Reduction of tree cover in West African woodlands and promotion in semi-arid farmlands

Related GLP Member: Stefanie Herrmann, Ole Mertz, Cheikh Mbow

Abstract

Woody vegetation in farmland acts as a carbon sink and provides ecosystem services for local people, but no macroscale assessments of the impact of management and climate on woody cover exist for drylands. Here we make use of very high spatial resolution satellite imagery to derive wall-to-wall woody cover patterns in tropical West African drylands. Our study reveals that mean woody cover in farmlands along all semi-arid and sub-humid rainfall zones is 16%, on average only 6% lower than in savannahs. In semi-arid Sahel, farmland management promotes woody cover around villages (11%), while neighbouring savannahs had on average less woody cover. However, farmlands in sub-humid zones have a greatly reduced woody cover (21%) as compared with savannahs (33%). In the region as a whole, rainfall, terrain and soil are the most important (80%) determinants of woody cover, while management factors play a smaller (20%) role. We conclude that agricultural expansion causes a considerable reduction of trees in woodlands, but observations in Sahel indicate that villagers safeguard trees on nearby farmlands which contradicts simplistic ideas of a high negative correlation between population density and woody cover.