Q: When is a forest not a forest? A: When no-one knows

Take a look at these two photographs and play spot the difference.

To my mind, the top photo shows a forest. It is dense and diverse, a home to hundreds of species of trees, hundreds of species of bird and mammals and reptiles and fish, and many thousands of other forms of life that it would take a lifetime to understand.

Local people have collected medicinal plants, honey, wild fruits and meat from this forest for thousands of years — as they do today. I wish you could hear what I heard when I took this photo. This place — a national park in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo– oozes with life.

To my mind, the bottom photo shows not a forest but a plantation of oil-palms. Not much lives there and nobody can go in unless they work for the company that processes and exports the palm oil. It sounds dull to the ear. Like a cricket match with no ball.

Yet many of the people who run our world would disagree. To the minds of too many politicians and policymakers, they are both forests — because they understand a “forest” to be just a place with some trees.

As the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization defines things in its 2010 Global Forest Resource Assessment states, a forest is any:

“land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 metres and a canopy cover of more than 10% or trees able to reach these thresholds in situ.”

This is nuts. It means that big-city parks and biologically barren plantations qualify alongside the Amazon rainforest as “forests”. It means that anyone can talk about forests in terms that suit them, without using terms that suit the “forests” they speak of.

Scientists have tried to explain how important real forest are for limiting climate change, tackling poverty and creating green economies based on timber and other forest products.

But the fate of forests gets decided in concrete capitals where policymakers pour over green-tinged maps and financial spreadsheets that only show some of the costs and benefits of changing a real forest into anything else.

Right now, somewhere in the world, one of these policymakers is reading a technical document about forests — they are reading small black print on a dull pale page and they are probably wishing the document or the day was shorter.

It makes me wonder how many of the bureaucrats who will decide the fate of the world’s tropical forests have actually walked in one. And how the protectors of the forests can encourage more policymakers to take that journey.

As Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead is said to have said:

Adventures don’t begin until you go into the forest. That first step is an act of faith.

[Update: In January 2012, I heard some news about the forest in the top photo. You can read the story here, in my post: The near empty forest that proves conservation is failing].

13 thoughts on “Q: When is a forest not a forest? A: When no-one knows

  1. very nice, being lived my childhood in proximity to village. I feel profound and engaged while reading this very article. I could relate to the things.

    Great work mike!

    all the best.

  2. This is something that consistently makes me angry. The FAO definition of a forest includes land that could potentially become a forest; i.e. if you’ve cut it down, burnt what remains then left it without land conversion, it’s still a ‘forest’ because it might recover! Lunacy. And we’re expected to use these estimates to funnel money through REDD?

    • The two images are of very different realities, but in much of Sarawak, Malaysia, where I took the top photo, forests like that have been replaced with oil-palm plantations. The forest in the top photo is the only lowland forest of its kind left standing.

  3. just like calabar is the last rainforest in nigeria and still been preserved but not with some locals wanting to turn some forest area to residential areas.the preservation of our forest areas will do the world more good and make the world an eco-village not global village.

  4. Rolando and Mike
    “two images are of very different realities”

    Tina
    “an eco-village not global village”

    From the Greek ‘oikos’ – management of the home environment – there are two realities economics and ecology.

    One has been converting the life support systems of the planet into imaginary money, then lost it. It doesn’t even understand its own workings. It also now wants to manage the running of a planet through finacial markets controlling CO2 emissions.

    Perhaps the world needs a better understanding of the second reality.

  5. Malaysia proudly claims to have 17% “Forest”. Sabah (not the whole country, JUST the state of Sabah) is the WORLD’S third largest producer of oil palm. They are corrupting the first figure by including the second!

    Under their definition Golf Courses with a lot of rough could be called “Forest”!

    Do you remember the Fig Conference in Lambir, someone asking about the biodiversity said “What’s so special about here?” and Rhett said “Nothing, this is just the only bit left standing!”…

  6. This is great, Mike. Sad thing is, bureaucrats are a short-sighted and stubborn bunch. As the old saying goes: “You can lead a bureaucrat to the tropical primary forest, but you can’t force him/her to revel in the beauty of nature.” Only staring down the business end of an irate gymnure will make them more compliant.

  7. “I wish you could hear what I heard when I took this photo” … well, I’ve heard what you heard, Mike, and it is astounding. My own little online blogging adventure (still very very new) deals with just that, http://loudloudworld.wordpress.com/. Sounds, of course, are an great barometer as to the health of a forest.

    Thanks for your site. I’ve just discovered it recently and it looks like a very good source for a lot of important information … I’m having a look nearly every day!

    (by the way, I love Scrubmuncher’s old saying … silly bureaucrats.)

    • Thanks for dropping by David, and thanks for the link to your blog, which I recommend other readers here check out. I’ve added a link to your gibbon recording from this post I wrote in 2010.

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