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Fuzzy forest framing favours fallacies

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Meine van Noordwijk
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In a WORLDVIEW opinion piece in Nature (22 Sept 2011), Jianchu Xu argues that China’s new forests aren’t as green as they seem. ”Impressive reports of increased forest cover mask a focus on non-native tree crops that could damage the ecosystem.”

Applying internationally accepted definitions of the term forest, China has reported a net increase in forest area of more than 4 million hectares per year since the 1990s. These data, along with smaller net increases in India, Vietnam and the Philippines have marked a turning point in ‘forest transition’ when Asia is considered at continental scale. Asia’s forests appear to do well, despite ongoing loss of natural forest and associated biodiversity in every single Asian country. Data on ‘deforestation’ for Indonesia vary from 5%/year and increasing, to 0.1%/year and declining, depending on the forest definition used (Ekadinata et al., 2010).

There are many stakeholders involved in ‘forest’ issues, and maintaining a broad term with flexible meaning has been important in keeping the public attention and political platform. However, the differences between land cover types included in forest may well be as large as those between forest and non-forest categories, if we consider a number of provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting ecosystem functions. This does not provide a good basis for designing solid policies, unless such policies start with clarifying the terms as used in context.

In the new CGIAR Research Program on ‘Forests, Trees and Agroforestry: livelihoods, landscapes and governance’, there will be a thorough analysis of the changes in tree and forest cover, differentiated by type and location.

For the time being, it might be best to celebrate the diversity of opinion on forests in the “International Year of Forests”, but please question any statistic that refers to forests without further qualifiers. The numbers may mean something quite different from what you think they mean.

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Extpub | by Dr. Radut