Reality check required on world’s forests

Such is the gap between World Forestry Congresses (5 years) that it prompted one of the facilitators to describe it as the forestry sector’s Olympics and World Cup rolled into one.

Taking place in Durban last week, the United Nations-funded event brings together politicians, scientists, civil society and other experts. This, the 14th iteration, is very much trying to create an air of positivity with regards to how we manage and protect the planet’s forested area.

Tree in DRC Rainforest. 15 Mar, 2008 © Thomas Einberger / argum / Greenpeace

Drawing on the official event slogan of “Forests and people: Investing in a Sustainable Future” proceedings opened with much fanfare and the headline findings from a report sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that claims the rate at which we are losing forests globally has halved in the last 25 years. The Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) noted improvement pretty much everywhere in the world including in tropical timber-producing countries such as Brazil and Indonesia.

Despite what many of those who disagree with us say, we at Greenpeace are all for a positive outlook. However if we are to protect our forests, our climate and the millions of people who depend on both, then a dose of realism about the scale of the problems confronting us is always needed.

The first reality check is to look beyond the good news in the FRA report. Dr. Janet Cotter, of Greenpeace International’s Science Unit says this “good news” is tempered by the fact that this is based on “net” deforestation. That is, it reports on deforestation combined with regrowth and plantations.

Including regrowth omits the huge losses in biodiversity, carbon and ecosystem services that arise from the loss of ancient forests. Similarly, including new plantations masks the loss of natural forests as these could be rubber or timber plantations.

To get a real picture of deforestation, we need to look at the total deforestation figures (ie the “gross” figure, that isn’t offset by regrowth or plantations. The FAO FRA 2015 data give a figure for gross deforestation of 8.8 million hectares per year (Mha/yr). This is over twice the reported net figure of 3.3 million ha per year and demonstrates that deforestation is still a massive problem for the World’s forests.

The good news is that even this total deforestation figure is down from the 13 million hectares of forests lost each year between 2005 and 2010 reported by FAO in 2010. Unfortunately, things are not so simple. The FAO are often criticised for relying on countries to submit their own reports, which are sometimes data-poor.

At the same time as the FAO report was released, Global Forest Watch also released satellite-based data on tree cover loss data. Although differing definitions and methodologies are used in the two estimates, the satellite data also show reductions in tree cover for the past two years, but less than the FAO, a 20% drop for 2014, from a peak in deforestation rates in 2012.

Kumi Naidoo © Greenpeace

Kumi Naidoo also took advantage of the opportunity to remind WFC 2015 delegates that while there is hope of combatting deforestation and climate change in the form of the New York Declaration on Forests, little has been done in the past year by governments and corporations to meet the ambitious targets contained within that agreement.

To spontaneous applause from the floor Kumi said that there was “an elephant in the room that needed to be tickled a little bit”, referring to the fact that while our planet would ultimate survive it will be us who suffer the highest price for failing to combat climate change.

Held in Africa for the very first time, a day of special presentations aimed at highlighting the risks and opportunitites for the continent’s forests again struck a very official tone. There were problems but they were being addressed several ministers said.

But Greenpeace Africa has consistently exposed how shipments of illegally-felled timber from the world’s second-largest rainforested area – the Congo Basin – continue to leave Africa’s ports destined for the Europe, US,  China and elsewhere despite laws in existence in Europe and US to prevent such trade.

Many speakers here have insisted how communities are at the forefront of all their plans for “sustainable forestry”. Yet the number of community representatives here in Durban is meagre at best. For a more representative view of how many communities really feel, Greenpeace is taking part in the Civil Society Alternative Platform (CSAP), an event running parallel to the WFC.

One representative from Iran said a workshop he attended at the WFC had been a “waste of time”. Though as Kumi said in an opening address to participants, courage is needed – courage not only to recognise the reality we face from climate change, but courage to become an activist and do something about them.

Greg Norman is a Forests Communications Coordinator for Greenpeace International.

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