21 March was International Day of Forests. The theme this year, chosen by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation was “Forests | Climate | Change”. FAO explains that this theme was chosen “purposely to highlight the ways in which forests and climate change are linked, and to rally global support for greater action and change”.
FAO put out a video to celebrate the International Day of Forests. The video starts with Barack Obama telling us that, “The climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it.” Obama is followed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Rajendra Pachauri, José Manuel Durão Barroso, and Ban Ki Moon telling us that climate change is real, it’s serious, and the time to act is now. They do so over dramatic images of a desert, a tornado, a hurricane, and flooded homes.
Then we see a forest burning and the message that “Over 500 million hectares of forest burnt in the last decade”. Then this:
Then it’s images of forests, with the message that “Forests trap carbon as they grow and store it in the wood and soil. When the wood is used the carbon stays locked inside it.” Then this:
The only suggestion in FAO’s video that climate change is caused by is burning fossil fuels is one image of an industrial plant at night, with the message “Unsustainable”. There is no suggestion that leaving fossil fuels in the ground is the way to address climate change. There’s no mention of the 25 years that the UN has spent discussing every possible aspect of climate change except leaving fossil fuels in the ground.
Instead, the video ends with this slogan: “Sustainably managed forests are the frontline against climate change.”
There’s no mention of the fact that unless we address global warming (by keeping fossil fuels underground) the forests will go up in smoke.
World Rainforest Movement has produced an excellent response to FAO’s video:
WRM focusses on the fact that FAO’s interest in forests is as stores of carbon, and that the FAO’s definition of forests fails to differentiate between forests and industrial tree plantations:
Last week, Meine van Noordwijk, the chief scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre, lent his support to the “Plantations are not forests” position:
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.
Van Noordwijk points out the danger that degraded forests could be “rehabilitated” by converting them to fastwood monoculture plantations, adding that in ecological terms these plantations are similar to sugar cane or oil palm plantations that are classified as agriculture. And 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”.
Van Noordwijk describes the etymology of the word “forest”. 800 years ago, King John promised to deforest lands in the Magna Carta. But he didn’t mean cutting trees. In those days, forests were royal hunting grounds. Whether the land was covered in trees was not part of the definition.
“Is the time ripe for splitting off plantation forestry from the general forest concept?” Van Noordwijk asks and replies, “Probably not.” He argues that,
“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.”
Which is true. But as Van Noordwijk points out, clarity of terms and definitions are important for good governance. And changing the way forest is defined changes the rate of deforestation. In Indonesia, seven forest definitions give seven different rates of deforestation over the past 20 years ranging from +5% to -0.5%.
Clearly, without a definition of what a forest is, what deforestation is, and what degradation is, REDD is in deep trouble. Yet these definitions are still either vague or completely unsatisfactory.