How does the FAO Forest definition harm people and forests?

How does the FAO Forest definition harm people and forests?
An open letter to the FAO
Launched on September 21st, International Day of Struggle against Tree Monocultures

In September 2015, during the XIV World Forestry Congress, thousands of people took to the streets in Durban, South Africa, to protest against the problematic way in which the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), insists on defining forests (1). The FAO definition considers forests to be basically just “a bunch of trees”, while ignoring other fundamental aspects of forests, including their many other life-forms such as other types of plants, as well as animals, and forest-dependent human communities. Equally, it ignores the vital contribution of forests to natural processes that provide soil, water and oxygen. Besides, by defining ‘forests’ as only being a minimum area of land covered by a minimum number of trees of a minimum height and canopy percentage, FAO has actively promoted the establishment of many millions of hectares of industrial tree plantations, of mainly alien species, especially in the global South. As a consequence, only one particular sector has benefitted: the tree plantation industry. Industrial tree plantations have been the direct cause of many negative impacts on local communities and their forests; which have been well-documented (2).

The protest march that took place in Durban a year ago had people holding up banners saying Plantations are not Forests!, and ended in front of the venue of the World Forestry Congress, which was organised by the FAO. In response to a call from civil society leaders at the march, a WFC official left the Congress building to receive a petition that had been signed by over 100,000 individuals and groups from around the world. The petition called on the FAO to urgently change its forest definition and to define forests by their true meaning. But once again, the FAO did not change its definition.

Nevertheless, something new did happen: Unlike the silence in response to previous demands for the FAO to change its flawed forest definition, this time FAO reacted to the protest, and sent a letter in response. One point in the FAO letter is particularly interesting. It stated: “There are, in fact, over 200 national definitions of forests that reflect a variety of stakeholders in this matter….”, and goes on to say, “…to facilitate the reporting of data…, a globally valid, simple and operational categorization of forests is required” in order that it can “enable consistent comparisons over longer periods of time on global forest development and change”. In writing this, the FAO attempts to convince us that its role is merely one of harmonizing the 200-plus different definitions of forests that different countries have.

But is it really true that the existing FAO forest definition did not influence the way the 200 national definitions of forests were formulated in the first place?  And is the FAO correct when it claims that the many different national forest definitions are a result of the reflections of a variety of stakeholders in these countries, again playing down its own influence?

We believe the opposite to be true. First of all, FAO´s forest definition was adopted a long time ago, in 1948. According to a recent joint analysis by different authors of forest concepts and definitions, “FAO´s definition, agreed on by all its [UN] members, is the first to be used by all countries for harmonized reporting; the definition adopted by FAO remains the most widely used forest definition today” (3).

A good country to use as an example to see if the FAO definition is being used, is Brazil, the country with the highest forest cover in the global South, and according to official sources, almost 8 million hectares of industrial tree plantations, mostly eucalyptus monocultures. In its 2010 (4) publication “Forests of Brazil” the Brazilian Forest Service (SBF), under the national government Ministry of Environment and responsible for forest-related issues “… considers as a forest the woody vegetation types that come closest to the forest definition of the Organization of the United Nations for Food and Agriculture (FAO).”  As a logical progression from basing its definition on what FAO already defined, it states that “Brazil is a country… of natural and planted forests”, where “planted forests” refers to the 8 million hectares of mostly eucalyptus monocultures. How the Brazilian government defines a forest is therefore not the result of a process that “… reflects a variety of stakeholders in this matter”.  On the contrary, it is rather a result of what the FAO had already determined.

But the influence of the FAO´s forest definition goes beyond just determining national forest definitions. In these times of climate change, the FAO´s definition has been the main point of reference to define what a forest is under the UN climate change convention (UNFCCC).  By adopting the FAO´s narrow wood-based definition, the UNFCCC has also promoted a view of forests being an area of land containing only trees.  For the UNFCCC, it’s mainly the trees in a forest that matter because of their capacity to store carbon as they grow, and not forest-dependent communities. Such affected communities are most negatively impacted by restrictions placed on their use of forest resources by “forest carbon offset projects”, also often referred to as REDD+ projects (5). A forest definition only focused on trees opens the door to including “planted forests” – read: industrial tree plantations – a completely false way of “reducing deforestation and forest degradation”, as an option under the climate change convention through which carbon can supposedly be sequestered from the atmosphere and permanently stored. In practice this is just another money-making opportunity for the tree plantation industry, and a major threat to communities affected by the trend of expanding “carbon sink” tree plantations.

