Date of Award

Spring 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences

First Advisor

Jon Harbor

Committee Member 1

Guofan Shao

Committee Member 2

Laura Zanotti


Understanding the nexus between deforestation, food production, land degradation, and culture contributes knowledge that is useful for development practitioners working to enhance conservation and food security. Documenting deforestation and soil erosion in the Sierra Yalijux and Sierra Sacranix in the Central Highlands of Guatemala adds new knowledge about the rates and dynamics of deforestation and land degradation in areas with unique and sensitive cloud forest ecosystems. It also suggests possible areas of emphasis for efforts targeted at combining cloud forest conservation with sustainability for indigenous Q'eqchi' communities. In addition, this work contributes to a small but growing body of literature concerned with human-environment interactions in cloud forests, and demonstrates how a transdisciplinary approach can be used to investigate these interactions.

The cloud forest in the Sierra Yalijux and Sierra Sacranix in the Central Highlands of Guatemala is largely unprotected and provides habitat for a wide variety of wildlife and critical ecosystem services for rural communities. A mix of research methods was used to investigate the human-environment interactions between the cloud forest and the Q'eqchi' people living in the vicinity, and implications for sustainability. Deforestation patterns and rates for the cloud forest, and impacts on soil erosion, were examined using land use change mapping from remote sensing imagery (Landsat TM, high-resolution digital orthophotos, and digital elevation models) and soil erosion modeling using the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation. Contributing factors to deforestation, as well as implications for sustainability of food production and ecosystem services in Q'eqchi' communities were investigated using analysis of quantitative and qualitative data from surveys and focus groups in several communities.

Annual deforestation rates were highest in the Sierra Yalijux study area, nearly doubling from 0.65 percent/year between 1986 and 1996 to 1.19 percent/year between 1996 and 2006. In the Sierra Sacranix, the annual deforestation rate increased from approximately 0.25 percent/year to 0.81 percent/year, more than tripling between 1986 and 2006. Population increase in Q'eqchi' communities is driving land subdivision, which is leading to reduced fallow periods on land already cleared for subsistence farming, and is ultimately leading to increased clearing of cloud forest. Thus deforestation has been caused by expansion of subsistence agriculture in response to increased food demand and increased pressure on land resources, such as soils. Farmers have been gradually clearing cloud forest on increasingly steep slopes in order to cultivate enough land to meet growing food needs. The implications of cloud forest loss are significant for Q'eqchi' communities. Farmers rely on the cloud forest for ecosystem services such as organic matter input to enhance soil fertility, potable water availability, and microclimate stability. The Q'eqchi' have observed reductions in the input of leaf matter to their agricultural plots, changes in the precipitation regime, and decreased availability of potable water from springs in recent decades, all of which are associated with cloud forest removal.

Estimates of soil erosion rates from model calculations show that soil loss is most severe in agricultural areas. Expansion of agriculture was observed in both catchments, and as a result soil loss rates have increased. However the increase of soil loss as a result of deforestation was relatively small compared to the overall contribution from agricultural areas. Simulation results comparing current practices to a soil conservation scenario indicate that support practices such as bench terracing and polyculture would significantly mitigate the most severe soil erosion. These measures accomplish this by reducing slope (terracing) and increasing vegetation cover (polyculture). We anticipate that reducing soil loss through support practices would likely increase soil fertility in the long-term and increase nutrition in Q'eqchi' communities through the consumption of a wider variety of crops, which would enhance food security. Reducing the decline of soil fertility in the long run and increasing agricultural intensity through polyculture would also curb pressure on the cloud forest, even as population continues to increase in the region.