in Uncategorized

Deforestation denial: FAO claims that forest loss has halved, while Global Forest Watch raises the alarm about “dramatic forest loss”

Deforestation denialThis 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.”

Deforestation denial

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.”

Leave a Reply

  1. Hi. The explanation given about Australia’s change in forest area is incorrect. The change from 40 million ha to 150 million ha was due to a change in the canopy cover threshold from greater than 50% to greater than 20%. More recent mapping has put the figure at 125 million hectares. In reporting to the FAO these figures were backcast with forest change estimates so that the changes in definitions and mapping technology are reflected in historical data.

    There is no conflict between my comparison of FAO data with results from remote sensing studies and Nigel Sizer’s comments on tropical forest loss. The FAO assessment indicates a high rate of tropical forest loss, particularly in poorer countries in Africa and in the Latin American countries that Nigel mentions. Where FAO and WRI figures differ is on forest loss or gain in boreal and temperate regions. At at global scale, the gains reported in the FAO data balance, to some extent, losses in the tropics.

  2. @Rod Keenan (#1) – Thanks for this comment. On your first point about the increase in forest area in Australia between 1995 and 2000, the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2000 Summary Report includes the following statement:

    “FRA 2000 was the first global assessment to effectively use a common definition for forests in industrialized and developing countries alike (Appendix 1)… FAO’s 1995 estimate for forests in Australia was 41 million ha, compared to the 2000 estimate of 158 million ha. The dramatic increase of over 115 million hectares of forest is a consequence of the application of a 10 percent canopy cover threshold for defining forest, as opposed to the 20 percent threshold used for industrialized countries in previous assessments. Accordingly, large expanses of Australia’s sparsely-stocked forests were incorporated into the year 2000 estimate.”

    You argue that “There is no conflict between my comparison of FAO data with results from remote sensing studies and Nigel Sizer’s comments on tropical forest loss.” That may be true, but it still leaves us with the question raised in the post: Why does the FAO report the data as a good news story, while Global Forest Watch reports the data with alarm?

  3. It may well be true that more forests are being managed better now than in years before. However, from my own personal experience in forest auditing and monitoring, the forests being managed better are with a few exceptions forest that had been severely cut before (and therefore degraded) or consist of new afforestations that are now entering the ‘management phase’.

    So-called HCVF forests or well stocked natural forests in the tropics continue to disappear and degrade at an alarming rate and are in the best case scenario replaced by tree plantations.

  4. Chris – Comparing apples and oranges can be helpful (yes both grow on trees) but also misleading. However, this is what the whole debate on deforestation change rates is built up and different actors are taking advantage of their method to advocate their point of view. A common forest definition would be crucial and a viable compromise is a longtime outstanding necessity. However, I agree with you: counting single-species large scale plantations with exotics as forest is at least a very narrow-minded perspective on forests and their functions. On the other hand, defining clear cuts as deforestation is also questionable. Deforestation defined as a land use change should be an acceptable proxy for everybody. The question whether a clear cut and what form of clear cut jeopardizes a specific forest ecosystem is a different one.

  5. @Peter Schwab (#4) – Thanks for this. I agree that a common forest definition would be helpful. It’s not going to be easy though, as H. Gyde Lund’s website “Definitions of Forest, Deforestation, Afforestation, and Reforestation” makes clear.

    There have been three Expert Meetings on Harmonizing Forest-Related Definitions for use by Various Stakeholders. The most recent meeting was in 2005. FAO’s website on the meetings states that,

    There was general, although not unanimous, agreement on the working definitions of natural forest, planted forest, and forest plantation, which is a subset of planted forest.

    So it really doesn’t look like there’s much chance of getting a definition of forests that excludes industrial tree plantations from these experts…

    I don’t know whether the topic of forest definition(s) was discussed at the recent World Forestry Congress in Durban. (I wasn’t there. I couldn’t find anything specifically about forest definitions on the website – although there was a session titled “Perspectives on planted forests“.)

  6. Hi Chris
    I was working in the Australian Government around the time that the FRA2000 report came out. The Australian Government wasn’t consulted on that interpretation and it was incorrect. Consultation has improved over the last 15 years.
    On the different ways in which the figures are interpreted, that’s up to the organisations to explain but, to me, it is good news that the overall rate of forest cover loss decreasing. WRI have chosen to focus on the areas where there is still a rapid rate of forest loss. I also agree this is still a major concern. See my comments here:
    There was a lot of discussion about the definition of forest at the WFC. I don’t see the point in excluding industrial, or any other type of plantation, from the definition of forest. They make an important contribution to global timber supply and, in some situations, can provide habitat and watershed benefits. As long as the overall figures are broken down, as per the categories in your quote, different types of users of the information can make up their own mind about what is happening.

  7. @Rod Keenan (#6) – Thanks for this clarification. I’m delighted to hear that communication has improved over the last 15 years!

    And thanks for the link to the Times of India article. Here’s an extract:

    Significantly, loss of natural forested area was double the global total at six percent, while tropical forests took the hardest hit with a loss rate of 10 percent.

    “These are not good stats. We really need to be increasing forest area across all domains to provide for the forest benefits and services of a growing population. So there is more work to do,” professor Keenan emphasised.

    I disagree with you about including industrial tree plantations in the definition of forests. In far too many cases industrial tree plantations have devastating social and environmental impacts.

    Some of the problems are highlighted in Section 2 of a report I wrote for the German NGO urgewald in 2007:

    Banks, Pulp and People

    And I wrote about FAO’s failure to see the difference between industrial tree plantations and forests in 2009:

    Wilful ignorance: FAO and industrial tree plantations

    A petition signed by more than 115,000 people was handed to the FAO during the World Forestry Congress. You can read it here: “Tell the United Nations: Plantations are crops, NOT forests!“.

  8. Hi Chris

    I can appreciate concerns about industrial tree plantations not being well integrated with the needs of local people and ensuring that they are managed in a way that reduces environment impacts and maximises potential environmental benefits.

    However, I don’t see the point in having a continuing debate about whether they should be included in an umbrella definition of forest. This would mean that they are excluded and not assessed as part of the global monitoring arrangements. I would have thought that those concerned about conversion of natural forest to plantations would want them included in the assessment, as they are now, and reported as different categories of forest.

    The other challenge for exclusion is where do you draw the line? Excluding intensively managed planted forest would mean excluding most of western Europe’s forests. I have been to some very nice oak forests in France that are intensively managed on a 250 year rotation to produce wood for the wine industry. Should they be excluded under the definition of forest?

    Personally, I don’t think the 115,000 people who signed the petition have really thought it through. The FAO definition is the result of an inclusive process involving technical experts from many member countries who have had to think extensively about a general definition that would also work in their situation.

  9. Reports submitted FAO is indeed encouraging news for the business world enterprise, but it could be devastating news for environmentalists. There is a paradigm shift, with the inclusion of industrial tree plantations and rubber plantations into the forest category, and to be completed, why not incorporate oil palm plantations at the same time? From this perspective, we no longer need to be preoccupied discuss the loss of biodiversity, social impacts, environmental impacts and effects of global warming.