Repository logo

Roots of Enquiry: Farmers, Forests and Tree Cover Change in Kwahu East, Ghana



Change log


Bissell, Clare 


The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has been monitoring bird populations and habitat changes in Ghana out of concern for migratory wood warblers since 2011. Based on a small field site in the forest-farm landscape of Kwahu East, Ghana, their research concluded that tree cover is declining. They hypothesised that this could be affecting the birds’ wintering habitat and wanted to understand better what social and economic factors are impacting on trees in the local area. They were also interested in exploring how farmers could be supported to keep more forest trees on their farms. In response to this context, this thesis explores the multidimensional factors affecting the number and types of trees in the landscape. The interdisciplinary, participatory methodology was inspired by the researcher’s desire to communicate the value of a political ecology approach to conservation scientists working in Kwahu East and further afield. The thesis is structured with four empirical chapters, which each reveal a new layer of understanding about the complexity of tree cover change in Kwahu East, Ghana. Starting at the farmer level, it outlines the diversity of smallholders who cultivate the forest-farm, recording how their livelihood practices, adaptations and limitations interact with forest trees. It demonstrates that trees are present in the landscape in part due to the presence of the farmers and shows how farmer agencies are constrained by broader economic and political factors. Immersion in daily livelihood creation uncovered local narratives of forest decline, leading the researcher out of the forest-farm and into the towns where more overarching decisions about tree management and land use are made. Turning attention to local authority institutions and influential actors, the research reveals how management of the forest for timber production and the district-wide vision for development are impacting on tree cover. Different narratives about farmers and forests are made visible, as well as various large-scale infrastructure and tourism development schemes. These will determine the trajectory of change that affects the extent and composition of tree cover. Through an unfolding story of ambition, collusion and vested interests, it becomes clear that tree cover change is far more complex an issue to address than it appeared at the beginning. Providing ethnographic detail of livelihoods and an exploration of the constraints faced by farmers, this thesis shows how taking a political ecology approach provides both a holistic understanding of a landscape and possible pathways towards alternative futures. This is useful for informing ongoing research and design of locally relevant conservation interventions, particularly in relation to forests and trees on farms in Ghana.





Adams, William
Vickery, Juliet


farmers, forests, Ghana, political ecology


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
ESRC (1796812)
ESRC funded studentship RSPB funded studentship