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REDD will fail with the current definition of “forest”

The photograph on the left was taken by Global Witness in 2006. It shows an area of illegal logging inside the Botum Sakor National Park in Cambodia. Here’s the problem: What area should be delineated as forest?

You might think that’s easy. The area covered in trees is forest. Isn’t it? Yes, obviously. But according to the UNFCCC’s definition of forests, the logged over area is also forest.

The UN describes this sort of destruction as “areas normally forming part of the forest area which are temporarily unstocked as a result of human intervention”. In the looking glass world of the UNFCCC, then, a clearcut is a forest. And a monoculture eucalyptus plantation is also a forest.

A recent report in Conservation Letters focusses on the weak definitions of “forest” and “forest degradation” in the global climate change agreements.

The authors, Nophea Sasaki (of Harvard University and the University of Hyogo) and Francis Putz (of the University of Florida) argue that under the current definitions, “great quantities of carbon and other environmental values will be lost when natural forests are severely degraded or replaced by plantations but technically remain ‘forests.'”

They explain that their concern is that “while forest degradation is recognized as a major problem, it is mostly being disregarded by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) partially because of the way they define ‘forest’.”

Below are the current definitions of “forest”, “deforestation”, “forest management”, “reforestation” and “afforestation” as agreed under the UNFCCC. (Source: Annex to decision 16/CMP.1, Land use, land-use change and forestry.) “Forest degradation” is not included, for the simple reason that there is no agreed definition. “Lack of a universally agreed-upon definition of forest degradation will cause complications when REDD projects are implemented,” Sasaki and Putz note, with academic understatement.

“Negotiations on this agreement are scheduled to be completed by December 2009, which means that discussions about the broader issue of defining forests and debates over the inclusion of forest degradation need to be resolved very soon,” Sasaki and Putz write. As REDD-Monitor has previously pointed out, the way that forests are defined is crucial to whether REDD helps preserve or destroy forests. Without a definition of forests that differentiates between forests and industrial tree plantations, REDD will spell disaster.


“Forest” is a minimum area of land of 0.05–1.0 hectare with tree crown cover (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10–30 per cent with trees with the potential to reach a minimum height of 2–5 metres at maturity in situ. A forest may consist either of closed forest formations where trees of various storeys and undergrowth cover a high proportion of the ground or open forest. Young natural stands and all plantations which have yet to reach a crown density of 10–30 per cent or tree height of 2–5 metres are included under forest, as are areas normally forming part of the forest area which are temporarily unstocked as a result of human intervention such as harvesting or natural causes, but which are expected to revert to forest.


“Deforestation” is the direct human-induced conversion of forested land to non-forested land.


“Forest management” is a system of practices for stewardship and use of forest land aimed at fulfilling relevant ecological (including biological diversity), economic and social functions of the forest in a sustainable manner.


“Reforestation” is the direct human-induced conversion of non-forested land to forested land through planting, seeding and/or the human-induced promotion of natural seed sources, on land that was forested but that has been converted to non-forested land. For the first commitment period, reforestation activities will be limited to reforestation occurring on those lands that did not contain forest on 31 December 1989.


“Afforestation” is the direct human-induced conversion of land that has not been forested for a period of at least 50 years to forested land through planting, seeding and/or the human-induced promotion of natural seed sources.

The Abstract to Sasaki and Putz’ paper, “Critical need for new definitions of ‘forest’ and ‘forest degradation’ in global climate change agreements” follows, and the paper is available here (pdf file, 134.8 KB):

If global policies intended to promote forest conservation continue to use the definition of “forest” adopted in 2001 by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (an area of >0.05–1 ha with >10–30% cover of plants >2–5 m tall at maturity), great quantities of carbon and other environmental values will be lost when natural forests are severely degraded or replaced by plantations but technically remain “forests.” While a definition of “forest” that is globally acceptable and appropriate for monitoring using standard remote sensing options will necessarily be based on a small set of easily measured parameters, there are dangers when simple definitions are applied locally. At the very least, we recommend that natural forest be differentiated from plantations and that for defining “forest” the lower height limit defining “trees” be set at more than 5 m tall with the minimum cover of trees be set at more than 40%. These changes will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from what is now termed forest “degradation” without increasing monitoring costs. Furthermore, these minor changes in the definition of “forest” will promote the switch from degradation to responsible forest management, which will help mitigate global warming while protecting biodiversity and contributing to sustainable development.


