Many influential analyses of West Africa take it for granted that ‘original’ forest cover has progressively been converted and savannized during the twentieth century by growing populations. By testing these assumptions against historical evidence, exemplified for Ghana and Ivory Coast, this article shows that these neo‐Malthusian deforestation narratives badly misrepresent people–forest relationships. They obscure important nonlinear dynamics, as well as widespread anthropogenic forest expansion and landscape enrichment. These processes are better captured, in broad terms, by a neo‐Boserupian perspective on population–forest dynamics. However, comprehending variations in locale‐specific trajectories of change requires fuller appreciation of social differences in environmental and resource values, of how diverse institutions shape resource access and control, and of ecological variability and path dependency in how landscapes respond to use.
The second half of the article présents and illustrates such a “landscape structuretion” perspective through case studies from the forest–savanna transition zones of Ghana and Guinea.