The literature on tropical secondary forests, defined as those resulting from human disturbance (e.g. logged forests and forest fallows), is reviewed to address questions related to their extent, rates of formation, ecological characteristics, values and uses to humans, and potential for management. Secondary forests are extensive in the tropics, accounting for about 40% of the total forest area and their rates of formation are about 9 million ha yr−1. Geographical differences in the extent, rates of formation and types of forest being converted exist.
Secondary forests appear to accumulate woody plant species at a relatively rapid rate but the mechanisms involved are complex and no clear pattern emerged. Compared to mature forests, the structure of secondary forest vegetation is simple, although age, climate and soil type are modifying factors. Biomass accumulates rapidly in secondary forests, up to 100 t ha−1 during the first 15 yr or so, but history of disturbance may modify this trend. Like biomass, high rates of litter production are established relatively quickly, up to 12–13 t ha−1 yr−1 by age 12–15 yr. And, in younger secondary forests (< 20 yr), litter production is a higher fraction of the net primary productivity than stemwood biomass production. More organic matter is pro duced and transferred to the soil in younger secondary forests than is stored in above-ground vegetation. The impact of this on soil organic matter is significant and explains why the recovery of organic matter in the soil under secondary forests is relatively fast (50 yr or so). Nutrients are accumulated rapidly in secondary vegetation, and are returned quickly by litterfall and decomposition for uptake by roots.
We propose a model of the gains and losses, yields and costs, and benefits and tradeoffs to people from the current land-use changes occurring in the tropics. When the conversion of forest lands to secondary forests and agriculture is too fast or land-use stages are skipped, society loses goods and services. To avoid such a loss, we advocate management of tropical forest lands within a landscape perspective, a possibility in the tropics because land tenures and development projects are often large.