Open Letter: Tree plantations must be defined separately from Forests
Open letter to: Cristiana Paşca Palmer, 9 December 2016 Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
Tree plantations must be defined separately from Forests
Dear Cristiana Paşca Palmer,
The current FAO ‘forest’ definition which is also used by the CBD secretariat, fails to distinguish between genuine forests, and land planted with trees for industrial production purposes. The FAO definition (2000) reads: “Land with tree crown cover (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10 percent and area of more than 0.5 hectares (ha). The trees should be able to reach a minimum height of 5 metres (m) at maturity in situ.” At the same time, the FAO has insisted on calling tree plantations “planted forests”, which is at best confusing, and at worst deliberately misleading.
This arbitrary and vague definition of the FAO has had serious ramifications by distorting global economic, environmental and social policies, including those of agencies of the UN such as the UNFCCC and the World Bank. In turn, these agencies have promoted increased expansion of tree plantations, ostensibly to offset industrial greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, rather than to reduce emissions of climate change causing pollutants at their source. This has encouraged land grabbing and land-use changes that destroy biodiversity and damage soil and water resources, while seldom benefiting the affected indigenous peoples and local communities.
The FAO has calculated global changes in ‘forest cover’ for “Forest Resources Assessments”, using a simplistic ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach based on its definition. This allows virtually any group of trees or ‘non-trees’, including deforested land and clear cut tree plantations, to be counted as ‘forests’. Yet tree plantations can be cut down or removed at any time without it being considered ‘deforestation’. Not surprisingly, this skewed method has produced inconsistent, contradictory and confusing statistics, which ‘muddy the water’ when it comes to predicting long-term impacts of forest loss and tree plantation expansion in relation to social, economic and climatic conditions.
Forests occupy complex, dynamic, natural tree-dominated ecosystems, which have evolved over thousands of years through ecological processes also influenced by forest-dependent peoples. Yet, the FAO tends to view forests more as crude resources of wood and carbon that can be traded in global markets. On the other hand, a tree plantation occupies an area of land purposely planted with trees, specifically to produce wood or other commodities such as rubber, coffee, nuts, etc., with the primary aim of manufacturing utility materials, foodstuffs, or fuel. When compared with forests, plantations usually contain a single alien (often invasive) tree species; and are generally devoid of other life forms apart from plant diseases, pests and weeds, which necessitate the use of toxic agri chemicals, including herbicides such as Paraquat. Tree plantations destroy biodiverse natural vegetation including grasslands and forests, also desiccating peat swamps and wetlands, exposing them to more frequent and widespread fires that cause long-term ecological damage.
By combining forests and plantations under one definition the FAO has helped to promote the expansion of industrial tree plantations as an alternative to real forests as a source of wood, but at the same time downplayed the crucial contribution of forests in producing soil, water, oxygen, food and habitat for innumerable species. Industrial tree plantations cause many negative impacts that forests do not, while forests provide many vital services that tree plantations cannot.
A more appropriate forest definition might be: ‘A forest is a complex natural ecosystem, dominated by indigenous (native) trees, where most trees have regenerated without human influence, but with a high degree of biodiversity, and a structure and composition determined mainly by natural events.’ This description could also include the restoration of semi-natural or ‘planted’ forests (not tree plantations), where forests originally existed. Certain tree and animal species would need to be reintroduced together, especially in the tropics where many trees are pollinated not by wind, but by insects, birds or bats. Unlike tree plantations which eradicate the original vegetation together with the wildlife it provided habitat for, forests are by nature havens for biodiversity, and this is the most sensible and logical reason for having a separate definition for tree plantations.
A basic tree plantation definition could be: ‘A tree plantation is a stand of trees established by direct planting or seeding of a single species, in even-aged uniform rows, for the production of industrial raw materials or biomass-based fuels.’ For accuracy and consistency, a separate and unambiguous tree plantation definition that excludes forests, and describes them factually as an industrial production process, should be developed by the FAO, but adopted by all agencies of the United Nations and by national governments.
We therefore call on UNEP and the CBD secretariat to take urgent steps to develop and to adopt a new suite of specific definitions and clear terms for forests, which do not mislead and cannot be misinterpreted. A clear distinction must be made between what is ecologically a forest, and what is not; by compiling comprehensive lists of the defining characteristics of forests in comparison to those of tree plantations. Such a separation would enable more accurate and useful forest and plantation resource assessments to be produced, benefiting both governments and UN agencies.
If the FAO truly intends to end deforestation,reverse climate change and create a sustainable global economy that can benefit everyone, then it needs to take responsibility for the ecological and social harm that its biased and irresponsible ‘forest’ definition has caused.