Fuzzy definitions hamper efforts to stop deforestation

What is a forest? It seems the answer to this question varies depending upon who you ask. An article by WWF in the English-language Malaysian tabloid, The Star, says a recent study found more than 800 different definitions of a forest.

While it might make sense for different countries to have different forest definitions, it seems confusing that the three UN Conventions concerning the environment each call a forest something different; the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

Things start getting really sticky when it comes to deforestation and trying to get nations to agree to a mechanism for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).

For some time now, the World Agroforestry Centre has been pushing for consideration of all land uses regardless of whether they are ‘forest’ or ‘non-forest’. This way practices such as agroforestry – which, while they might be outside the forest still store significant Carbon – would be included in any REDD mechanism. It also allows for the possibility that millions of smallholder farmers across the globe can benefit from caring and nurturing trees on their farms through future carbon markets. See New analysis finds current definition of forests in climate agreement undermines efforts to protect forests and reduce emissions

The definition of forest from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is perhaps the most widely adopted but comes under criticism from environmental groups and scientific organizations for being too broad. According to FAO, deforestation only occurs when canopy cover falls below 10%. As the Star article outlines, “the canopy cover of a forest can be drastically reduced, negatively impacting biodiversity and ecosystem functions, but the area can still be classified as forest”. There is no differentiation between a healthy pristine forest and a degraded, logged-over forest.

As Meine van Noordwijk, Chief Science Advisor at the World Agroforestry Centre, points out “replacing natural forest with oil palm is also not (technically) deforestation, because oil palm is a tree and the crown cover of an oil palm plantation is more than enough to qualify as a forest.” The result is that international promises to stop oil palm expansion at the expense of forest are very difficult to implement because this is not classified as deforestation. See Smoke-screens and the lungs of the world

The FAO definition does not distinguish between natural, modified and planted forests. So a monoculture plantation of introduced species is as much a forest as one that is predominantly native species. A country can claim to have no forest loss if they clear their native forests and replace them with plantations.

Jianchu Xu, the World Agroforestry Centre’s China coordinator, recently wrote in Nature how more than 4 million hectares of new ‘forest’ have been planted in China each year since the 1990s. Much of this is monoculture plantations of fruit trees, rubber and eucalyptus which Jianchu believes threatens ecosystem services, particularly watershed protection and biodiversity conservation. “Plantation monocultures harbor little diversity; they provide almost no habitat for the country’s many threatened forest species,” he says. See More trees may actually be harming the environment in China

Read the full story Tree cover-up in The Star

Photo: Jianchu Xu


Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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