Page: Tree Cover-up

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October 18, 2011

Tree cover-up

Our forest cover is diminishing but the losses are being masked by terminology.

WHAT is a forest? For many of us, it would mean virgin forests, full of soaring trees and wild flora and fauna. But for the many international bodies and treaties found in the world, a forest can be that and many other things.

Various conventions such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and International Tropical Timber Organisation, all define the term “forests” differently.

These conventions and agencies have their own functions and objectives and therefore, have different forestry information needs. For example the choice of a definition of forest under the UNFCCC would be more related to the role of forests in mitigating climate change whereas the CBD takes a more ecosystem approach to defining forests.

At the same time, countries also develop and use their own definitions for their forests. A recent study found that there are more than 800 different definitions for forests and wooded areas used globally, with some countries employing more than one definition at the same time.

The FAO has been monitoring the usage and management of the world’s forests since 1946 and so, its definition of forest is widely adopted for global forest observation and reporting. The relevant government agencies in Malaysia also generally subscribe to FAO’s definition of forest and forest classifications. There are problems with FAO’s definition, however. Various environmental groups and scientific organisations have criticised it as being too broad for the purpose of promoting the conservation of natural forests.

The FAO definition is silent on the subject of forest type; it does not distinguish between natural, modified and planted forests. Similarly, there is no differentiation between a forest that is largely composed of indigenous species and one covered mainly with introduced species (such as monoculture plantations). In the eyes of the FAO, all these vegetation types are categorised as forests.

Better defined

The deforestation of intact, primary forests will release more carbon than the deforestation of open woodlands. Similarly, diverse ecosystems have vastly different biological and ecological values. Tropical rainforests support high levels of biodiversity, while other ecosystem types may not be rich in biodiversity but still support unique species. However, these differences in the ecological utility and value of the various forest types will not be captured and accounted for by FAO’s statistics.

Consequently, conservation organisations have called for the forest definitions to be on a biome basis (such as peatswamp forest, boreal forest or tropical forest) to reflect the broad differences in carbon and biodiversity values of these different biomes and at the same time clearly distinguishing between natural native forests and those dominated by monocultures and exotic tree species.

Going by FAO’s definition of forest, if logging results in the removal of significant canopy cover, the area concerned is not regarded as “deforested” as long as canopy cover does not fall below the minimum 10% threshold. Therefore, the canopy cover of a forest can be drastically reduced, negatively impacting biodiversity and ecosystem functions, but the area can still be classified as forest. This essentially means that a healthy pristine forest is not differentiated from a degraded, logged-over forest.

To ensure that biologically rich natural forests are not converted to biologically poor forest, other international organisations have adopted a differentiated criterion which looks at several thresholds. The TREES project classifies forest cover greater than 70% as “dense forest”. (TREES is a joint project of the European Commission and the European Space Agency for the development of space observation techniques to improve monitoring of tropical forests.) The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme uses a 60% threshold for forests while the United Nations Environment Programme uses 40% for closed forests and 10% to 40% for open or fragmented forests.

Forests vs plantations

Another grouse against the FAO definition of forest is that it includes planted forests (or forest plantations). Establishment of plantation forests can be either through afforestation on land that until then was not classified as forest, or by reforestation of land classified as forest – for instance, after a fire or a storm, or following clear-felling.

The inclusion of forest plantations in the definition of forests is of concern as it essentially means that statistics on the forest cover of a country can remain unchanged even if natural forests are replaced with forest plantations. As such, the true extent of natural forest loss might be hidden because it can be offset by the expansion of forest plantations. For instance, FAO’s Forest Resource Assessment 2010 reported that net forest loss in Asia was at an annual rate of 0.6 million ha in the 1990s but the region recorded a net annual gain of about 2.2 million ha of forest from 2000 to 2010. This was mainly due to large-scale afforestation efforts in China and despite continued high rates of net loss in many countries in South and South-East Asia.

The loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services provided by natural forests, especially tropical rainforests, cannot be replaced by forest plantations which are typically monoculture plantations and sometimes made up of non-native species. In tropical countries, including Malaysia, biodiversity-rich forests designated as permanent forest reserves are being felled and replaced by such plantations. The loophole in the definition means that such changes would be regarded as having caused no change in forest cover, thereby masking the loss and degradation of natural forests.

Forest plantations are not forests and should not be classified as such. Conversion of natural forests to plantations should always be regarded as deforestation, and the extent and establishment of plantations should be reported separately and not be considered as reforestation.


In 2000, about 18.5 million ha or 56% of Malaysia’s land was still forested but this decreased to 55% in 2007. If the declining trend continues, it is projected that forested areas will drop to 17.1 million ha or 51.8% of total land area come 2020. A study by WWF-Malaysia found a continual decline in forest reserve areas in Peninsular Malaysia – a nett loss of 1,696ha in 10 states, between 2001 and 2005.

In the peninsula, forests are protected under the National Forestry Act of 1984 by designating tracts of forest as Permanent Reserved Forest (PRF). Each PRF are then classified into any of these nine purposes: timber production forest; soil protection forest; soil reclamation forest; flood control forest; water catchment forest; forest sanctuary for wildlife; virgin jungle reserved forest; amenity forest; education forest; research forest; and forest for federal purposes.

Though the word “permanent” is used, there is nothing “permanent” about the designation as PRF. The state government can change the classification to any other class, albeit by notification in gazette. The situation moves to shakier ground under Section 11 of the Act which allows the state to excise land (wholly or partly) from a PRF if it is deemed to be no longer required for the purpose or is needed for a higher economic use.

In neither instance does the law require for public notification or consultation on the degazettement. This changed however, in the state of Selangor which in May, made an amendment in the Act requiring mandatory public inquiry before a PRF can be excised. There are no signs that a similar policy reform will be initiated by the Federal Government. The National Forestry Council has been urged to spur initiatives towards this significant reform that will empower the rakyat to make decisions that affect the nation’s rich forests. – Article courtesy of WWF-Malaysia

Source: The Star

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