FAO: Plantations are not forests!

A forest? You might not think so, but according to the FAO's definition, oh yes it is! Photo: Balaji Kasirajan via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA).
A forest? You might not think so, but according to the FAO's definition, oh yes it is! Photo: Balaji Kasirajan via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA).
Since 1948 the UN's Food and Agriculture has been clinging to an outmoded definition of 'forests' that includes industrial wood plantations, writes WRM in this Open Letter for delivery to the FAO today, International Forests Day. This mis-definition seriously harms real forests and forest peoples as it justifies the clearance of real forests and their replacement with cash crops of trees.
A forest definition only focused on trees opens the door to including 'planted forests' - industrial tree plantations - a completely false way of 'reducing deforestation and forest degradation', as an option under the Climate Change Convention.

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 in 2015 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.

FAO cliongs stubbornly to outmoded, misleading definition

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?

A forest definition only focused on trees opens the door to including 'planted forests' - industrial tree plantations - a completely false way of 'reducing deforestation and forest degradation', as an option under the Climate Change Convention.

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].

Serious consequences to forest policies around the world

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).

UNFCCC's mandate for forest destruction

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.

World Bank 'borrows' FAO definition for 100 million Ha of Africa

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. 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 $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.

Revision desperately needed for the sake of forests and forest peoples

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.


The original of this Open Letter is on the WRM website.

Sign: If your organization has not yet signed, we invite you to support the letter. Please send an email to fao2017@wrm.org.uy and include your organization's name and country. See also Signatures as of March 16, 2017.


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 http://wrm.org.uy/browse-by-subject/tree-plantations/

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' (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-016-0772-y)

4 - http://www.mma.gov.br/estruturas/sfb/_arquivos/livro_portugus_95.pdf

5 - See more in http://wrm.org.uy/books-and-briefings/redd-a-collection-of-conflicts-contradictions-and-lies/

6 - http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/seasia/Indonesia/pdf/FREL_Report.pdf

7 - http://www.wri.org/our-work/project/AFR100/about-afr100

8 - http://tinyurl.com/hsb6cwy