Forests: What’s in a Name?

Is a forest simply a collection of trees? Can we really apply the same term that we use for the treasure-houses of biodiversity, replete with their own complex ecosystems that harbour a myriad of animals, plants and fungi to fast-growing monoculture plantations, harvested regularly for pulp and paper? And how should we deal with agroforests and managed semi-natural woody vegetation? It is time to see the wood for the trees again, suggest Meine van Noordwijk at the World Agroforestry Centre and Francis E. (Jack) Putz at the University of Florida.

Forest or plantation? Rubber trees in central Vietnam. Photo © Sander Van de Moortel

Forest or plantation? Rubber trees in central Vietnam. Photo © Sander Van de Moortel

As we prepare for the International Day of Forests on 23 March and the next instalment of FAO’s Forest Resources Assessment (FRA), we are reminded of the broad range of meanings of the word forest. How will the next FRA, to be released at the World Forestry Congress in September 2015, deal with the many different types of forest and the multiple meanings of deforestation, forest degradation, reforestation and afforestation? Will it use a single concept of forest that simultaneously protects us from disasters, feeds us, supplies our water, and provides employment and income? Or will it make clear that forest is merely an umbrella term, designating the different types of woody vegetation that have very different functions, and are managed in many different ways by state, local communities, private landholders and private-sector concessionaires?

Misleading simplicity

A large group of NGOs is urging the international community and the FAO in particular to acknowledge that monocultural fastwood plantations for the industry cannot be compared to old-growth natural forests, and that a statistic that lumps them together under the term ‘forest’ is misleading. They are right.

Worse even, it allows for natural forests in various stages of degradation to be ‘rehabilitated’ or ‘improved’ by turning them into fastwood monoculture plantations. In ecological terms, these are not much different from the sugarcane, rubber or oil palm plantations that are classified as ‘agriculture’ and are counted as ‘deforestation’. Moreover, monoculture plantations degrade the soil, kill off biodiversity, and require lots of fertilizer and pesticides which in their turn take a heavy social and environmental toll.

Indeed, the currently broad definition of forest can be used as a smokescreen for hiding the environmentally significant change that only serves private sector goals, rather than those of the local, national or international communities.

The NGOs request a change of forest definition to one that matches the positive public image of forests as a storehouse of biodiversity and provider of a range of ‘ecosystem services’, such as pest control, carbon sequestration, soil enhancement, erosion control and many more. Such a change, however, would not be particularly welcomed by the primary clients and stakeholders of the FAO as an international organization: the ministries of Forestry and similar government bodies of the constituent nations.

Semantic shifts

Apart from legally protected words, anybody is free to reinterpret any term and shift the meaning of words. A striking example of this is the way the word toilet shifted over the ages to mean a style of dressing, a dressing room, a cloakroom, an enclosed cubicle containing a lavatory, and finally a device for depositing human waste and then flushing it away with water. The various derivatives of the word did not evolve at the same speed, and toiletries and eau de toilette are not to be confused with the more recent use of the word toilet.

The word forest may be on a similar trajectory with confusion about normative and value-based attributes. The term evolved from a line separating village land from land claimed by the king, to land reserved as royal hunting grounds. The promise by King John to deforest lands in the Magna Carta of 1215, exactly 800 years ago, must be seen in this light. From hunting grounds, forest with trees became reserves for ship masts for the royal navy. That further evolved to the commercial enterprises that target specific types of forest fibre for current market demands. It is a remarkable history – but it does not account for the association with wilderness, pristine, pre-human vegetation, biodiversity and naturalness that developed in parallel. Who controls the birthright of the term forest? No one, and everyone.

Indeed, in the current operational definition of forest (key to having meaningful data associated with the term) there are two aspects:

  • Institutions (“Forests are all land considered to be forest by forest authorities”), that relate to institutional mandates to manage and collect data; and
  • Woody vegetation of specified minimum size and crown cover that allow remote sensing data collection.

Pleasing the parties

Many scientists have commented on the lack of correspondence between these two concepts, with ‘trees outside forests’ and ‘forests without trees’ as a consequence. Nobody cared much about this discrepancy, however, until the climate change debate started to single out forests for special treatment among the many types of land cover change. Forest institutions saw their chance to get global attention – but only if they could keep the lid on the debate of what is (not) a forest.

The political platform for REDD+ required the use of a fuzzy term that could bring the national partners in tropical forest countries to the negotiation table, along with conservation agencies, carbon cowboys, private sector consultants and a rapidly growing international environmental bureaucracy. Although clarity of terms and definitions is a prerequisite for effective governance, creating it can alienate some constituencies. As long as discussions emphasize the general need for forest conservation instead of actual changes on the ground and their consequences, details of forest definitions could be sidelined.

Is the time ripe for splitting off plantation forestry from the general forest concept? Probably not, as there is a continuum between ‘remnant’, ‘spontaneously established’ and ‘planted’ trees in many vegetation types: Most monocultures are planted, but some are simply natural stands, heavily dominated by a single species.

Rather than expecting a single definition of forest to meet all goals, we will need many. For seven different forest definitions, we found that the rate of deforestation in Indonesia over the past 20 years has been between +5% and -0.5%, emphasizing their importance. Acknowledging their existence may well prove to be challenging, but ultimately essential for relevant policy reform.


Useful links:

Useful Publications:

Minang, P.A. and van Noordwijk, M., 2014. The political economy of Readiness for REDD+. Climate Policy, 14, 677–684

Putz, F.E., and Romero, C., 2014. Futures of Tropical Forests (sensu lato). Biotropica 10.1111/btp.12124; freely accessible at the journal’s website

Putz, F.E., and Redford, K.H., 2010. The Importance of Defining ‘Forest’: Tropical Forest Degradation, Deforestation, Long-term Phase Shifts, and Further Transitions. BIOTROPICA 42(1), 10-20

van Noordwijk, M. and Minang, P.A., 2009. If we cannot define it, we cannot save it. ASB PolicyBrief No. 15. ASB Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins, Nairobi, Kenya. Nairobi: ASB Partnerships for the Tropical Forest Margins, 4p.

van Noordwijk, M., Suyamto, D.A., Lusiana, B., Ekadinata, A. and Hairiah, K., 2008. Facilitating agroforestation of landscapes for sustainable benefits: tradeoffs between carbon stocks and local development benefits in Indonesia according to the FALLOW model. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment, 126, 98-112. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2008.01.016

van Noordwijk, M., Agus, F., Dewi, S., Purnomo, H., 2014. Reducing emissions from land use in Indonesia: motivation, policy instruments and expected funding streams. Mitig Adapt Strateg Glob Change, 19(6), 677-692'

Meine van Noordwijk

Meine van Noordwijk is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre. He joined the organization in 1993. Dr van Noordwijk guided the global integration of the Centre’s science and co-led ICRAF's global research program on environmental services. He also participated in a number of bilateral projects and is professor of agroforestry at Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

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