Concept Note

Envisioning the Future of Tropical Forests:
The Roles of Feedbacks, Interconnectedness, and Adaptation

Tropical forests are dynamic, biodiverse landscapes with billions of people reliant on them for resources and services. Historically, these forests experienced change over time due to natural processes and disturbances, such as extinction, fire, speciation, and El Niño events. Ongoing anthropogenic climate change has put pressure on these long-established patterns, initiating and intensifying feedbacks in tropical forests. A feedback involves multiple interacting components and ultimately creates a repeating cycle that amplifies or diminishes those components. While feedbacks have traditionally stabilized tropical forests, rapid global change has created uncertainty within these complex dynamics. In some cases, feedback loops can alter the landscape’s ability to mitigate novel natural and social pressures. For example, deforestation in the tropics can alter regional hydrological cycles, changing water availability and distribution. These changes then impact the land’s viability for food production, modifying access to tropical food sources. The communities affected include local and Indigenous peoples reliant upon subsistence agriculture as well as farmers producing food intended to nourish others across the globe.

Changing interconnected feedbacks are already transforming many tropical regions, while greater areas are predicted to endure new shifts in the future. While some feedback components, such as deforestation, threaten the global community, others, such as women’s empowerment, Indigenous and local communities leadership, and climate activism, can create a more resilient future for our tropical forests. What actions are needed to adapt to changing dynamics and mitigate detrimental impacts to safeguard the future for local communities, tropical ecosystems, and beyond?

ISTF 2023 will function as a space for academics, practitioners, policymakers, community leaders, artists, journalists, and activists from across the globe to share insights on the power of feedbacks in tropical forests, interactions with human communities, and what we can do going forward. The conference will weave together ecological, social, and economic perspectives on our current understanding of how tropical forest landscapes are changing due to ongoing feedbacks, how communities can adapt to these changes, and how markets and policies can support mitigation and resilience efforts.

The content of this conference will focus on five main areas of discussion, with ample space for additional themes to be examined:

  • How are forests changing in the 21st century? What anthropogenic and climatic factors are driving this change?
  • How can a diverse understanding of feedback systems aid our efforts to best conserve and manage resilient tropical forests?
  • How will changing hydrological, terrestrial, fire, and other regimes impact local and Indigenous livelihoods and the global economy?
  • How do we sustainably and equitably address challenges to agricultural production and food security brought about by altered resources in the tropics?
  • How will changing feedbacks influence the carbon cycle, including storage and sequestration in tropical forest landscapes? Can natural climate solutions based in tropical forests function as an equitable and effective strategy to mitigate climate change?

Finally, agricultural expansion is currently the primary threat to tropical forests. The resulting anthropogenic impacts of land conversion to cropland and pasture interact intimately with the global climate, transforming natural disturbances into drivers of forest degradation. Finding socio-ecological-climatological boundaries to regional and global agriculture expansion and intensification, alongside other prevalent forest issues, should play a significant role in creating solutions to conserve forests for their values, uses, and services.

The 2023 conference will be offered in a hybrid format, with options to attend sessions in person in New Haven or online via Zoom. We hope this flexible format will allow wider access and flexibility for attendees around the world, especially for participants and speakers that have historically faced difficulties with travel to the United States.

ISTF 2023 Conference made possible by our sponsors

Cullman Institute

The Forest School

YSE Learning Communities

People, Equity, and the Environment