Lack of forest definition ‘major obstacle’ in fight to protect rainforests

Ecuadorian Rainforest

Norway have already committed to paying Indonesia $1 billion to protect their forests despite confusion over forest definitions

In the second in our series examining REDD we report how ambiguous forest definitions are putting the future success of forest protection schemes in doubt and allowing logging companies to destroy biodiverse habitats

The current lack of a working definition of what degraded forest or land is ‘plays into the hands’ of logging companies, say forest campaigners. The companies claim to responsibly develop ‘only on degraded land’, but in reality this can actually mean they are clearing forests and peatlands.

Most of Southeast Asia’s remaining forests are classed as ‘production forest’ and are therefore open to logging. Once a forest has undergone one round of logging it is often considered to be degraded and becomes vulnerable to conversion to agricultural crops such as palm oil.

Campaigners and ecologists say this is an error and that many of these ‘degraded’ forests are only slightly altered by logging and remain highly biodiverse, carbon-rich habitat for endangered species such as orang-utans and tigers.

‘A weak and unspecific definition of what 'degraded' means plays straight into the hands of companies who want to continue business as usual, expanding into carbon-rich forests and peatlands – especially palm oil and pulp and paper companies such as Sinar Mas,’ said Greenpeace forest campaigner Ian Duff.

Indonesia is a case in point. Norway is now committed to pay Indonesia $1 billion to halt conversion of natural forests and peatland to the expanding palm oil industry. They want degraded land  to be used instead. However, with no definition of degraded land, environmentalists have criticised the ambiguity of Norway’s REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme.

‘If we end up with sloppy definitions there is every chance that Norway's billion-dollar deal, as well as REDD, will fail to stop the destruction of Indonesian forests,’ said Duff.

Degraded land isn’t the only unsettled definition blighting REDD.

What is a forest?

Disputes have arisen over what constitutes ‘forest’, and how deep peat has to be, to be considered peatland. The forestry sector is pushing for plantations to be classified as forests, which could see funds supposedly meant for preserving biodiversity and carbon being used to clear ‘degraded’ forests to palm oil plantations. Ecological sacrilege, environmentalists say.

Part of the REDD agreement between Norway and Indonesia requires them to compile a database of degraded land. What land gets into this database is critical. If logged forests that still house high levels of biodiversity – and carbon – are included, they risk being cleared to make way for plantations.

The World Resource Institute (WRI) are attempting to address this concern; project POTICO (Palm Oil, Timber, Carbon Offsets) aims to facilitate the diversion of new palm oil plantations away from virgin forests onto degraded lands, and incorporates a pilot scheme for swapping concessions already awarded on forested areas with degraded lands.

In order to do this, they must be able to identify degraded lands suitable for development. Moray McLeish, who manages the project, says it’s not for WRI to dictate a definition, but they hope to coordinate and catalyse the process.

WRI believe there are four elements that must be taken into account in defining and identifying degraded land suitable for sustainable palm oil – whether the land in question is environmentally degraded, economically viable, socially desirable and legally available – and it is developing a methodology for identifying it.

‘An area we classify as degraded would have very low carbon content, low number of species, low biodiversity, low social or livelihood value and be unlikely to recover to its natural state,’ explains McLeish. He admits it’s a delicate process. ‘If the definition of degraded includes secondary forests then these could be cleared and planted...if we don’t get it right, it could potentially be disastrous.'

'Even if a workable definition of degraded lands is reached, there are questions about how it couls ever be enforced on the ground. ‘To be honest I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that question,’ McLeish concedes. He says the WRI will have to rely on government systems for enforcement but he eventually hopes to shift incentives to ‘stay on the right side of the rules – rules such as not developing forested areas or only developing degraded lands,’ he continued.

‘Market incentives are a major way of doing this, so RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil) membership and, at least in theory, a price premium for your product, as well as the recognition and reputational value of only producing sustainable oil – a part of which is expanding only on degraded land.

‘The theory is that companies, by getting certified, their product has a sustainable attribute to it so it can command more money in the market by virtue of being certified.’

Wastelands or wildlife havens?

To make matters more complicated, some now question whether degraded forests should be developed on at all. A study recently published by the Royal Society suggests that so-called ‘degraded’ forests are not the biological wastelands they are considered to be. On the contrary, they found that three quarters of primary rainforest persist in extensively logged ‘degraded’ forests, including many threatened with extinction.

The authors conclude that preventing these forests from being converted to oil palm should be a priority of policy-makers and conservationists. At present, such degraded forests are assumed to have little conservation value, so no efforts are made to prevent them from being cleared for agricultural use.

Edwards applauds the ‘vital’ work of WRI but worries that if heavily logged forests are included under the definition ‘degraded’, they could inadvertently be promoting the conversion of highly biodiverse forests.

‘Degraded forests need to be fully integrated into conservation planning for Borneo and elsewhere. By focusing primarily on the remaining primary habitat, we might be missing excellent opportunities to conserve large areas of degraded lands that maintain connectivity of unlogged forests and that house a large proportion of biodiversity,’ Edwards says.

How can this be done in reality?

If degraded lands, and degraded forests in particular, warrant protection rather than development, how can countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, heavily reliant on palm oil and timber, continue to develop? REDD is one option, says McLeish, sale of ecosystem services would be another. ‘I think the key solution is not to look at in terms of an either/or paradigm but to ask how they can do what they’re currently doing, but sustainably.’

Edwards supports biodiversity offsetting as an alternative approach. ‘If oil palm companies are to invest funds in biodiversity friendly production, then offsetting ecological damage by conserving degraded forest is the best approach. So, if we, the consumer, want an increasingly biodiversity friendly product, then paying a premium for food oil that offsets biodiversity damage would be possible.’ 

‘If we were prepared to pay substantially more for green products, then Indonesia and Malaysia could offset large areas of degraded habitat in a BioBanking [biodiversity offsetting] framework whilst continuing to develop,’ Edwards says.

An alternative solution could be to move beyond just thinking about forests and instead look at all land. In contrast to REDD, REALU (Reducing Emissions from All Land Uses) encompasses all transitions in land cover that affect carbon storage, whether peatland or mineral soil, trees outside forest, agroforest, plantations or natural forest.

‘REALU can more effectively reduce net emissions, and ensure more locally-appropriate reduction activities,’ says a recent report by the World Agroforestry Centre. ‘A REALU approach can overcome unclear forest definitions and help capture leakage of emissions between sectors.’


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