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  1. This has always been pretty clear, and it is good someone linked to a respectable intitution has written it up. The UNFCCC defintions of “forest” and “deforestation” also mean that companies that clear forests for oil palm could not be compensated for not doing so, as technically they would merely be temporarily destocking rather than deforesting. As such, all of the ideas about paying companies like Sinar Mas, and others not to convert forests into other uses, such as oil palm or industrial timber estates, would not be permitted under the UNFCCC rules. This leaves “forest degradation”, which as far as I know is not defined under the UNFCCC, so could not be financed in light of CERs either. Either the UNFCCC has to take this on board and change the rules (which would be hard, given that countries like Malaysia claim all of their oil palm estates are “forests”), or REDD is dead. Under current UNFCCC definitions, Indonesia, for example, could not be paid for CERs from reforesting most of the forests it has destroyed, as these would have had to have been deforestated before 1990. The majority of deforestation has occured since then. Let’s hope the second commitment period rules on reforestation make more sence, and that the UNFCCC rules begin to reflect the real world.

  2. The real heart of this matter is why the UNFCCC is content to include plantations in their definition of ‘forest’. Is this an intentional shot at any potential REDD agreements? Could negotiators from Malaysia, who do indeed at times categorize oil palm plantations as forest, have beat REDD proponents to the punch?

    An important question is, can the definition of forests and deforested land be changed in the build up to a post Kyoto regime in 2012? With the slow pace of negotiations, that looks doubtful.

    So if no change is made to UNFCCC definitions, where does that leave REDD? In murky, murky waters it seems.

  3. Care should be taken interpreting definitions out of their context. The cited definition is only valid for the Kyoto Protocol, where it is applied to CDM projects, where only afforestation and reforestation are valid. There is no general UNFCCC definition of forest, only a generally accepted definition of FAO (another UN organization). REDD will particularly deal with “emission reductions” from avoiding deforestation and degradation. As such the photo clearly demonstrates a large loss of carbon independent if it is considered as deforeatation or forest degradation.

  4. David – yes, it seems as if we have all been beaten to the punch by those who want to carry on deforesting and converting to plantations – though I don’t think it’s quite as simple as just the fault of Malaysia and other oil palm growers. The definition as it stands also suits diverse countries including Canada, the US, Sweden, Finland, Australia and New Zealand, because it allows for continued conversion of natural forest into monoculture timber plantations and ‘semi-natural’ forest, which is the predominant form of forestry in these countries.

    Ben – the problem is that, under the current LULUCF reporting rules, which some countries would like to see also applied to REDD in the future (should it be agreed on), there would not necessarily be any requirement to report on deforestation such as you see in the picture above, because it could be considered as “temporarily unstocked forest”, or indeed could be considered for re-planting with something that will grow to 2 metres tall at some time in the future, in which case it is still technically considered as ‘forest’, and therefore not ‘deforested’, despite the fact that it might be completely lacking in any tree cover.


    Forest and Natural Resources Management Law Expert, Nigeria .


    The FAO Definition of Forest sounds more like it inspite of all the critique, my humble contribution is that the FAO definition ought to be expanded to include other forests resources apart from tree cover. There are other plants and animals (flora and fauna) that make up the forests and form part of the Ecosystem of forests and livelihood of forest human communities. The gorillas, for instance the Cross River Gorilla peculiar to Nigeria can only exist in the forest, the forest is the natural habitat of these animals and they cannot survive elsewhere. The parks, zoo and other protected areas are forests and the forestry practices of the member states of UN-REDD ought to be considered. Plantations where crops and timber are harvested do not qualify as forests as the fauna component of a forest are missing.

    The internationally accepted definition of forest cannot exclude the animals and shrubs in the forest because these other plants also help in forming the cover or canopy even though they are not trees.

    An attempt is made here to define a Forest in terms of its resources from a research conducted in the forest communities of Cross Rivers State of Nigeria in 2005 which was sponsored by United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

    “Forest” means a land area covered by trees and other plant species and inhabited by animal species in its natural state or which could be State Forest Reserve, Community Forest, Private Forest or Forest designated as World Heritage, managed or manageable or exploited by human species in a sustainable manner”.