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

Mike Shanahan's picture
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2 November 2011

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."

This post has been republished from Mike Shanahan's blog Under the Banyan

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