Asia’s Real Contribution to the Global Health of Forests

A new report highlights forest planting in Asia, but there’s a more important movement growing in the region.

Posted by Ben Vickers

As the United Nations’ International Year of Forests kicked off this spring, there was good news from Asia. New planting in China, India, Vietnam and other countries in the region is helping to slow down the rate of forest loss worldwide, according to the 2011 State of the World’s Forests report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

We generally expect these year-long topical jamborees to begin with dire predictions, often depressingly reinforced by the year’s end. It makes for a refreshing change to be presented with positive stories that we can build on. However, the focus on plantations is a distraction from the perfect opportunity that the International Year of Forests provides: to push for a radical change in the way we manage what remains of the world’s natural forests.

Many environmental lobby groups are unhappy that the FAO report includes plantations at all, considering them undeserving of the title “forests” because of their limited social and environmental value when compared to the natural kind. Recognizing these concerns, FAO’s Eduardo Rojas-Briales noted at the report’s launch that the tree-planting spree in Asia over the last decade did not happen at the expense of natural forest.

However, while it may be true that plantations have not, in most cases, physically replaced older, natural trees, the emphasis on their expanding coverage still masks the fact that in Asia, as elsewhere, natural forest area continues to shrink.

Natural forests are complex, dynamic systems that bear little relation to the vast monocultures of planted trees that drape the hills of Central Vietnam and Inner Mongolia. They deliver quite different benefits. In terms of climate regulation, plantations act as “carbon sinks,” absorbing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Mature natural forests, on the other hand, serve as “carbon reservoirs” – maintaining them prevents the release of the carbon that they have accumulated over the centuries.

Plantations can improve local air quality and soften the impact of extreme weather. Natural forests perform these environmental services as well, but they also hold a vast store of biological and ecosystem diversity.

Plantations are easier to design and manage for regular income, which may directly accrue to local people only if their title to land (and the trees on it) is secure. Natural forests, however, bring a wealth of services essential to the livelihoods of 450 million indigenous and forest-dependent people in the Asia-Pacific region alone.

So, while rolling out plantation forests is all very well, we cannot claim to respond to the call of the Year of Forests unless we focus on what’s left of our natural heritage. There’s a growing consensus that to do so, we need to open much of the forest up, rather than fence it off, so that it can be managed and valued for the services it provides. This means giving the people who depend on forests for their everyday needs a greater say in their management.

A recent report by Rights and Resources Initiative shows that forest dwellers and local people have consistently done a better job of managing and protecting forests than the centralized management structures that most governments favor.

As Rights and Resources’ Andy White points out, this is not a sudden revelation. Many countries signed global commitments to devolve more control of forests to local people more than 30 years ago but have woefully failed to deliver on their promises. There are many good examples from Latin America that show how successful forest management can be achieved with local communities in the lead. But in the past two decades, many countries in Asia have been particularly innovative in this area.

Nepal’s community forestry program, in which self-identified groups of local forest dwellers assume full management responsibility over the forests that they have traditionally used, is a fine example to other countries in the region and beyond. The system is underpinned by a simply-crafted law based on security of rights to use the forest rather than land tenure. In less than 20 years, about one third of all forest land has come under local control in small, easily-managed units, and the Department of Forests has changed from security force (keeping local people out of the forest) to service provider (supporting local forest managers with advice and training). In areas right across the country, degradation of natural forest has not only stopped, but has been reversed.

Cambodia’s experience is another promising example. Emerging from decades of bloody conflict, the country was under enormous pressure to maximize short-term financial gains from forest clearance. Yet in the face of opposition from powerful private interests, and sometimes from other branches of government, the Forest Administration drafted and negotiated laws giving local people the right to claim tenure over the forest that remains. From zero in 2006, more than 1 million acres of Cambodia’s forest area was registered as community-owned by 2010, and effectively off-limits to logging companies and land developers.

Not so long ago, international watchdogs such as Global Witness were writing off Cambodia as impossibly corrupt, with the forest sector at the heart of the country’s malaise. Now the world is watching closely to see if the community forestry program really can help Cambodia to turn the page on its recent history of forest destruction.

In essence, successful examples of people-centered forest management tend to entail a wholesale paradigm shift in a government’s approach to forest policy. This does not often happen spontaneously. Asia also holds cautionary tales. The Philippines was one of the first countries in the region to enact legislation giving local communities and indigenous peoples the rights to own and manage forest areas, but these rights became hostage to the whims of subsequent governments. This left local people without confidence in the value of the legislation or the ability to turn the rights into tangible benefits.

Across the region, there is a precarious balance between the incentives to hand resources back to the people, and the instincts of governments to centralize and regulate forest use and management. As the Philippines demonstrates, progress is reversible. Even in Nepal, there is pressure to move away from community management and demarcate new protected areas as a simpler route to protection, removing at a stroke the value of these forests as sources of local livelihoods.

The UN has declared that 2011 is the year for “Celebrating Forests for People.” To translate this celebration into action, we can still look to Asia for lessons. But for the International Year of Forests to end on as hopeful a note as it began, we must put people – not  plantations – at the center.

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  1. I’m pleased that the plantation problem has been highlighted by Ben Vickers: “we must put people – not plantations – at the center”.

    However his article assigns far greater value to tree plantations than they deserve.

    Saying that “plantations act as ‘carbon sinks’, absorbing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere” is hardly true, as they also cause the release of soil carbon and carbon from the vegetation they replace, before being cut down and then pulped at carbon-spewing paper mills.

    Similarly, saying “Plantations can improve local air quality and soften the impact of extreme weather” is also a distortion of the facts. If anything they destroy the ecosystems that help clean air and water, and stabilise local weather conditions, whilst their high water consumption dehydrates remaining natural vegetation, which then increases the incidence of wildfires=further carbon emissions.

    The inclusion of plantations in the FAO’s global forest report allows a situation where increased expansion of plantations is used to justify turning a blind eye to ongoing destruction of real forests, by referring to plantations as a “type of forest”.

    Until timber plantations are properly defined as a crop, in the same way as other industrial plantations such as cotton, sugar cane and oil palm, the true state of the world’s forests will continue to be misrepresented by the FAO, and the UNFCCC will continue to punt plantations as fake carbon sinks.

    Wally Menne
    Tel: +27 (0)82 4442083
    Skype: wally.menne

  2. Dear Ben, I totally agree with you! Monoculture plantations could never replace completely the natural forests. We should focus more on protecting natural forests than on planting new plantations…not only in Asia, but all aorund the world, too.
    ECOmmitted greetings 🙂

  1. Anton’s Weekly Digest of International Law, Vol. 2, No. 18 (12 May 2011) | Anton's Weekly Digest of International Law

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