Deforestation and reforestation impacts on soils in the tropics

Abstract

Soils under natural, tropical forests provide essential ecosystem services that have been shaped by long-term soil–vegetation feedbacks. However, deforestation of tropical forest, with a net rate of 5.5 million hectares annually in 2010–2015, profoundly impacts soil properties and functions. Reforestation is also prominent in the tropics, again altering the state and functioning of the underlying soils. In this Review, we discuss the substantial changes in dynamic soil properties following deforestation and during reforestation. Changes associated with deforestation continue for decades after forest clearing eventually extend to deep subsoils and strongly affect soil functions, including nutrient storage and recycling, carbon storage and greenhouse gas emissions, erosion resistance and water storage, drainage and filtration. Reforestation reverses many of the effects of deforestation, mainly in the topsoil, but such restoration can take decades and the resulting soil properties still deviate from those under natural forests. Improved management of soil organic matter in converted land uses can moderate or reduce the ecologically deleterious effects of deforestation on soils. We emphasize the importance of soil knowledge not only in cross-disciplinary research on deforestation and reforestation but also in developing effective incentives and policies to reduce deforestation.

Key points

  • Deforestation leads to profound changes in dynamic soil properties that degrade most soil functions.

  • The rate and degree of soil degradation following deforestation are a function of the inherent soil fertility and land-use intensity.

  • Changes in dynamic soil properties continue for decades following deforestation and eventually extend to deep subsoils.

  • Reforestation reverses some of the undesirable effects of deforestation on dynamic soil properties; however, the resulting soil conditions and their functions are substantially different from the previous soils under natural forests.

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Fig. 1: Tropical tree cover change and soils based on dominant clay mineralogy.
Fig. 2: Linkages between land-use changes, soil properties and soil functions.
Fig. 3: Changes in soil properties during land-use change for croplands and pastures.
Fig. 4: Changes in soil properties during land-use change for tree cash crop plantations and agroforestry.
Fig. 5: Deforestation and reforestation impacts on soil functions.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the following researchers for providing their original data from their publications: Marleen de Blécourt; Tommaso Chiti, Ute Hamer, Hennok Kassa, Maximilian Kirsten, Wolde Mekuria, Diego Navarrete, Jan Nyssen, Iván Prieto, Amin Soltangheisi, Clément Stahl and Oliver van Straaten. We thank Oliver van Straaten for making the maps. We thank Boniface Massawe for assistance with the soil profile images. E.V. and M.D.C. acknowledge financial support by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation — Project ID 192626868 — SFB 990) as part of project A05.

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Supplementary information

Glossary

Slash-and-burn management

Cutting down and burning of vegetation in an area, often as preparation for agricultural use.

Shifting cultivation

Agricultural system in which the area is fallowed in between periods of cultivation, allowing natural vegetation to return and soils to recover.

Fallow periods

Time during which arable land is not actively used in crop production.

Deforestation

Removal of forest and conversion of land for other uses.

Forest regeneration

Re-establishment of forest after disturbance.

Secondary succession

Ecological changes during the regeneration of an ecosystem on disturbed or damaged land.

Primary forests

Native forests that lack substantial signs of human activity or disturbance, sometimes referred to as old-growth forest.

Dynamic soil properties

Soil properties that change with disturbances and management.

Topsoils

Uppermost layer of soil, specifically, the top 10 cm for this Review.

Subsoils

Soil layers >10 cm; deeper subsoils refers to >50 cm for this Review.

Effective cation-exchange capacity

(ECEC). Negatively charged sites in the soil that adsorb exchangeable cations, measured at field pH.

Liming

Treatment of soil with lime, with the goal of reducing acidity.

Secondary forests

Forests established after the removal or disturbance of the original (primary) forests.

Texture

Composition of soil in terms of sand, silt and clay.

Agroforestry

Growth of trees or shrubs and crop products concurrently.

Standing biomass

Total amount of biomass in an area.

Nutrient-use efficiency

The biomass produced per unit of nutrients taken up by plants.

Species richness

Number of species in a community.

Detritivores

Organism that feeds on dead biomass.

Symbiotrophic

Receiving nutrients by exchanging resources with host cells.

Mycorrhizae

Symbiotic relationship between plant and fungus in a rooting system.

Saprotrophic

Receiving nutrients by breaking down dead host cells.

Pathotrophic

Receiving nutrients by harming host cells.

Slash

Downed vegetation produced during slash-and-burn management.

Denitrification

Microbial process where nitrate (NO3) is reduced to NO, N2O and, ultimately, N2.

Anion-exchange capacity

(AEC). Positively charged sites in the soil that adsorb exchangeable anions.

Sesquioxides

Oxides with three oxygen atoms for every two atoms of another element, mostly as aluminium oxide (Al2O3) or iron oxide (Fe2O3) in soils.

Leaf-area index

One-sided green leaf area per unit ground area, used as a measure of greenness and vegetation.

Nitrification

Microbial process where organic N or ammonia is oxidized to nitrate.

Water erosion

Removal of soil by water (as opposed to wind, for example).

Space-for-time substitution

Studying ecological processes at different aged sites, assumed to represent different stages of developments; used especially in studies of long-term processes.

C4 crops

Plants that use the C4 carbon-fixation pathway, as opposed to the C3 carbon-fixation pathway.

Kaolinitic

Layered silicate clays formed through the weathering of aluminium silicates with the formula Al2Si2O5(OH)4.

Gibbsite

An aluminium-hydroxide mineral, with the formula Al(OH)3.

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Veldkamp, E., Schmidt, M., Powers, J.S. et al. Deforestation and reforestation impacts on soils in the tropics. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 590–605 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0091-5

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