Following the latest UNFCCC negotiations, countries have recently been revising their forest legislation, in the hope of attracting so-called ‘climate finance’. Unsurprisingly, the definitions used are largely based on the FAO´s forest definition. In Mozambique, for example, at a workshop on REDD+, a consultant proposed a new forest definition for the country. Just like the FAO´s definition, it is also based on the presence of trees saying that a forest is an area with “…Trees with the potential to reach a height of 5 metres at maturity..”. Also in Indonesia, the Ministry of Environment and Forests submission to the UN Climate Conference in 2015, stated that it had  “…adjusted the FAO forest definition…” in order to define its forests. Once again a definition that defines and values a forest only through its trees, and that divides “forests” into a number of different categories including “natural forest” and something called “plantation forests” (6).

The FAO´s forest definition also influences the actions of the financial and development institutions promoting wood-based activities such as the industrial logging of forests, industrial tree plantations, and REDD+ carbon offsets. The main example is the World Bank (WB) which as part of the United Nations conglomerate has been partnering with the FAO for decades in a number of forest-related initiatives. Recently, they again joined forces in one of the most ambitious plans launched during UNFCCC COP 21 in Paris, the so-called African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) (7). AFR100 aims to cover 100 million hectares of deforested and so-called “degraded” lands in different African countries with trees. The World Bank will make US$ 1 billion available for this plan. But to understand what the World Bank views as “reforestation”, it is crucial to see how the Bank itself defines a forest. Unsurprisingly, its definition is also borrowed from that of the FAO, describing a forest as “An area of land…with tree crown cover of more than 10% that have trees…” (8) . By defining forests in this way, the World Bank opens the door wide for tree plantation companies expanding their large-scale monoculture tree plantations over community territories in Africa to be part of the ambitious “restoration” plan it is promoting together with the FAO and other partners. The AFR100 proposal strongly resembles the failed Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP) from the 1980’s, which was also dreamed up by the World Bank in collaboration with the FAO.

Final remarks

There is an urgent need for the FAO to stop misrepresenting industrial tree plantations as “planted forests” or “forestry”, because national governments, other UN institutions, and financial institutions, as well as the mainstream media will then follow its inappropriate example. This deliberate confusion of tree plantations with forests is misleading people, because forests in general are viewed as something positive and beneficial. After all, who could be opposed to “forests”?

Above all, the FAO should take full responsibility for the strong influence its “forest” definition has over global economic, ecological and social policies. The 2015 petition that was presented to the FAO in Durban states that it portrays itself in its founding principles as being a “neutral forum where all nations meet as equals”. To live up to this claim requires, among other things, that the FAO must urgently revise its forest definition from one that reflects the preferences and perspectives of timber, pulp/paper, rubber, and carbon trading companies, to one that reflects ecological realities as well as the views of forest-dependent peoples.  In contrast to the existing dominant influence of wood-based industries over the FAO, a transparent and open process to establish new and appropriate definitions for forests and tree plantations must also engage effectively with those women and men who directly depend on and therefore protect forests.

1 – “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 meters (m) at maturity in situ.”
2 – See more in
3 – Chazdon, R.L., Brancalion, P.H.S., Laestadius, L. et al. Ambio (2016). doi:10.1007/s13280-016-0772-y. When is a forest  a forest? Forest concepts and definitions in the era of forest and landscape restoration (
4 –
5 – See more in
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5 thoughts on “How does the FAO Forest definition harm people and forests?

  1. Testifiable acts of political economic avarice enforce that forests persistently and uneasily continue to overhaul the notion of resellable real estate. In countless cases, there is a lingering temor towards a misperception of forests as profit-pooping space takers. As global populations explode and with the demand for foodstuffs and other commodities on the rise, the surge to glorify those three magic letters GDP, has sadly and savagely taken precedence over so many other key issues. Our leaders need to get real and realise that there is no substitute for the real deal. There is a Goliath difference between a natural forest and one which we throw in place of her absence. We are surely not that stupid a species that we can’t differentiate between one or the other. Forests for me are a cultural entity like a language. If not tenderly nurtured or protected it and it’s many beautiful elements can be lost forever. This is fundamentally why we need to save our forests because they do speak a language and they have a wealth of wisdom to tell and teach us. We just haven’t learned to listen to her words yet.

