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Abstract

Extensive areas of the tropics have been converted into pasture for cattle ranching. Frequently, abandoned pasture does not revert to forest. The goal of this project was to identify barriers to lowland moist forest regeneration in highly degraded grasslands in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. The barriers we considered were seed source, seed predation, competition with grasses, microclimate and soil limitations on plant growth, and fire. Seed dispersal into the grasslands is limited to within 10 meters of forest fragments, but this barrier can be overcome by sowing seeds and planting seedlings and by establishing perches to attract dispersers. In these degraded grasslands, seed predation was lower than in the adjacent forest patches, and there was no evidence that grasses inhibited the establishment of woody species. The most important barrier was the severe degradation of the soils. In much of the area, the A and B horizons have been eroded away, leaving saprolite at the soil surface. Seedlings of two fast-growing pioneer species, Ochroma pyramidale and Cochlospermum vitifolium, grew to a maximum height of only 2.5 and 12 cm, respectively, during the first eight months. The slow plant growth in the degraded grassland soils compared to forest soils was associated with lower levels of cation-exchange capacity, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Even if these barriers could be overcome, the frequent and extensive use of fire in the region must be controlled to avoid killing established woody plants.