Governments are increasingly committing to significant forest restoration. While carbon sequestration is a major objective, the case for restoration often includes benefits to local communities. However, the impacts of forest restoration on local hydrological services (e.g. flood and erosion risk, stream flow during dry periods) are surprisingly poorly understood. Particularly limited information is available on the impacts of passive tropical forest restoration following shifting cultivation.
The outcome depends on the trade‐off between the improved soil infiltration capacity (reducing overland flow and increasing soil and groundwater recharge) and greater evapotranspiration (diminishing local water availability).
Using measurements from highly instrumented plots under three vegetation types in the shifting cultivation cycle in Madagascar's eastern rainforests (forest, tree fallow and degraded abandoned agricultural land), and infiltration measurements for the same vegetation types across the landscape, we explore the impacts of forest regeneration on the ecohydrological processes that underpin locally important ecosystem services.
Overland flow was minimal for the tree fallow (similar to the forest) and much lower than for the degraded land, likely leading to a lower risk of erosion and flooding compared to the degraded land. Conversely, evapotranspiration losses were lower for the tree fallow than the forest, leading to a higher net recharge, likely resulting in more streamflow between rainfall events.
These results demonstrate that young regenerating tropical forest vegetation can positively contribute to locally important hydrological ecosystem services. Allowing tree fallows to recover further is unlikely to further reduce the risk of overland flow but may, at least temporarily, result in less streamflow.
Synthesis and applications. Encouraging natural regeneration is increasingly seen as a cost‐effective way to deliver forest landscape restoration. Our data suggest that increasing the abundance of young secondary forest in the tropics, by increasing fallow lengths in the shifting cultivation cycle, could make a positive contribution to locally important hydrological ecosystem services (specifically reducing overland flow and therefore erosion and flooding, while maintaining streamflows). Such empirical understanding is needed to inform the models used for planning forest landscape restoration to maximize benefits to local communities.