  2. Growing up, the value of animal life held minimalist merit in my ideological inheritance. Intellectually, other disciplines were placed more prominently in my sociocultural scholastic installation than how to tell the difference between a bonobo and a baboon. An erudite education consisted upon the possession of a polished philosophical perspective towards the arts, literature, political theory, music and even towards noble grey matter stirring sporting stimuli such as chess or checkers. Yet, to us antiquated relics of a distant era, the recent critter rave that has taken particularly our media by storm has, to our chargrin, satisfyingly surprised us. Why is it that we should care so much about knowing about the other non human specimens cohabiting this pricelessly precious pearl planet with us, the alpha ape at the apex of the predator ladder? Initial inferences tended to differentiate them into belonging either to the Domestic, the divine, the deadly and those destined for the dinner. Yes, the animal diaspora of Noah’s ark was defined and were either blessed or burdened by the branding we charred into their feathery, furry, leathery or whatever kind of birthday suit they bore. Such a treacherous and ominous force is the anthropomorphism of the beast that it can either make or break the affection we feel towards another living breathing terrestrial being. We may all collectively love pandas but how also bemusing it is that we fear and loathe the serpent with such affirmative revoltion? Do we blame evolutionary biology for this or Adam and Eve? There is a veracity in the potency of cognitively conspired cultural concoctions and their power to drastically derange the truth. The perturbing perplexities of disastrously deciphering and dissecting fact from fiction and the perils it presents us with should be categorically noted. For has not our dangerous and deadly dabbles in the realms of the ‘Beast’,given us a sizeably serious moral scope of why meddling with Mother Nature is inevitably monstrous to mankind.Pitilessly pilfering and playing the planetary pariah has sorely struck back at humanity during its brief environmentally tyrannical and tumultuous time on Earth. Let us not forget the ecological backlash of reprimanding retaliatory flagellations we have face when we have flirted with the idea of disregarding the Will of nature. The devastation of the agrarian hominid and that great woe of civilisation and above all the squalid village, town and then metropolis that has given a fertile base for so many of the Pandoran pestilence and paradoxes that problematically plague us. The Fertile Crescent may have given us the arts which we oh so cherish but it also contributed to the degredation of the Natural Order and a filtration system which served every woman, man and beast. More city living may have stimulated ‘culture’ but it severely stung our urge to tame ‘the Wild’, pave the prairies and soil the surrounding splendours. What urbanisation feeded was a hankering for things and modernity has only intensified these intensifying demands. How this terrifying torture upon the Earth has bounced back and bit us can be seen in the Black Death, plagues and untold diseases that have taken there historical toll upon us as we strove to city dwell. Would we have not faced any perils had we remained naturally nomadic? Undoubtedly hurdles and hazards would have remained. But, surely, no price could be more costlier and ever detrimental to our collective well being than our brutalization of the resources that sustain us. So why the hell am I ranting about cities and civilisations when I originally sought out to talk and make a case for the animals?Because we are the animals whose hopes all the other animals hinge their hopes and expectations upon. We are the moral custodians of this haven of hues and the fantasia of flora and fauna and we are bound by a moral objective to preserve this paradise for all terrestrial, aerial and aquatic beings. Our prolific productivity has adversely affected the natural state of the kingdom which we share with all creatures great and small. Every species has it’s meritable wealth and it is not the place of prophets and poets to determine that a whale is more worthy of guardianship than a toad. Cultural conceptions along with cultivative and constructional ones, must be refined if our appreciation towards the brilliance of biota is to splendidly shift. To neglect and dispel of the dangers of the depletion of our living diversity is as much a dagger to ourselves as it is to homeostasis of the natural order and the imperative integrity to safekeep the hierarchical biological food chain. We owe it to the world not merely to protect all species for their aesthetic awe and aura but above all because they too like the human race have every right to exist. Their fates and rights to replicate and replete the earth are concerningly ever more in our often cruel and callous hands. As my father always professed, a land devoid of a fecundity of animals is like an empty vase sorely crying out for flowers. Cheers to the schools, newspapers and TV extravaganzas that are committed to reminding us that the world does not solely revolve around human subjects, their pursuits, longings and never ending egocentricity. Animals are worthy of our affections and attention. They intrigue us with their habits, their behaviours which we like to personify and often amaze us in countless manners. They symbolise us (I’m a kiwi) the virtues of our favourite teams (I like the Canterbury Rams our local basketball team) and amuse us with their antics (who doesn’t love looking at cat videos on YouTube!). An integral human world is one which values animal integrity.

