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What has the pandemic done to forest policies? (commentary)

Natural forest (left) versus an oil palm plantation (right) in Indonesia. Photo credits: Rhett A. Butler

Natural forest (left) versus an oil palm plantation (right) in Indonesia. Photo credits: Rhett A. Butler

  • Aida Greenbury, the former Managing Director of Sustainability at APP Group and currently a board member and advisor to several organizations including Mongabay, raised concerns about recent high-level commitments from governments.
  • Greenbury says that fuzzy definitions on what constitutes “forest” and “deforestation” leave plenty of loopholes for countries to dodge meaningful action on protecting natural forests. She cites Indonesia, where there’s a renewed push to classify industrial oil palm plantations as forests, as an example.
  • “Creating vague definitions for ‘forest’ is a common tactic by policy makers and corporations. It could be used to change the perception of deforestation being associated with palm oil,” she said. “Categorizing oil palm plantations as ‘forest’ could be used to lower the country’s official deforestation rate, as well as make them eligible for carbon offsets. It would probably even legalize oil palm plantation development in protected forest areas.”
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

I have not traveled anywhere these past 2 years. I couldn’t travel even if I wanted to since Australia, where I live, closed its borders in March 2020 in a bid to contain the spread of the COVID-19. One of my cancelled trips this year was to attend the UNFCCC COP26 in Glasgow. I was a virtual participant instead, and was actually happy to not go. In addition to fewer emissions, the last thing I wanted to do was to be in a conference packed with 40,000 people during a pandemic.

Considering the circumstances, I was hoping that the outcomes of the COP26 would be a drastic wake up call to act to save our forests and environment. Many scientists have written about how the current pandemic is closely linked to natural habitat destruction, deforestation, and the climate crisis. Based on that alone, one would think that regulations and policies which have been issued during the pandemic would be tightened to ensure that the state of the environment will not worsen. Right?

At COP26, I was closely monitoring the development of the texts of the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, and was generally happy with the final version, especially the parts that state that signees are committed to ‘halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030’, and that signatories will strengthen their efforts to ‘not drive deforestation and land degradation’.

But just like many happy moments, like the feeling after buying a new pair of heels, this too was short-lived.

The impressive speed of my emotional decline could be attributed to two reasons. Firstly, it was because I couldn’t find the definition of ‘deforestation’ referenced in the Glasgow Declaration. It was very déjà vu, repeating the same mistake made by the UN New York Declaration on Forests in 2014. Endorsed by more than 200 entities including national governments, sub-national governments, multi-national companies, indigenous peoples and local community organizations, non-government organizations, and financial institutions, the New York Declaration included a commitment to ‘at least halve the rate of loss of natural forests globally by 2020 and strive to end natural forest loss by 2030’, but the Declaration did not define what ‘natural forest’ was.

Secondly, one would think that a country like Indonesia, which endorsed both the Glasgow and New York Declarations, would know what ‘to halt forest loss, to reverse forest loss and to end natural forest loss’ means, right?

Apparently not. On the 3rd of November 2021, one day after Indonesia signed the Glasgow Declaration, its Environmental and Forestry Minister muddled the country’s commitment by tweeting: “The massive development of President Jokowi’s era must not stop in the name of carbon emissions, or in the name of deforestation.” She added that all development efforts must be carried out in accordance with government policy of reducing deforestation and emissions. I am not sure what she actually meant; it is possible to delink deforestation from development.

To be able to understand the meaning of deforestation, one must understand the definition of ‘natural forest’ itself. What is Indonesia’s definition for deforestation? In the Minister of Forestry of the Republic of Indonesia’s Regulation Number P.30/MENHUT-II/2009 regarding Procedures for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), deforestation is defined as ‘the permanent conversion of forest areas into non-forested land, for human activities.’ The definition of ‘forest’ and what constitutes different categories of forests and their total areas in Indonesia differ across various government documents, according to an Indonesian forestry expert, formerly an employee of the Environment and Forestry Ministry. In its License to Clear report, Greenpeace stated that despite appearing in legislation, the term ‘primary forest’ does not have a standard definition in Indonesia, which means that subjective interpretations are often used when vested interests are involved. Moreover, until 2017, there were no ministerial regulations setting out a standard survey methodology for proposed changes to the primary forest component of the moratorium map, so until this point, provincial agencies were free to interpret the requirement in whatever way they chose.

So, it seems that Indonesia does not have a clear definition for ‘natural forest’ nor ‘deforestation’.

