can consume grass fuel and reduce fire connectivity (Bernardi et al. 2016b). High herbivory can replace fire as a determining driver of alternative tree cover states (Archibald et al. 2005, Archibald and Hempson 2016, Dantas et al. 2016, Staal et al. 2018, Bernardi et al. 2019). Future assessments of potential forest expansion into grasslands would entail studying how the interaction with fire under different grazing regimes could affect vegetation structure and ecological functions.

Our findings suggest that changes in forest cover in Uruguay can be explained by the interplay of livestock densities and land uses mediated by local climatic, topographic, and soil conditions. Expansions of agriculture and reductions of livestock have locally caused contractions and expansions of forest, respectively, in different parts of the country. These changes in forest cover have probably had a wide range of implications for ecosystem functions and ecological services. For example, tree expansion in grasslands and savannas can impact livestock production either positively (Bernardi et al. 2016a) or negatively (Anadón et al. 2014), alter biodiversity (Overbeck et al. 2007, Veldman et al. 2015), and change carbon cycles and soil properties (Piñeiro et al. 2006, Eclesia et al. 2016, Andriollo et al. 2017), also affecting the composition and functioning of aquatic ecosystems (Roberts et al. 2012). Changes in these ecological services have major implications for nature and society, and they are also differently valued and perceived by social groups (Holmgren and Scheffer 2017).


Ecosystems can be strong determinants of the social and economic characteristics of societies. In turn, societies can shape ecosystems through economic and social activities. In particular, by altering disturbance regimes, land use changes can have major impacts on these coupled social-ecological systems. We found that under the current changing climate, livestock and agriculture are counteracting forces that prevent forest expansion in subtropical South America, and that changes in land use intensity and agricultural practices can facilitate transitions between grasslands and forests. Our analysis also highlights the need to take into account medium-scale biogeographic factors that broadly determine the main land use drivers to design better management responses. These results can help to determine potential impacts of forest cover change over time on the diverse range of ecosystem functions and services on which societies depend.


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We would like to thank the Ministerio de Vivienda, Ordenamiento Territorial y Medio Ambiente (MVOTMA) and the Ministerio de Ganadería Agricultura y Pesca (MGAP) for data on land cover and environmental variables, and Lucía Bartesaghi for the digital maps. This research was partially funded by the Agencia Nacional de Investigación e Innovación del Uruguay (ANII). We thank the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.


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Address of Correspondent:
Rafael E. Bernardi
CURE, Universidad de la República
Tacuarembó s/n
20100, Maldonado
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