Sometimes, good things happen to forests

February 22, 2022

In the news, forests are often discussed solely in light of negative developments such as forest fires or illegal logging. Bas Arts thinks it means that positive developments often remain underexposed. In this NRC Opinion article below, Bas entertains a more hopeful narrative for forests.

This article is the English translation of the NRC Opinion piece, "Gelukkig gebeurt er ook wel eens iets goeds met bossen", published Feb 8, 2022. Read the original article in Dutch here.

Sometimes, good things happen to forests

By Bas Arts

Forest fires, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, climate change from poor forest management, illegal logging — it seems as if there is only bad news about forests.

This bad news is never about small areas either. According to Global Forest Watch, we lost about 25 million hectares of tree cover in 2019: 11 million hectares to agriculture — a combination of small-scale and commercial — about 7 million hectares to forestry, and about 4 million hectares to forest fires. The rest was lost to urbanisation, infrastructure, mining projects, reservoirs, and forest degradation.

Incidentally, the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has published a completely different figure — an annual loss of forest area of about 5 million hectares in the 2010–2020 period. Other definitions (tree cover vs forest area), and other indicators (gross vs net loss of forest), other methods (global GIS analyses vs country reports) and other interests (an NGO vs a governmental organisation) mean that the FAO has arrived at a far lower number.

Whatever figures you choose, many trees and substantial forest area are lost every year, as even the “smaller” FAO figure is still the area of a country such as Costa Rica.

Loss of biodiversity

This loss has major consequences for people who are depending on the forest for their survival, for the biodiversity that declines with the forest cover, and for climate change, which is further amplified by deforestation and forest degradation.

Fortunately, there are positive developments as well. In my study Forest Governance: Hydra or Chloris?, I show that two initiatives related to the sustainable use of forests — forest certification and participatory forest management — alone reach a quarter of all global forests (about a billion hectares!) already.

Forest certification is known from programmes such as FSC and PEFC that claim that through a controlled chain, only wood from sustainably managed forests reaches the consumer. Participatory forest management involves management of forests by local communities, often in collaboration with forest services, NGOs, and experts, in areas where such management was lacking until recently.

Not only is the scope of both initiatives impressive, in about half of the cases they also have a positive impact on the forests and the people who live there (these results are based on a systematic review of the available and relevant scientific literature). The impact includes prevention of further deforestation, an increase in biodiversity, more productive forests, and people managing to gain more income from the forests.

Of course, it is not going well everywhere, and improvements need time before they start to show. Both initiatives are also being criticised. The main causes of deforestation — such as expansion of agriculture — are not addressed, and improvements are often relative. What I want to show in my publication is that the glass is half full and half empty.

Wood certification

It is a matter of where you place the emphasis, and that is where research associates and stakeholders differ. The book uses two metaphors for this. Hydra refers to the “many-headed monster” from Greek mythology. You can cut off a head, but two will grow back in its place. In other words: the politico-economic powers of deforestation are so strong that initiatives such as certification and participatory forest management cannot really compete.

On the other side, Chloris — the goddess of flowers in Greek — presents a far more positive view of the world. The many initiatives are then viewed as: “thousands of flowers sown of which at least a few will blossom”. The hope is that the many small wins can together make a big difference in curbing deforestation.