Deforestation since independence: a quantitative assessment of four decades of land-cover change in Malawi

<p>Land cover has changed rapidly across the tropics over the past century; however, detailed historical information describing the extent and possible drivers of such change is widely lacking. Here, we constructed a history of land-cover change at the district level in Malawi over a 37-year period from 1972 to 2009, the immediate post-colonial phase. Overall, there was a loss of 12 760 km2 (36%) of original forested area but also 11 161 km2 of new forest establishment, resulting in a relatively modest overall net loss of 1 599 km2 (5%). We correlated changes in deforestation and forest establishment with changes in socio-economic variables derived from spatially explicit data from the same time period. Deforestation was positively correlated with (in order of influence) changes in male school attendance, sex ratio, population density, hospital bed numbers, protected areas and dependency rate, but negatively correlated with changes in cattle density; forest establishment broadly showed the inverse relationships with the same variables. Although direct drivers of deforestation are well known for Malawi and much of Africa, the significance of socio-economic variables within this study can help to understand the underlying social pressures behind such drivers. In particular, development, population pressure and demographic factors are important predictors of deforestation rate within our study area.</p>