  3. Managerial affairs have consumed a sizeable chunk of my life. Over that time, lessons have been learnt and a wealth of wisdom accumulated all in the purposeful pursuit to perfect the art of philosophically being the professional commerce prophet I pronouncly preached to be in practice. Personally, the sincerest, soundest and sagacious suggestion which I ever received was the concept that you’d never comfortably be able to live with your actions if you not only failed to deal the deed justice but equally and perhaps most importantly to deal justice to the various aspects enmeshed and embedded with the overall deed. A leader without a morally virtuous ethical stance towards sustainability in this era is someone who in my mind would find it agonisingly impossible to sleep with their choices at night.Sustainability, even in the world of trade and markets is about satisfying the demands of today without detrimentally impacting upon the necessities of future generations. It involves actively and passionately engaging with the entire business process from manufacture to end user, whilst being more efficient, using cleaner production methods, maximising resources and minimising waste. For small businesses and large corporations, performance is no longer simply about merely financial returns – it encompasses corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities that reflect a respect towards not only resources and the environment but also the community, indigenous groups and other sentient non human specimens. Firms recognise that the new ‘ethical’ customers are choosing suppliers with environmental, social and cultural values and practices similar to their own. Organisations with sustainability strategies not only save money but benefit from an improved image and reputation through their social initiatives and corporate citizenship. Business, society and the environment are no longer separate entities but areas which increasingly intertwine requiring a new moral entrepreneurial corporate strategy to harmoniously manage a happy equilibrium of this complex and consistently complicated paradoxical polygamous partnership. It is absolutely imperative to analyse the changing responsibilities of business at organisation, national and global levels. On the same note, we must all considerately commence to carefully consider the impact of climate change, globalisation, and consumerism and identify ways in which business organisations respond ethically to the needs of society and the environment. Sustainable future economies must examine business and sustainability theory, the implications for a business if it pursues sustainability goals, and measuring and monitoring sustainability in business, supply chains and related institutions in ever greater depth if productivity is to accomplished yet to at the peril of natural andCultural depletion or dear say devastating demise. An interest in sustainability can be illustrated in everyday actions such as reusing goods, recycling materials and minimising waste; as well as conserving energy and caring for our natural environment. Business and Sustainability attracts anyone who wants to make a genuine difference in the world we live in and look after it for future generations. So where do I, a dirty deadly diabolical carbon emitting cretin stand in all this? While I’ve played my heinous villainous role in the insatiable thirst for oil gobbling I like to see myself as a Closet Greenie just waiting for the right moment to come out. In an enterprise to maximise service while minimising gas guzzling and excessively unnecessary heavy commercial vehicle road hogging I have set up a business model which ensures that service providers whom frequently pass one another during similar rounds effectively no longer have to. This brotherly and sisterly alliance of mutual importance means that our runs are diverse and never dull while our clients and sub’s get ALL there wants in one swift speedy drop. The benefits to ourselves include an extended fleet network, increased cartage capacity, better delivery times, the chance to build new affiliate and trade circles and of course savings to fuel consumption, road user KMs and naturally vehicles maintenance and upkeep. All while feeling a little bit like Captain Planet at the end of our day in the ethical efforts we have undertaken to be ecofriendly operators in one of the dirtiest businesses in the game.

