Assessing potential for recovery of degraded forests in Southeast Asia


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  Dr Lindsay Banin, Dr Mark Hughes, Dr Kyle Dexter, Dr Sugeng Budiharta, Dr M Struebig  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Large areas of the tropics have been deforested or degraded through land-use pressures and resource extraction. Tropical forest restoration has been identified as an important route for tackling the twinned biodiversity and climate crises whilst supporting local livelihoods, with ambitious targets to reforest large areas (e.g. Bonn Challenge; UN Decade on Restoration).

Nonetheless, there are unknowns as to how to restore effectively, at scale and with positive long-term outcomes. A specific unknown for Asian forests is how well they can regenerate naturally, what barriers prevent regeneration and when tree planting is needed or when other methods of assisted natural regeneration might suffice (e.g. removal of weeds, lianas and invasives). This is likely to be influenced by landscape configuration, condition and composition of neighbouring remnant forest and opportunities for seed dispersal. Restoration methods may also affect recruitment processes, and hence affect the ultimate diversity and functional completeness of the restored forest.

Plant functional traits offer a lens for understanding why species-level performance may vary across a landscape with varying levels of disturbance. Plant functional traits relate to a plant’s ability to access key resources for growth (water, nutrients, light), to tolerate stress and to reproduce and disperse in a landscape. An improved understanding of how traits relate to species-level performance may enhance species’ selection choices for restoration to ensure optimal outcomes and also identify future vulnerability to environmental change.

This project focuses on the ecological and social factors influencing recovery and restoration outcomes in the disturbed forests of Sumatra, Indonesia, where the majority of forests have been affected by logging and agricultural/agroforestry land-use change. The studentship will be affiliated to a Darwin Initiative Main Grant on forest restoration held by the supervisory team, and the student will benefit from the network of the broader project team.

Research questions

  1. To what extent has natural regeneration occurred in Sumatra’s forested lands?
  2. How do canopy disturbance, distance from intact forest and presence of other competitive plants affect the composition of regenerating plant communities?
  3. How well do recovering plant communities reflect composition of reference forests and tree species valued by local communities and stakeholders?
  4. How can restoration activities best support the conservation of vulnerable Indonesian tree species?


The project will make use of existing databases, new literature searches and new field data collected by the student to identify forest regeneration outcomes in Sumatra, Indonesia. 

The student will consider appropriate methods for representing different aspects of plant community composition and diversity, including phylogenetic, functional and taxonomic factors, using plot-based vegetation surveys. The study will require spatial data analysis (GIS and remote sensing) to develop landscape configuration metrics for the study sites. Plant identification will be done using botanical approaches and possibly molecular techniques.

The student will use relevant statistical approaches to compare regenerating communities with reference communities and relationships between restoration outcomes and biophysical/trait/social factors.

Programme of research:

Year 1: Literature review – systematic review of influence of landscape factors, plant functional traits and biophysical factors on species-level occurrence, abundance and survival in restoration settings, making use of and extending an existing plant restoration database (see Banin et al. 2023). Review of studies and plot-data on natural regeneration in Sumatran forests. Elaborating on methods design, including making use of spatial data for planning plot-based measurements and analysis. Application for Indonesian research permit. At the end of year 1, conduct first field survey at sites in Sumatra, establishing permanent forest plots to be monitored for the duration of the project.

Year 2: Botanical ID work to complete the first field survey. Data analysis of the first field season to address Q1 and 2. Draft thesis chapters and papers. Prepare for second field season.

Year 3: Second field season to remeasure permanent sample plots to derive growth and survival rate measures and ancillary variables, and any additional trait samples. Data analysis to address Q3 and 4. Draft thesis chapters. Finalise thesis for submission.


A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills. The student would have the opportunity to gain technical skills in plant identification, spatial data analyses (with GIS and remotely sensed data), statistical analyses in R programming language, and laboratory analyses for trait data and potentially molecular techniques for plant identification. The student will also be encouraged to learn some basic Bahasa Indonesia for conducting fieldwork.


We are seeking a graduate with a BSc or MSc (or equivalent experience) in ecology, plant sciences, biology, environmental science or geography, with a strong interest in forest ecology. We particularly encourage people with experience of vegetation survey, including botanical identification, and ecological/environmental data analysis. Evidence of experience in planning and leading fieldwork and teams and strong communication skills are also desirable.

Biological Sciences (4) Geography (17) Mathematics (25)

Funding Notes

This project is competitively-funded through the E4 Doctoral Training Partnership. The project benefits from enhanced research and training funding through the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and Bioversity International.


Banin, LF, Raine EH et al. (2023) The road to recovery: a synthesis of outcomes from ecosystem restoration in tropical and sub-tropical Asian forests. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 20210090.
Chazdon, R.L., Falk, D.A., Banin, L.F., Wagner, M., J. Wilson, S., Grabowski, R.C. and Suding, K.N. (2022), The intervention continuum in restoration ecology: rethinking the active–passive dichotomy. Restor Ecol e13535.
Gaisberger, H., Fremout, T., Kettle, C. J., Vinceti, B., Kemalasari, D., Kanchanarak, T., Thomas, E., Serra-Diaz, J. M., Svenning, J.-C., Slik, F., Eiadthong, W., Palanisamy, K., Ravikanth, G., Bodos, V., Sang, J., Warrier, R. R., Wee, A. K. S., Elloran, C., Ramos, L. T., … Jalonen, R. (2022). Tropical and subtropical Asia's valued tree species under threat. Conservation Biology, 36, e13873.
Philipson CD et al. (2020) Active restoration accelerates the carbon recovery of human-modified tropical forests. Science 369, 838–841. doi:10.1126/science.aay4490
Santika, T, Wilson, KA, Budiharta, S, et al.(2019) Heterogeneous impacts of community forestry on forest conservation and poverty alleviation: Evidence from Indonesia. People Nat.; 1: 204– 219.
Laughlin DC. (2014) Applying trait-based models to achieve functional targets for theory-driven ecological restoration. Ecol. Lett. 17, 771–784. doi:10.1111/ele.12288
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