Technical definitions of ‘forest’ and ‘agriculture’ have severely hampered efforts to protect forests, reduce carbon emissions and enhance food security. It’s time to think beyond these categories, says Meine van Noordwijk
Anecdote has it that colonial foresters in Indonesia used a simple criterion in identifying forests that could be proposed for the national forest reserve: if you heard a rooster crowing in the morning you were too close to a village, which meant that where you were standing was still agricultural land, regardless of the tree cover.
It was a reflection of the power relations of the time that agriculture prevailed over forest (only later did the army back up the economic interests involved in forest concessions).
In fact, a similar rule became enshrined in the forest resource statistics of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): regardless of tree cover, if land is considered to be ‘agricultural’ or ‘urban’ it cannot be ‘forest’.
Deforestation became quantified as the loss of this type of ‘forest’, which in essence actually indicated the handover of control by forest institutions to others.
Contrary to popular belief, deforestation did not necessarily imply an immediate change in tree cover nor did the management of forests by forest institutions—or the private companies to which they sold logging rights—imply that the forest kept its tree cover.
Being ‘temporarily unstocked but with the intention of tree regrowth’ was sufficient in the definitions foresters agreed to use1. These definitions led to some strange consequences, for example, rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) plantations were classified as ‘forest’ if managed by foresters for timber (rubberwood) production but the same trees would be ‘agriculture’ if grown for latex or latex plus wood.
So, if the definitions were taken to court and scrutinized by lawyers they would see that it was the intention of the planter that mattered rather than the actual condition of the land and trees: one rubber tree was a TIF (Tree Inside Forest) while the other was a TOF (Tree Outside Forest).
This ‘TIF versus TOF’ mattered very little until forest institutions discovered the public interest in environmental issues such as biodiversity and carbon stock.
Forest institutions then saw a chance to renew their political status and economic prospects by defining applicable ‘forest’ policies and become eligible for more public funding (or private funding to meet public emissions-reduction commitments).
However, the TOF, their owners and other stakeholders were left outside of the deal.
Forestry institutions became the gatekeepers of afforestation/reforestation rules under the Clean Development Mechanism (A/R-CDM) and the efforts to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+).
Unfortunately, the TOF issue could not be easily ignored. For example, the province of East Kalimantan has had recent, fairly high rates of carbon emissions from forests. Calculations2 showed that the carbon stock in the TOF was enough to sustain the rate for at least another five years.
Further, even if the forests were being effectively protected, any claims of real reduction of emissions required accounting for the other trees in the landscape as well.
Forestry institutions responded by trying to dodge such accountability and focused on reporting what they did rather than what it achieved.
Meanwhile, the global community has begun to lose its appetite for pure REDD+ because it doesn’t seem to effectively reduce overall emissions.
The FAO’s statistics of forests (technically, the Global Forest Resources Assessments) have come under scrutiny as well. A multi-institutional committee was set up to advise on ways that ‘trees outside forest’ could be quantified and defined.
The main scheme that has been proposed3 argues that ‘agriculture’ is a disqualifying condition for any tree cover to be categorised as ‘forest’. This means that the current interest in the relationship between forests and food security has a further challenge to deal with: as soon as there is food production the land will no longer qualify as ‘forest’ (if the definitions were followed; which, in fact, they are, but with many qualifications).
However, there are a lot of trees outside forests. The report of the committee provides rich reading on the many forms and functions of these trees. But not all trees outside forests are created equal; there is still a class society within this concept. For example, if they aren’t growing close enough together then the trees might be considered as ‘trees outside “trees outside forest”’ (TOTOF). Yet, these lone or loosely scattered trees might be much appreciated for their shade and other services. So we wait for a TOTOF support group that takes the interests of these trees to heart.
The report by Hubert de Foresta and team is a valiant attempt to fix an issue that is largely a historical artefact of the ‘path dependency’ of current policies. It will provide a lot of food for thought.
However, a more radical perspective that still deserves to be explored is the one that starts from abandoning the assumption that ‘agriculture’ and ‘forestry’ are mutually exclusive concepts. Thirty-five years ago that assumption was challenged with the institutionalization of agroforestry with the founding of the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF; which rebranded as the World Agroforestry Centre in 2002) and its related networks.
Yet the perceived incompatibility of ‘agriculture’ and ‘forestry’ is still untouchable in the policy circles of the forestry stakeholders who are meeting this week at the United Nations Forum on Forests: the TOF will remain outside the forest discussions and the TOTOF will be ignored altogether.
Natural forests are much more than a collection of TIF and so are the agroforests lovingly documented by Hubert, while plantation forests are, indeed, managed purely fvor fastwood TIF production.
Trees in a landscape have many forms and functions but deserve to be managed by function rather than by an outdated institutional concept.
It might be time for a Universal Declaration of Tree Rights.
Edited by Robert Finlayson
- Van Noordwijk M, Minang PA. 2009. If we cannot define it, we cannot save it. ASB Policy Brief 15. Nairobi: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).
- Ekadinata A, van Noordwijk M, Dewi S, Minang PA. 2010. Reducing emissions from deforestation, inside and outside the ‘forest’. ASB Brief 16. Nairobi: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).
- De Foresta H, Somarriba E, Temu A, Boulanger D, Feuilly H, Gauthier M. 2013. Towards the assessment of trees outside forests. Resources Assessment Working Paper 183. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
This article is related to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry