In the tropics, conversion of woodland and forest into cropland and pasture has risen drastically during the last decade. Rapid population growth and poverty are believed to be the main factors of change in land use in these zones. Southern Burkina Faso experienced rapid population growth due to massive peasants' migration from the north and central regions of the Country, exacerbated by decreasing rainfall and arable land in the area of origin. This paper assessed the impact of such increased population on land use change in the attracting zones from 1986 to 2006. Satellite images were used to measure changes in land cover types over time and national population census data were used to examine the population dynamics over the same time. Results showed that the forest land was progressively converted to croplands at an annualized rate of 0·96 per cent, while the population density shifted from 17 inhabitants per km2 in 1986 to 30 inhabitants per km2 in 2006. Pearson correlation analysis revealed the positive role of population size and distribution in explaining land cover change. Policy initiatives that will lead to better environmental management are recommended. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.