Tree cover-up

Our for­est cover is di­min­ish­ing but the losses are be­ing masked by ter­mi­nol­ogy.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH -

WHAT is a for­est? For many of us, it would mean vir­gin forests, full of soar­ing trees and wild flora and fauna. But for the many in­ter­na­tional bod­ies and treaties found in the world, a for­est can be that and many other things.

Var­i­ous con­ven­tions such as the United Na­tions Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change (UNFCCC), Con­ven­tion on Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity (CBD), United Na­tions Con­ven­tion to Com­bat De­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion and bod­ies such as the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion (FAO) and In­ter­na­tional Trop­i­cal Tim­ber Or­gan­i­sa­tion, all de­fine the term “forests” dif­fer­ently.

These con­ven­tions and agen­cies have their own func­tions and ob­jec­tives and there­fore, have dif­fer­ent forestry in­for­ma­tion needs. For ex­am­ple the choice of a def­i­ni­tion of for­est un­der the UNFCCC would be more re­lated to the role of forests in mit­i­gat­ing cli­mate change whereas the CBD takes a more ecosys­tem ap­proach to defin­ing forests.

At the same time, coun­tries also de­velop and use their own def­i­ni­tions for their forests. A re­cent study found that there are more than 800 dif­fer­ent def­i­ni­tions for forests and wooded ar­eas used glob­ally, with some coun­tries em­ploy­ing more than one def­i­ni­tion at the same time.

The FAO has been mon­i­tor­ing the us­age and man­age­ment of the world’s forests since 1946 and so, its def­i­ni­tion of for­est is widely adopted for global for­est ob­ser­va­tion and reporting. The rel­e­vant govern­ment agen­cies in Malaysia also gen­er­ally sub­scribe to FAO’s def­i­ni­tion of for­est and for­est clas­si­fi­ca­tions. There are prob­lems with FAO’s def­i­ni­tion, how­ever. Var­i­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and sci­en­tific or­gan­i­sa­tions have crit­i­cised it as be­ing too broad for the pur­pose of pro­mot­ing the con­ser­va­tion of nat­u­ral forests.

The FAO def­i­ni­tion is silent on the sub­ject of for­est type; it does not dis­tin­guish be­tween nat­u­ral, mod­i­fied and planted forests. Sim­i­larly, there is no dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion be­tween a for­est that is largely com­posed of in­dige­nous species and one cov­ered mainly with in­tro­duced species (such as mono­cul­ture plan­ta­tions). In the eyes of the FAO, all these veg­e­ta­tion types are cat­e­gorised as forests.

Bet­ter de­fined

The de­for­esta­tion of in­tact, pri­mary forests will re­lease more car­bon than the de­for­esta­tion of open wood­lands. Sim­i­larly, di­verse ecosys­tems have vastly dif­fer­ent bi­o­log­i­cal and eco­log­i­cal val­ues. Trop­i­cal rain­forests sup­port high lev­els of bio­di­ver­sity, while other ecosys­tem types may not be rich in bio­di­ver­sity but still sup­port unique species. How­ever, these dif­fer­ences in the eco­log­i­cal util­ity and value of the var­i­ous for­est types will not be cap­tured and ac­counted for by FAO’s sta­tis­tics.

Con­se­quently, con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions have called for the for­est def­i­ni­tions to be on a biome ba­sis (such as peatswamp for­est, bo­real for­est or trop­i­cal for­est) to re­flect the broad dif­fer­ences in car­bon and bio­di­ver­sity val­ues of these dif­fer­ent biomes and at the same time clearly dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween nat­u­ral na­tive forests and those dom­i­nated by mono­cul­tures and ex­otic tree species.

Go­ing by FAO’s def­i­ni­tion of for­est, if log­ging re­sults in the re­moval of sig­nif­i­cant canopy cover, the area con­cerned is not re­garded as “de­for­ested” as long as canopy cover does not fall be­low the min­i­mum 10% thresh­old. There­fore, the canopy cover of a for­est can be dras­ti­cally re­duced, neg­a­tively im­pact­ing bio­di­ver­sity and ecosys­tem func­tions, but the area can still be clas­si­fied as for­est. This es­sen­tially means that a healthy pris­tine for­est is not dif­fer­en­ti­ated from a de­graded, logged-over for­est.

To en­sure that bi­o­log­i­cally rich nat­u­ral forests are not con­verted to bi­o­log­i­cally poor for­est, other in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions have adopted a dif­fer­en­ti­ated cri­te­rion which looks at sev­eral thresh­olds. The TREES project clas­si­fies for­est cover greater than 70% as “dense for­est”. (TREES is a joint project of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and the Euro­pean Space Agency for the de­vel­op­ment of space ob­ser­va­tion tech­niques to im­prove mon­i­tor­ing of trop­i­cal forests.) The In­ter­na­tional Geo­sphere-Bio­sphere Pro­gramme uses a 60% thresh­old for forests while the United Na­tions Environment Pro­gramme uses 40% for closed forests and 10% to 40% for open or frag­mented forests.

