Natural or assisted succession as approach of forest recovery on abandoned lands with different land use history in the Andes of Southern Ecuador.
Forest recovery on disturbed areas is of special significance in the Ecuadorian Andes, where deforestation is a serious problem. Natural diachronic succession was evaluated on three large plots or sites, differing in their land use and vegetation composition, one is dominated by grass species on an abandoned pasture (Pasture site), the other two are post-fire vegetation dominated by bracken (Bracken site) and various shrubs (Shrub site). Additionally, we assessed the effectiveness of manual removal of competitive herbaceous species to accelerate forest recovery. Monitoring was done in 2003, 2005 and 2007 on 48 subplots of 116 m2 each recording species richness and woody-species density. Results showed that the Pasture site demonstrated a competitive effect of exotic grasses on woody species recruitment with much lower species recruitment and density, suggesting serious inhibition of natural forest regeneration and an unclear successional trajectory. The Bracken and Shrub sites became significantly similar floristically and there is evidence for a marked facilitation of woody plant recruitment correlated with light availability on the ground. Both sites showed characteristics of classic succession, with Shrub showing a higher species richness and density while late-successional species are poorly represented on the Bracken site. However, NMDS ordination using species density showed that the two trajectories may not be converging towards a common "final state". Manual weeding was ineffective for accelerating forest recovery. These results suggest that the main limiting factor for the recruitment of woody species on the Pasture site is strong grass competition and must be addressed before seed availability, while seed availability seems to be the constraining factor for Bracken and Shrub site development, thus direct seeding or planting may be effective in accelerating forest recovery.