Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Porous definition of forest leaves experts in dilemma

A graphic illustration of the deforestation in Mau forest. A new definition of a forest suggests that land that has been cleared or burned, but which remains under the control of a forest institution, is still considered to be a forest. Photo/FILE PHOTO/ GRAPHICS

A graphic illustration of the deforestation in Mau forest. A new definition of a forest suggests that land that has been cleared or burned, but which remains under the control of a forest institution, is still considered to be a forest. Photo/FILE PHOTO/ GRAPHICS 

By SAMMY CHEBOI

Kenya can clear her entire forest area, replace it with tea bushes or green energy crops but still claim compensation for fighting climate change, a new definition of what constitutes a forest suggests.

Already, differences over what constitutes a forest could undermine an agreement to protect forests, which is expected to be one of the bright spots at the UN climate change meeting in Copenhagen.

While negotiators are struggling to reach consensus in many areas, there is widespread optimism that the conference will produce a framework for paying developing countries to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation of forests.

Recognising that deforestation accounts for up to 20 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, negotiators are closing in on an agreement that would spur reafforestation worldwide through the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (Redd) facility.

Will not account

But according to an analysis by the Alternatives to Slash and Burn (ASB) Partnership for Tropical Forest Margins, the potential undoing of the Redd plan is a porous definition of forest that will not account for large areas of deforested landscapes.

For instance, replacement of the entire Mau Forest complex with tea bushes or biofuel crops such as jatropha would not be considered ‘deforestation’ because the plantations meet the definition of a forest. Also, land that has been cleared or burned, but which remains under the control of forest institutions, is also considered to be a forest.

“Countries can clear massive amounts of forest and still claim that deforestation has not occurred,” says Peter Minang, ASB global coordinator who has extensive experience working with the Redd initiative.

“On the other hand, large wooded areas that are not part of the officially designated ‘forests’ would fall outside the definition,” said Meine van Noordwijk, chief science advisor for the World Agroforestry Centre and a co-author of the ASB analysis.

ASB analyses in three Indonesian provinces show that some of the approaches proposed for carbon accounting in the proposed Redd plan may only address 20 per cent of actual emissions from land use change.

In this way, a country like Kenya, currently in the process of reclaiming huge forest land formerly cleared by settlers, could lose out on compensation.

“For people who are not working at the ground level, it may seem easy to say what is and what is not a forest,” says Dennis Garrity, director general of the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre, which coordinates ASB activities.

“But there is really no single definition of forests that can apply to the continuum of landscapes with trees. More important will be to capture all the land use practices that are major contributors to global warming or could play a significant role in carbon reduction.”

The Redd plan under negotiation is likely to exclude a considerable amount of land that is rich in trees. Research by the World Agroforestry Centre found that nearly half of the agricultural lands of the world have at least 10 per cent tree cover.

Tree cover

In Southeast Asia and Central America, 50 per cent of agricultural areas have at least 30 per cent tree cover. Yet none of these trees — or more to the point, their carbon — would be protected by the Redd plan.

ASB researchers believe the way to resolve the forest definition dilemma is for climate change negotiators to broaden the plan to include any alterations to land cover that release or retain greenhouse gases — whether it is cutting down a virgin forest, cultivating trees on farmlands (agroforestry), or protecting carbon-rich peat from decomposition.

This would have the benefit of encouraging the reduction of emissions from a variety of land use practices.

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