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“Our world is at a turning point”, says CIFOR’s Peter Holmgren. Yeah right.

“Our world is at a turning point”, said Peter Holmgren, Director General of the Centre for International Forestry Research, in his opening address at the Forest Asia Summit earlier this month.

More than 2,200 people attended CIFOR’s dog and pony show at the Shangri-La Hotel in Jakarta, organised together with Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry. Holmgren explained that this turning point is a result of three global processes. Holmgren promised that the Forests Asia Summit would show “how central — and integral — forests and landscapes are for making progress in these”.

Here’s how Holmgren sees these three processes, with forests in the centre of each of them.

  1. The post-2015 agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals:

    “We have, and must take, the opportunity to demonstrate that forestry contributes strongly to all development priorities. But for this to happen, sectors must work together to find combined landscape solutions.”


  3. The next climate agreement:

    “The IPCC reports show us just how important are food systems and forest management. They show that adaptation and mitigation in the land-based sectors are a very big part of the solution.”


  5. The Green Economy initiative:

    Green growth with equity, indeed, in my view, starts with sustainable investments in the landscape. Let’s remember that forestry is a cornerstone of the Green Economy.


The “Sustainable Development Goals” came out of the Rio+20 Conference in 2012. They are to be finalised by the UN General Assembly this summer. The Sustainable Development Goals replace the Millennium Development Goals, and were dreamed up in Rio because it was obvious that the Millennium Development Goals would not be met by the deadline of 2015. Not an auspicious start for a “world turning point”.

The next climate agreement takes over from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which utterly failed to reduce CO2 emissions:

The negotiations for the next climate agreement do not include finding ways of leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Without reducing emissions from fossil fuels addressing climate change is impossible, but Holmgren doesn’t mention this omission.

A Green Economy is, according to UNEP, one which is “low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive”. Economic growth will continue with money pouring in from the private sector. Emissions will go down, because the economy will be, er, green.

In 2011, UNEP produced a 630-page report about the Green Economy. Perhaps surprisingly, the report doesn’t analyse the global economic and financial crisis – the worst in 80 years. As Larry Lohmann of The CornerHouse points out, the report contains no analysis of the causes of the crisis, or links between financialisation and the Green Economy.

It’s interesting to look at how UNEP views forests through its lens of the Green Economy. Opportunities listed in the report include sustainable forest management, the growth of protected areas, and payments for ecosystem services and REDD+.

These three “opportunities” are all deeply problematic. The concept of sustainable forest management has been used for years by the timber industry to expand industrial logging concessions in primary forests throughout the tropics.

Protected areas have often been set up at the expense of indigenous communities and local communities living in and around the protected areas.

UNEP mentions the Noel Kempff project in Bolivia as a successful payment for ecosystem services project. This is the same project that Greenpeace described as a “Carbon Scam“. In a 2009 report on the project, Greenpeace questioned the project developers’ claims on leakage, additionality, permanence and their ability to measure accurately the amount of carbon stored in the forest.

UNEP and Holmgren both mention Indonesia and Norway’s US$1 billion REDD deal. Of course, neither of them mention the fact that Norway’s money comes from oil. Or that Norway invests far more in forest-destroying companies through its Government Pension Fund – Global than it spends on its attempts to protect forests.

Holmgren introduced Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as “someone who does not shy away from making and keeping commitments”. At another CIFOR event in 2011, Yudhoyono had promised to dedicate the next three years of his presidency to protecting Indonesia’s forests.

Holmgren lists Yudhoyono’s achievements: a moratorium on new forest concessions; the country’s new REDD+ Agency; a constitutional court decision that returned customary forests to indigenous peoples; and Yudhoyono’s promotion of “inclusive, green growth”.

Holmgren didn’t mention the existing forest concessions, that are not addressed by the moratorium and that cover 78% of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia’s pilot REDD province. Neither did he mention the fires in Sumatra that produced record breaking pollution in Singapore last year. Nor did he mention the coal mining boom in Indonesia or the Master Plan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesia’s Economic Development (MP3EI) which proposes new roads, new railways, the expansion of the mining industry, and huge new areas of oil palm and industrial tree plantations.

And obviously, Holmgren didn’t mention the fact that the rate of deforestation since the moratorium has doubled, reaching two million hectares a year in 2011 and 2012.

Holmgren might be right when he says that the world is at a turning point. But if we rely on his proposed solutions, it’s more likely to be the sort of turning point that water takes before plunging out of sight down the plughole.

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  1. Well done Chris!

    Your analysis does a thorough job of showing where the blame should lie for the mess forests are in. However it would have been informative to also mention the role played by Holmgren during his tenure as the FAO’s forest resources development head, and his later role in promoting REDD+.

    During his time at FAO Holmgren systematically promoted the misconception that large-scale industrial timber plantations are the equivalent of real forests. Thus when he speaks of “sustainable forest management” (otherwise known as SFM) he really means industrial tree monocultures.

    This deliberately created confusion has resulted in environmentally destructive tree plantations being lumped together with biodiverse real forests in order to create the illusion that the rate of global “forest cover” loss has actually been reduced in recent years.

    Therefore it should be no surprise that Holmgren continues to distort the truth in his role as head of CIFOR.

