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Green groups urge FAO to change “misleading” forest definition

On 21 March, the International Day of Forests, 200 organizations have petitioned the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) stating that its forest definition dating back to 1948 is "misleading" and must be changed. According to the petition signatories, the FAO definition has allowed the plantations industry to hide the "devastating ecological and social impacts of large-scale monoculture tree plantations" behind a positive forest image.

Rubberwood plantation not forest says WRM and calls on FAO to change its definition.
Rubberwood plantation not forest says WRM and calls on FAO to change its definition. Rubberwood plantation not forest says WRM and calls on FAO to change its definition.

Coordinated by the World Rainforest Movement (WRM), an initiative based in Uruguay set up by activists to facilitate, support and reinforce the struggle against deforestation and land grabbing in countries with forests and forest-dependent communities, 200 groups today have signed a petition calling on the FAO to change its definition of “forest”, which it says has been used as blueprint for over 200 national and international forest definitions since 1948.

– For almost 70 years, the misleading FAO forest definition has served the tree plantations industry well. They have hidden the destruction caused when diverse forests, grasslands and peatlands overflowing with life are converted into ‘green deserts’ made up of monoclonal trees in straight rows behind the positive forest image provided by the FAO,” said Winfridus Overbeek, international coordinator of the WRM.

FAO’s forest definition has, says WRM, allowed the plantations industry to call their monoculture plantations of fast-growing species such as eucalyptus, pine, rubber or acacia “forests” because it defines a forest only by the number, height and canopy cover of trees on an area. The definition has enabled the rapid expansion especially in the global South, where monoculture tree plantations now cover some several tens of millions of hectares of land.

According to WRM, this expansion has brought misery to countless rural and peasant communities, and indigenous peoples. Families have lost land and livelihood where monoculture tree plantations have taken their land, destroyed their way of life, dried up their water springs and streams and poisoned their food with agro-toxins.

– With the adoption of the UN Paris Agreement on climate change, revision of this FAO forest definition takes on additional urgency, it would be a tragedy if the misleading FAO definition makes expansion of these damaging tree monocultures eligible for climate funds earmarked for “reforestation” and “forest restoration”, said Guadalupe Rodríguez from Salva la Selva/Rettet den Regenwald.

According to WRM, this would not only harm even more communities where tree plantations take over land used by villagers but also undermine climate protection: Carbon-rich forests could be destroyed and be replaced by monoculture tree plantations with countries claiming that according to the FAO forest definition, no forest area has been lost – despite the massive loss of carbon, biodiversity, water sources and local livelihoods when forests are replaced by monoculture plantations.

An example of “deliberate mislabelling” of plantations as forests that allow the plantations industry to tap into climate funds, highlighted in the petition, is the ‘African Forests Restoration initiative’ (AFR100). Launched at the 2015 UN climate meeting, it aims to cover 100 million hectares (ha) that participating African governments consider “degraded” lands.

The World Bank will make USD 1 billion available for this plan – and relies on the FAO forest definition to define eligibility for funding, with Norwegian-based Green Resources cited as “one of the most controversial” tree plantations companies operating in Africa.

– Industrialized countries’ unsustainable energy demand combined with their new quest for ‘renewable’ energy is already converting forests in the global South into industrial ‘biomass’ plantations. Yet, the word ‘plantation’ does not appear once on the FAO’s “Key messages” webpage for the International Forests Day 2017, said Wally Menne of the Timberwatch Coalition, South Africa.

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