The present study revealed how local socioecological knowledge elucidated during participatory rural appraisals and historical remote sensing data can be combined for analyzing land use change patterns from 1954 to 2007 in northwestern Vietnam. The developed approach integrated farmer decision rules on cropping preferences and location, visual and supervised classification methods, and qualitative information obtained during various forms of participatory appraisals. The integration of historical remote sensing data (aerial photo, Landsat, LISS III) with farmer decision rules showed the feasibility of the proposed method to explain crop distribution patterns for the assessment period of 53 years. Our approach is beneficial for data-limited environments, which is a prevalent situation for many developing regions. The derived land use and crop type dataset was used for understanding how anthropogenic activities altered the study area of the Chieng Khoi commune during the assessment period of five decades, and what potential impact this can have on the natural resource base. The newly developed approach offers a methodological pathway that can be easily transferred to local government authorities for a better understanding of cropping transitions and agricultural expansion trends in data-limited rural landscapes. The detected land use change patterns and upland cropping expansion of more than two hundred percent in 53 years not only revealed the consequences of the interactions and feedback between farmers and their land, but further highlighted the urgent need for implementing sustainable land management practices in the case study watershed of the Chieng Khoi commune and northwestern Vietnam in general.
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