  4. Recently a close acquaintance informed me that his daughter would be attending university. I was naturally elated and cordially pleased with her vocation election. Yet, as is often the case with some young ones came the directional dilemma. Like that famous quote from The Time Machine of “what book would you choose?”I was urged to give am erudite opinion on what would be the quintessentially ideal subject to take. How could any choice be an educational blunder I secretly pondered but after a momentary pause I plucked up the nerve to give the question a good old proverbial prod. “Anthropology”,I retorted. “Anth-rooopology!” The perplexed parent replied staggeringly stupified. “Yes” I assertively answered. It really did seem like an ideological gaffe. After all, any sound, serious, rational sod would have strengthened the case for scholarly immersion in the STEM subjects, commerce, business or IT. Even a trade for Pete’s sake but here was I suggesting a cuddly, fluffy, frivolous dabble in an artsy fartsy subject. Indeed here in Aotearoa, a BA literally gets viewed as career suicide. $20 Kiwi Ks in a “Bugger All”degree, what a whimsical womble of a fool. And yet, I solidly and sincerely stood steadfast in my suggestion. But why? Of course I never would have stated such a choice if the field had not left a lasting impression on me. It is certainly not the first arts subject that comes to mind when you banter about the social sciences in a room filled with students. In that sense, its oddity and mystique allured me towards enrolling in this course along with other enchanting subjects such as linguistics, philosophy and gender studies. These domains aroused my curiosity with their inquisitive exotic ring of appeal. In multiple respects, the captivation of the draw card of anthropology stemmed from the choices diversity and multiplicity of composition. In countless instances the subject always seemed refreshingly relevant, never dull and like a pic n mix bag of artsy intellectual treats. Some days geography, other daysLiterature with a pinch of music and a dash of art history. It appeared to be a buffet banquet way to have one’s cake and eat it while having a morsel of nearly every art code without departing the College of Arts with that dreaded sentiment of the Fear of Missing Out. Yes anthropology appeared to offer it all in a nice neat little package. However, even as an Arts Exponent trying to snaffle up another soul away from the spirit sinking stimuli defunct Schools of Law and Commerce there was a far more profounder reason beyond my parochial passions for pleading my case and pressing for my friends daughter to at least flirt with the possibility of a tango with the anthropological realm. In essence this here is my basis. We live in a human realm made up of many many diverse subjects. And yet we remain incredibly stupid towards one another. We graduate with powerful punchy business degrees and yet we still tolerate the unjust and unfair pay disparity between men and women. We have class inequalities which we attribute to laziness which is not always the case. We need people to do our scutt work and then blame these migrants for doing jobs some of us shudder the thought of undertaking. Racism in some lands runs rampant and religious intolerance globally is bordering on the perilous. We absolve our selves from learning Spanish, Swahili or Hindi for after.all we feel that they should all be speaking English anyway. The young are often violated and the aged are equally mistrested. In short We live in a complex anthropological picture where much of our tensions stem from an inability to comprehend our propensity to villify “the evil Other”. Rather than seeing the rainbow of humanity we persist with seeing some ways as morally superior to those of others. Is the American Way truly better than the Chinese, Canadian or Panamanian Way? All I do know is that there ARE morally sound Americans, ones who care about global warming and Mexicans. Alternatively, I know that not all Kiwis are tree hugging happy hippies. It is a double edged sword and one cannot and should not attempt to enforce generic titles upon one another. Not all Middle Easterners should be badly branded just like not all Kiwis should be labelled as green loving virtuous citizens. Humanity is a complex and complicated ever evolving shape shifting chameleon whose colours are eternally undergoing changes. Identities, like languages are never fixed buy are like fluid constantly flowing in new directions. To suggest that identities remain stagnant in one shape or form over time is a serious slap to ones intelligence. I certainly don’t speak English like they did in the times of Chaucer and while I love my grandfather I certainly now disprove of how he help my grandmother to cook Or clean. No REAL Kiwi Man would ever have seriously gone grocery shopping. Oh the historical shame! Thank goodness se things have changed. Yet, as a species, these changes are the product that through dialogue great leaps forward in understanding can be made. From realisations that poverty contributes to class injustices and racism rather than the erroneous assumption that you inherit and even deserve to be poor based upon your creed, colour or socio economic origins. In present day NZ, I point out to the marvels of our Maori innovators, female business warriors and disability gladiators in the sporting, arts and science circles. How many Steve Hawkins did we potentially lose to history because we mistakingly wrote them off as dummies? How boring would myDiet be if I didn’t have succulent sushi, decadent curries or sublime souvlaki to satiate my hunger paings other than the tired old bland British fare of spuds, mushy peas, overcooked carrots and inglorious gravy beef or lamb lacking the spices of East. The world when it comes together is a truly remarkable spectacle. I have seen this mini microcosmic miracle during the recent Canterbury round of.quakes which decimated yet another one of our village. Yet the international response has been breathtakingly riveting. It is so touching to see both allies and other non traditional partners come together under the cause of brotherly and sisterly compassion. Anthropology offers insights into many of the social issues and problems facing New Zealand and the world today. Anthropologists therefore have an important role to play in areas of public policy, international relations, foreign affairs and human rights. Anthropology will provide you with skills and expertise that can be utilised in a wide variety of employment situations, especially where sensitivity to people, an appreciation of cultural diversity, and an ability to grasp alternative ways of seeing the world are required. While it is facile and simple to congregate and ruminate with like minded specimens of our own kith and kin the world can only ever truly become a remarkable social enterprise once we all realise that there is far more extensive realm of wonder, splendour and vibrancy beyond the patch of turf we stubborn obstinate hominids so feverishly cling a hold to. You will study culture, society and the wide variety of ways in which people around the world live. By appreciating what humans have in common, and the fundamentals on which social life is based, comparisons across societies and observations about the nature of human beings can be made. In this sense Anthropology promotes cross-cultural awareness and self-understanding which is vital for us all if we are ever to hope to all just see ourselves as neighbours on this planet which belongs to us ALL.

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