What is a forest?

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What is a forest?

The way that forest is defined is crucial to whether REDD will be successful in preventing deforestation. As the Rainforest Foundation notes, “Using FAO’s definition of forest, monoculture plantations, highly degraded forests and even clear-cut areas ‘expected’ to regenerate, are all counted as forests.”

Earlier this year, the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF) held an online discussion about Forests and Climate Change. Meine van Noordwijk, the Regional Coordinator for South East Asia of the World Agroforestry Centre made the following post, outlining some of the problems associated with the way forests are defined.

Noordwijk makes a second point, that trees are not only found in forests and argues that “Trees managed by farmers and all forms of agroforestry and community forest management should not be excluded from the discussion.”

What is a forest?

By Meine van Noordwijk
A submission to the UNFF Secretariat Online Forum on Forests and Climate Change, 11 July 2008

A major issue in the efforts to single out forests in the discussion on climate change is that of its scope — linked to the definition of forest that is used. The internationally accepted definition of forest has two components: one that specifies canopy cover and tree height, and one that refers to the institutional framework of forestry, as it includes “areas normally forming part of the forest area which are temporarily un-stocked as a result of human intervention such as harvesting or natural causes but which are expected to revert to forest”.

The tree height/crown cover part qualifies any oil palm or fastwood plantation as forest. The second phrase, intended to allow clear felling – replanting to occur within the forest realm, makes the intent of recovery of woody vegetation enough for an area to remain forest. In Indonesia, for example, this means that the 63% of the land indicated as permanent forest estate still is forest — even though 50% of the area does not currently meet the crown cover definition. It allowed officials to state that ‘there is no deforestation’ in the country that has the highest global emissions from change in terrestrial carbon stocks. Interestingly, the forest definition also allows ‘shifting cultivation’ as activity within the forest, as long as the woody fallow is expected to reach 5 m height and 30% crown cover — so up to fallow periods of say 5 years. The forest definition also allows large-scale destruction of mixed tropical forest and its replacement by fastwood monocultures to be touted as forest improvement — despite the considerable carbon debt that this change incurs.The forest definition also means that many intended A/R CDM [Afforestation and Reforestation Clean Development Mechanism] projects in Indonesia failed to get approval because they are planned for parts of the ‘forest domain’ that lost their tree cover before 1990 but still are, institutionally, forest.

In fact in Indonesia there is as much chance that a unit of land meets the crown cover definition of forest whether it is inside or outside the forest domain. If REDD and similar mechanisms become de facto restricted to the ‘forest domain’, large volumes of (potential) emission are missed, many stakeholders are left out of the discussion. Based on our engagement with the debate so far, I can see only a landscape-wide carbon accounting, that includes all peatlands and trees whether they do or do not belong to an institutional forest category or not, be effective. It should be managed and monitored at the landscape scale by government entities that have responsibilities for livelihoods of the people as well as the environmental quality.

With due apologies to the many well-intended foresters in the tropics and elsewhere, the forests and trees of the world are too important to be left into foresters’ hands and existing forest institutions are not able to effectively deal with the climate change consequences in changes in the woody cover of the world. Trees managed by farmers and all forms of agroforestry and community forest management should not be excluded from the discussion. Realistic, conditional and voluntary arrangements should be based on changes in C stocks (accounted for in the comprehensive AFOLU [Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Uses] framework).

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3 Comments

  1. I believe that the current definition of the forest will lead to a new forest with low biomass density and less commercially valuable timber. definition should be defined in terms of stock as well.

  2. A Forest is a wide verity of plants and trees. We have lost over 1/4 of our forest.

  3. Forest are very imp. to our wold but forest are not appreciated.

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