When is a forest a forest? Forest concepts and definitions in the era of forest and landscape restoration, Chazdon et al. 2016

Compendium Volume 4 Number 1 July 2020

This article analyzes the policy context for forest ecosystem restoration, arguing that it is heavily shaped by the way we define a forest. The use of a forest definition lacking ecological considerations severely undermines conservation and restoration initiatives.  

We live in an era of unprecedented environmental change, motivating equally unprecedented global actions to protect and restore forest ecosystems. These efforts could fail to achieve their ambitious goals if they are not informed by clear and appropriate concepts and definitions of forests [Chazdon 2016: 1].

There are multiple definitions of a forest. Early European and internationally adopted definitions tended to define forests according to their usage for timber. FAO’s 1948 definition created for assessing wood harvesting potential of the world’s forests is still in use today. Yet new definitions have since been created that emphasize conservation, carbon sequestration and biodiversity values of forests.

However, national and global forest assessments tend to use narrow technical definitions that ignore ecological values of forested land.

In many cases, forest assessments do not distinguish between land covered by natural and planted forests. Thus, if natural forests are cleared and replaced with plantations, no net loss of forest cover is reported [Chazdon 2016: 6].

In other words, areas that should not be considered forest in ecological terms are counted as forest – an obfuscation with disastrous environmental outcomes. Similarly, ecologically important yet small patches of trees that are not counted in forest inventories and lack legal protection are at risk of being lost.

Areas classified as ‘‘non-forests’’ are as important to forest definitions as are forests. More than 43 % of agricultural land globally is in agroforestry systems with 10 % tree cover. In Rwanda and Brazil, forest inventories using a 0.5-ha threshold ignore substantial areas of small forest fragments, agroforests, and woodlots, leading to underestimates of actual tree cover. Small patches of trees and even isolated remnant trees can hold high ecological and conservation value, and can play an important role in enhancing landscape connectivity, local biodiversity, and local livelihoods [Chazdon 2016: 7].

Information from participatory local monitoring and remote sensing technology that distinguishes “among successional stages of forests, selectively logged forests, and single-species plantations” [Chazdon 2016: 10] is needed.

Access to this information will allow countries and international agencies to track changes in natural forest cover, and to monitor processes of restoration, rehabilitation, and afforestation within a landscape context and, consequently, make informed policy decisions. We are on the frontier of developing new ways of monitoring and assessing land cover that will provide robust indicators of the quality and origins of tree cover and enable new ways of viewing and defining forests and reforests. To see beyond the overly simplified categories of forest loss, forest degradation, and forest gain, we need to develop and apply more adapted and nuanced definitions that will deepen our understanding of the drivers and outcomes of land-use change and forest dynamics within landscapes [Chazdon 2016: 10].

Chazdon, Robin L., et al., 2016, When is a forest a forest? Forest concepts and definitions in the era of forest and landscape restoration, Ambio 45, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-016-0772-y.

For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 4 Number 1 July 2020