    Wally Menne

  2. The world has been at a “turning point” many times in the past – see for example that description for the future of world economics following the fall of the Berlin Wall in Europe ( so we should not get too excited about speakers on platforms succumbing to hubris. Holmgren is not the first and he won’t be the last to be tempted to use the sort of apocalyptic or “millennialist” language that says unless we take ONE particular course of action and not another, then we are all doomed and we must not miss the moment, which is NOW. Turning points will come and go, and making progress in reducing deforestation and forest degradation is a slow process that will not depend on one treaty or one agreed set of SDGs whatever Holmgren says on a platform.
    What confidence do we have that the processes Holmgren cites will be more effective now than they have been in the past? Chris Lang has summarized the difficulties quite nicely. These are important points.
    Wally Menne’s comments are not particularly fair or relevant here – there seems to be some score-settling going on (many people will be well aware of his and Holmgren’s long history of disagreement about the definition of “what is a forest?”). I don’t want to associate myself with that comment. We must take Holmgren at his word:
    In the press release that announced his arrival as new DG at CIFOR he said this:

    “Tropical forests are at a crossroads. Tremendous progress has been made raising the profile of forests in REDD+ and sustainable development discussions. At the same time, many of the world’s forests are still under threat and the potential of forests to support sustainable development are not fully realized” Bogor, Indonesia (8 June, 2012)

    This demonstrates willingness to go further than simply raise awareness of the problems facing tropical forests, and to take account of forests in sustainable goals. But has the direction taken by CIFOR since 2012 to achieve this been effective? On the basis of the Forests Asia summit I think there are two very worrying aspects of CIFOR’s current position:
    1. CIFOR’s relationship with its host country

    Holmgren’s overlooking of serious problems with regard to Indonesian deforestation and inequitable treatment of indigenous communities, referred to by Lang in this article, shows that CIFOR is happy –given a platform populated with world leaders – to relinquish its neutral position as an organisation that says:

    “We adhere to the highest scientific and ethical standards, and are transparent in our methods and honest in our results.”

    Surely it is the job of an independent research organization to point these truths out while offering guidance and help to the host country to improve their forests? It was not just the President who got an easy ride. There were speakers from Big Business – environmentally damaging businesses – who lectured the room and faced very little opposition or informed debate. Hiding the truth helps nobody and damages the reputation of CIFOR.

    2. Society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth

    The CIFOR’s unquestioning assumption that actions to “advance[s] human well-being, environmental conservation, and equity” must be compatible with sustained economic growth. The impossibility of continuous growth was discussed recently in the England-based international newspaper the Guardian, whose environmental section is very much read by people working in development ( ).
    Holmgren, along with most people in his position in international research centers enjoys a very privileged, resource-intensive lifestyle, and it is understandable that he promotes a vision of growth that encourages people with less to aspire to having more. It would be hypocritical of these leaders of research and government to do otherwise.
    But CIFOR’s research might take a look at this to see if it is impossible, as Monbiot says, or possible and achievable, as Holmgren implies.

  3. Chris,

    You blew it again, you fail to grasp reality, and society and a world population that is over 7 billion people.

    The fact is you are ANTI everything to do with preservation that is not inline with what you think. Your views are too extreme and radical to be picked up by the mainstream population. Your approach is aggressive and theories are simply impossible to implement in this world.

    If you have a problem, present a solution, don’t scream and cry foul.

    For your solution, don’t state – Stop cutting trees, building roads. Without trees, their would be no toilet paper, so how will you wipe your ass? Would you Chris Lang, give up wiping your ass for the good of nature? If yes, then do so, if no, then don’t even write a story again about tree plantations. Most new tree plantations right now in Asia is purely for the burgeoning toilet tissue market in Southeast Asia and India. Are you going to ask 300 million people to give up toilet paper? Probably, but you most give it up first.

    What about genetically modified food? I am sure you complain about that, did you know if the world stopped using genetically modified food, or industrialized fertilizers, then soils would be depleted in three years, food prices go up, and over 500 million people go into poverty and starve. Do you want 500 million people to starve? Is your idea genocide of everyone who is poor?

    What about Dams? Did you know the COAL lobby in the USA was the largest lobby to support the removal of 85,000 dams that were built between 50 and 150 years ago in the United States. The purpose was to Save the fish!! The truth is the Coal Lobby realized that is Micro-Hydro-electric was coming of age and if placed on each of these already existing dams, that the entire fossil fuel industry could be put out of business in ten years, at a fraction of the cost of building new dams, and solar, and wind. Also Hydro is more reliable as solar only gets about 4.5 to 6 hours per day of good peak electricity.

    What about REDD? You criticize this as a colonization and human rights abuse program? There are two types of business attributes: The 99% that make up the business and the 1% that give business a bad reputation but are not actually in the business. You like to generalize the 1% that have not actually done REDD as the 99% that have done it and were successful.

    For Climate Change, you believe that everyone should simply stop doing everything from driving to eating to using electricity. How does 7 billion people do this? We all go back into living in huts and each person gets 1 acre of land and they only eat what they can grow? No electricity, nothing! This is not feasible on an industrialized level as each person will need at least 1/2 acre to sustain themselves, and there are not 3.5 billion acres. So in this route we convert all the land to farming and there is still not enough to do this.

    For cap and trade – your view is that carbon credits allow someone to buy the offsets in order pollute. The fact is without carbon credits that polluter is going to pollute anyway. Carbon credits simply add a value to the pollution with the hope the price of carbon reaches a point where it is no longer economical to complete he activity that causes the pollution. If every ton of carbon is charged a fee to be emitted and the fee increases each year, then eventually and over time, not instantly, the activities that involve carbon pollution will be reduced or stopped all together. The only dis-functionality to the carbon markets right now is that there are too many “free permits” or “government credits” on the market which has caused a glut and made the carbon price so low, it makes the system un-effective to stop polluters. However if you stopped trying to destroy the system in your blogs and instead write blogs in favor of removal of the glut permits, you may actually make a difference.