Reassembling The Landscape: A Holistic Study Of polylepis Forest Cover Change In Colina, Tunari national Park, Bolivia

Open Access
Hedberg, Russell Carl
Graduate Program:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
Committee Members:
  • Karl Stephen Zimmerer, Thesis Advisor
  • Land-Use Land-Cover Change
  • Political Ecology
  • Landscape Ecology
  • Polylepis Forest
  • Bolivia
  • Andes
  • Social-Ecological Systems
This thesis project is a mixed methods study of changes in Polylepis forest cover in the community of Colina, Tunari National Park, Bolivia from 1991-2011. The project combines a time-series analysis of Landsat 5TM images with semi-structured interviews and ethnographicstyle observations to explore changes in Polylepis forest cover in a holistic, landscape framework that places change in the context of multiple interacting processes. This approach to Polylepis forest research challenges dominant discourses in Andean biogeography that link the current distribution of Polylepis forest to simple cause-and-effect relationships with anthropogenic fire and grazing. Through a synthesis of multiple methods, this thesis argues that the deficiency of this dominant narrative is not scientific fallacy, but a spatial mismatch that results from a construction of these forest systems as discrete systems in the landscape. The thesis offers a new framing of the landscape that places Polylepis forests in an interconnected web of relations. This alternate framing highlights connections between social and ecological processes like changing climate, grassland productivity, regional and local economy, and peasant livelihoods that offer new possibilities for understanding the complexities of change in humanized landscapes like the Andes. Through a multi-scalar landscape level approach, this study finds that blaming grazing and fire for observed decrease and thinning of Polylepis forest in Colina is an over simplification that has led to conservation efforts that will likely harm local residents and fail to stop forest loss in the long-term. Based on the findings of this case study and an engagement with current scholarship on Polylepis and related systems, this thesis offers the hypothesis that Polylepis cover change in Colina is the result of a combination of ecological change and a lack of economic opportunity that has led to heavier reliance on forest resources. The research also develops methods for the use of Landsat imagery in the study of Polylepis systems, and identifies key areas of focus for future research in these systems.