Aerial photographs taken in 1976 and 1989 and a field survey in 1999 showed that land use in a 900-ha catchment in the southern part of the Ecuadorian Andes is highly dynamic. Over 23 years, ca. 83 ha of arable land was abandoned and ca. 70 ha was taken into agricultural production. Changes in land use were not spatially homogeneous. Parcels on unstable geologic formations and close to village centres were preferably set-aside. Land taken into cultivation was preferably located on gently sloping areas close to newly built sites and arterial roads. The area with bush vegetation increased by regeneration of natural vegetation on fields set-aside in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There was a complex interaction between water erosion and environmental change in the study area. Land taken into production was levelled for furrow irrigation: this led to a net reduction in the area susceptible to water erosion. However, one quarter of the area affected only by sheet and rill erosion 23 years ago has since become incised by deep gullies. This increase in gully density was related to inadequate construction and management of irrigation infrastructure, rather than to change in vegetation cover and/or soil erodibility caused by agricultural practices. This factor is often overlooked in studies of the effects of environmental change on geomorphologic processes. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.