This study was conducted in central Burkina Faso, Ziro province, in December 2014. Its purpose was to identify research sites for the Agrarian Change Project. Using a set of participatory rapid appraisal (PRA) approaches, the study staged a preliminary inquiry into drivers of vegetation cover change and agrarian change. We looked for historical trends of land modification and agricultural intensification. Six FGDs were organized with community elders, smallholder farmers, local cooperatives and a variety of forest user groups including women. Semi-structured interviews were administered to state forestry and agricultural technicians working in the villages we visited. One agricultural and two state forestry technicians were interviewed. The discussions and interviews were guided by a questionnaire on land use, forest use and conservation, agricultural productivity, food provisioning, local livelihoods, and rural development, among others. We also reviewed the literature on past and ongoing interventions that have spurred agrarian change processes. Using the information acquired, we clustered the villages in our research site into gradients of land modification. These included: low land modification (Zone 1), intermediate land modification (Zone 2) and intensive land modification (Zone 3). Demographic and infrastructure data allowedus to classify communities by population density, road and market access, and by the extent of reliance on cash crop production. In Zone 3, farmers leaned toward cash crop production. In the remote communities of Zone 1, cereal-based cropping is commonly combined with livestock husbandry. Zone 2 communities, clustered as the semi-intensive land modification gradient, engaged in diversified land uses of both intensive cash crop production and extensive food crop systems. Migration from the Sahel region of Burkina Faso to areas in and around our research sites is a major driver of forest cover decline and agricultural expansion, as is the high population growth rate of 3.6% per annum. Agricultural practices have intensified around cotton and maize cropping systems using subsidized fertilizer inputs. Tree cover is important within crop production systems known as parkland agroforestry, and forests are important for supporting income generating activities of commercial woodcutting and harvesting, and trade of shea and parkia (néré) fruits. Forests also provide livestock feed and fodder.