The High Carbon Stock Approach has been widely used in many humid tropic countries to identify and conserve natural forests as part of No Deforestation commitment

The COVID pandemic has apparently also led to the re-emergence of old problems. In 2011, the then- Minister of Forestry of Indonesia had to revoke a one-month-old regulation which allowed oil palm to be categorized as plantation forests. This year, there are efforts closely related to this. There’s a study being conducted by the Faculty of Forestry and Environment, IPB University, together with the Centre for Research and Advocacy for Nature Conservation (Pusaka Alam), and supported by the Association of Indonesian Palm Oil Farmers (Apkasindo). It’s expected to provide a basis for the Indonesian government to shift the status of the exotic African oil palm from being an agricultural plantation to ‘forest’ plantation, as well as resolve the problem of illegal oil palm plantation development inside forest estate areas. According to the university representatives, some of the claims for the change of the status include: that oil palm is a woody plant that has lignocellulose, that oil palm is able to absorb 51.9 megagrams of CO2 (equivalent to 57.2 tons) per ha/year [editor’s note: 35 tons of carbon per hectare is the figure typically used as the lifetime average carbon storage of an oil palm plantation; a value that’s less than a tenth of 400 tons per hectare asserted by this claim], and that oil palm plantations could increase ‘biodiversity’ [editor’s note: oil palm plantations are biological deserts relative to tropical forests]. I guess if they put it that way, planting any grass would increase biodiversity and carbon intake. The three organizations above are also known as long-time defenders of the palm oil industry in Indonesia.

Several Indonesian experts also proposed the development of oil palm agroforestry inside forest areas. The forest definition by FAO, on the other hand, excludes trees planted in agroforestry systems.

The Bonn Challenge, a global forest restoration program under the IUCN has strayed far from natural forest restoration by recognizing agroforestry, plantations, plantings of trees and other woody plants and even silviculture in the forest landscape restoration programs of its signatory members. In addition, a quarter of their country members experienced recent deforestation and agricultural expansion that exceeded their restoration commitment area.

Comparing primary tropical forest loss between two periods — 2010-2014 and 2016-2020 — for countries that experienced substantial loss.

After reading the above confusions and myriad of forest definitions, now do you understand why countries such as Indonesia and Brazil endorsed the Glasgow Declaration?

As I recently stated: “Creating vague definitions for ‘forest’ is a common tactic by policy makers and corporations. It could be used to change the perception of deforestation being associated with palm oil. Categorizing oil palm plantations as ‘forest’ could be used to lower the country’s official deforestation rate, as well as make them eligible for carbon offsets. It would probably even legalize oil palm plantation development in protected forest areas.”

Now that the Glasgow Declaration has been endorsed by 141 countries, what’s next? It’s important to develop a global roadmap to ‘halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030’, and to ‘not drive deforestation and land degradation’. Learning from the lessons in Indonesia, confusion and misunderstanding can be avoided by adopting a clear definition of what a ‘natural forest’ is. For example, the High Carbon Stock Approach defines natural forest in the humid tropics through applying a pragmatic no-deforestation approach based on the FAO forest definition. Most countries acknowledge the FAO definition.

Natural forest (left) versus an oil palm plantation (right) in Indonesia. Photo credits: Rhett A. Butler

I do agree with Zac Goldsmith, Minister for the International Environment and Climate, and UK Animal Welfare and Forests, in his statement that the COP26 package is complimentary and mutually reinforcing, including the efforts to stop deforestation by 2030. We need to make sure that the pledged $19B and the promises from financial institutions and companies are used to implement a clear roadmap to save real natural forests for our future generations. After all, if we need global funding to save the forests on our shared planet, we need to adopt a globally acceptable standard of how we define forests so they can be protected. If years of deforestations’ disastrous impacts, including floods and forest fires, as well as the pandemic and climate crisis, don’t teach us these things, what else will?

Trust me, when you manage millions of hectares of land, you need a clear definition of what forest needs to be conserved and which part of the land can be developed; unless, of course, you intend to continue with deforestation.

Aida Greenbury (on Twitter @AidaGreenbury) dedicates her career life to sustainability. Based in Sydney Australia, she is a board member and advisor for several organizations, including Mongabay. Aida is the former Managing Director of Sustainability at APP Group.

Related reading here at Mongabay:

Proposal could redefine palm oil-driven deforestation as reforestation in Indonesia