Student - June 26, 2008

Forest recovery is artificial construction

According to official statistics, the area of forest is growing in a number of tropical countries, a cause for optimism among some foresters and climate researchers. Forest ecologists, however, warn of a catch: the broad FAO definition of forest covers all types of forest including palm-oil plantations and degraded forests. The issue was addressed during a seminar held by the Dutch Association of Tropical Forests on Thursday 19 June in Ede.

‘Climate change and biodiversity are on a collision course,’ said the American forest ecologist Professor Jack Putz, summarising the problem. Deforestation continues on a large scale worldwide, even though in countries such as Costa Rica, India, China and Vietnam there has been a clear increase in forest area in recent years. The key question according to Putz is ‘what exactly we are recovering and what we are losing?’

Professor Eric Lambin, a Belgian geographer specialising in land use changes, admitted that in many cases an apparent increase is in fact a statistical construction. ‘Under the FAO definition, rubber and palm-oil plantations are included as forest. In terms of carbon sinks that’s ok, but this is not the case if we are talking about biodiversity conservation,’ said Lambin. Dr Freerk Wiersum, a researcher at the Forest and Nature Conservation Policy group in Wageningen, observed that forest transition increasingly often includes a third path: domesticated forest as a result of co-evolution of the local population and forest management. ‘It looks like indigenous forest, but it isn’t.’

Putz warned of the danger to biodiversity of including degraded forests. ‘Much tropical forest already lacks wildlife and we can lose a lot more even though we still retain forests.’ Forest exploitation cannot be halted, and therefore more sustainable forms of selective tree harvesting are required, argued Putz, for example reduced impact logging. In addition, there is an urgent need for better definitions of forest, in particular for virgin forest, the type we are so worried about losing.