Forests vs plan­ta­tions

An­other grouse against the FAO def­i­ni­tion of for­est is that it in­cludes planted forests (or for­est plan­ta­tions). Es­tab­lish­ment of plan­ta­tion forests can be ei­ther through af­foresta­tion on land that un­til then was not clas­si­fied as for­est, or by re­for­esta­tion of land clas­si­fied as for­est – for in­stance, af­ter a fire or a storm, or fol­low­ing clear-felling.

The in­clu­sion of for­est plan­ta­tions in the def­i­ni­tion of forests is of con­cern as it es­sen­tially means that sta­tis­tics on the for­est cover of a coun­try can re­main un­changed even if nat­u­ral forests are re­placed with for­est plan­ta­tions. As such, the true ex­tent of nat­u­ral for­est loss might be hid­den be­cause it can be off­set by the ex­pan­sion of for­est plan­ta­tions. For in­stance, FAO’s For­est Re­source As­sess­ment 2010 re­ported that net for­est loss in Asia was at an an­nual rate of 0.6 mil­lion ha in the 1990s but the re­gion recorded a net an­nual gain of about 2.2 mil­lion ha of for­est from 2000 to 2010. This was mainly due to large-scale af­foresta­tion ef­forts in China and de­spite con­tin­ued high rates of net loss in many coun­tries in South and South-East Asia.

The loss of bio­di­ver­sity and ecosys­tem ser­vices pro­vided by nat­u­ral forests, es­pe­cially trop­i­cal rain­forests, can­not be re­placed by for­est plan­ta­tions which are typ­i­cally mono­cul­ture plan­ta­tions and some­times made up of non-na­tive species. In trop­i­cal coun­tries, in­clud­ing Malaysia, bio­di­ver­si­tyrich forests des­ig­nated as per­ma­nent for­est re­serves are be­ing felled and re­placed by such plan­ta­tions. The loop­hole in the def­i­ni­tion means that such changes would be re­garded as hav­ing caused no change in for­est cover, thereby mask­ing the loss and degra­da­tion of nat­u­ral forests.

For­est plan­ta­tions are not forests and should not be clas­si­fied as such. Con­ver­sion of nat­u­ral forests to plan­ta­tions should al­ways be re­garded as de­for­esta­tion, and the ex­tent and es­tab­lish­ment of plan­ta­tions should be re­ported sep­a­rately and not be con­sid­ered as re­for­esta­tion.


In 2000, about 18.5 mil­lion ha or 56% of Malaysia’s land was still forested but this de­creased to 55% in 2007. If the de­clin­ing trend con­tin­ues, it is pro­jected that forested ar­eas will drop to 17.1 mil­lion ha or 51.8% of to­tal land area come 2020. A study by WWF­Malaysia found a con­tin­ual de­cline in for­est re­serve ar­eas in Penin­su­lar Malaysia – a nett loss of 1,696ha in 10 states, be­tween 2001 and 2005.

In the penin­sula, forests are pro­tected un­der the National Forestry Act of 1984 by des­ig­nat­ing tracts of for­est as Per­ma­nent Re­served For­est (PRF). Each PRF are then clas­si­fied into any of these nine pur­poses: tim­ber pro­duc­tion for­est; soil pro­tec­tion for­est; soil recla­ma­tion for­est; flood con­trol for­est; water catch­ment for­est; for­est sanc­tu­ary for wildlife; vir­gin jun­gle re­served for­est; amenity for­est; ed­u­ca­tion for­est; re­search for­est; and for­est for fed­eral pur­poses.

Though the word “per­ma­nent” is used, there is noth­ing “per­ma­nent” about the des­ig­na­tion as PRF. The state govern­ment can change the clas­si­fi­ca­tion to any other class, al­beit by no­ti­fi­ca­tion in gazette. The sit­u­a­tion moves to shakier ground un­der Sec­tion 11 of the Act which al­lows the state to ex­cise land (wholly or partly) from a PRF if it is deemed to be no longer re­quired for the pur­pose or is needed for a higher eco­nomic use.

In nei­ther in­stance does the law re­quire for pub­lic no­ti­fi­ca­tion or con­sul­ta­tion on the degazette­ment. This changed how­ever, in the state of Se­lan­gor which in May, made an amend­ment in the Act re­quir­ing manda­tory pub­lic in­quiry be­fore a PRF can be ex­cised. There are no signs that a sim­i­lar pol­icy re­form will be ini­ti­ated by the Fed­eral Govern­ment. The National Forestry Coun­cil has been urged to spur ini­tia­tives to­wards this sig­nif­i­cant re­form that will em­power the rakyat to make de­ci­sions that af­fect the na­tion’s rich forests. – Ar­ti­cle cour­tesy of WWF-Malaysia

Nat­u­ral canopy:

Trees soar­ing high in the Kuala Lan­gat South peatswamp for­est of Se­lan­gor. Penin­su­lar Malaysia con­tin­ues to lose its for­est re­serves — some 1,696ha in 10 states be­tween 2001 and 2005. — Pic by chou K.S.

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