This week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation released its Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 at the World Forestry Congress in Durban, South Africa. The good news, at least according to FAO, is that deforestation is slowing down.
The FAO reports that the net annual rate of forest loss in the 1990s was 0.18%. Between 2010 and 2015, the rate fell to 0.08%. “Forested areas have decreased but rate of net forest loss has been cut by 50%,” FAO announces in an info-graphic accompanying the report. The reason for the slow down in deforestation is that “more forests are better managed”.
Kenneth MacDicken is the leader of FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment Team. He explains that,
“The management of forests has improved dramatically over the last 25 years. This includes planning, knowledge sharing, legislation, policies – a whole range of important steps that countries have implemented or are implementing.”
MacDicken told Voice of America that “the deforestation rate is slowing,” and added, “Overall, the forest area dynamics, you can say, are improving.”
AFP describes FAO’s report as “surprisingly upbeat”. But FAO has been telling us that the global rate of deforestation is slowing down for many years. In 2000, FAO announced that “net deforestation has likely decreased since the 1980s at the global level.” Five years later, FAO told us that although “Deforestation continues at an alarming rate”, we needn’t worry too much because, “net forest loss [is] slowing down”.
As the World Rainforest Movement and others have repeatedly pointed out, FAO is concealing the truth about deforestation.
In 1995, according to the FAO, Australia had 41 million hectares of forest. By 2000, this had miraculously increased to 150 million hectares. The difference was a result of changing the definition of forests from 20% crown cover, down to 10% crown cover.
FAO’s definition of forests includes industrial tree plantations, rubber plantations, highly degraded forests, and (my favourite) clearcuts. A clearcut forest remains a forest on planet FAO, because “logging does not in itself result in deforestation, if the forest is allowed to regenerate.” To FAO, a clearcut is a “temporarily unstocked forest”.
Perhaps it’s the rose tinted glasses issued to FAO’s forestry staff that prevent them from seeing that neither of these images is a photograph of a forest:
The first photograph was taken about five years ago by David Gilbert of Rainforest Action Network. It shows forest cleared to make way for industrial tree plantations to supply Asia Pulp and Paper’s pulp mills in Indonesia.
I took the second photograph 10 years ago during a trip to Brazil. It shows Veracel Celulose’s industrial tree plantations in Bahia state. The the only similarity between Veracel’s plantations and native forests is that both contain trees. Veracel’s clearcuts and monocultures are certified as “well managed” by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Global Forest Watch shows that forests are in trouble
FAO’s good news on deforestation comes largely from self reporting by governments. FAO has published profiles for each of the 234 countries and territories involved in the Forest Resources Assessment.
A week ago, Global Forest Watch released new satellite based data that tells a very different story. Global Forest Watch reports that in 2014 the world lost 18 million hectares of forests, almost 10 million hectares of which was in the tropics. According to FAO, the annual rate of net forest loss globally between 2010 and 2015 was only 3.3 million hectares.
The three year moving average (the red line on World Resources Institute’s graph, above) shows that deforestation fell slightly between 2006 and 2011, but has increased since then (particularly in 2012).
The definitions of forests used by FAO and Global Forest Watch are different. FAO uses a figure of 10% crown cover, whereas Global Forest Watch uses 30%. GFW measures whether trees are there or not, so a cleared plantation counts as forest loss in that year’s figures.
Rod Keenan of the University of Melbourne worked with the FAO to analyse the data in the Global Forest Resources Assessment. He argues that,
Overall, when similar definitions are applied (such as the threshold tree cover for vegetation to be considered forest) the findings of our 2015 assessment are consistent with these other studies.
But if that’s the case, why does the FAO report the data as a good news story, while Global Forest Watch reports the data with alarm? Here’s how Nigel Sizer, global director of World Resources Institute’s Forests Program, explains the Global Forest Watch findings:
“What it shows is some very troubling emerging hotspots of deforestation in key tropical countries and a number of these countries have really not been on the radar screen before. We’re seeing dramatic forest loss, accelerating forest loss in the Mekong Region and also a cluster in West Africa: Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone. Madagascar is also seeing very high rates of accelerating forest loss. And then in the Gran Chaco region of South America, linked with expanding soy and beef production, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia are seeing high rates of loss as well.”