Forest Cover Declines Worldwide, but Increases in Asia and Northern Hemisphere

Data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have been compiled to show the state of the world’s forests and the results paint an interesting picture. While the overall area of forestland declined by just over 1 percent during the last decade (a slower rate than the previous decade), the pattern of forestland decline is instructive.

In most regions of the world, forestland expanded or declined very slightly. As the chart demonstrates, the two areas where forestland declined are Africa and South America.

Interestingly, the wealthiest parts of the world have also witnessed the largest increases in forest cover. The poorest parts of the world are seeing the greatest declines. This contradicts the image some have of industrial forestry destroying forests, leading to deforestation.

One of the causes of deforestation in Africa is subsistence, cutting down trees to cook food, heat homes and other poverty-related activities. In South America, deforestation to clear space for farming continues to be a significant factor.

To address deforestation, we need to understand its causes. These data provide some guidance on the real threats to forest ecosystems.

Does Forestry in Developing Countries Create Deforestation? New Study Says No.

One of the arguments used by advocates of forest certification systems is that certification prevents deforestation and a range of impacts, including climate impacts, associated with deforestation. A new study, however, argues that active forestry is not a cause either of deforestation or, by extension, climate impacts.

The study by Winrock International used NASA satellites to estimate the loss of forest cover and the impact that loss had on carbon emissions. The headline finding is that carbon emissions due to deforestation is “approximately one third of previously published estimates and represents just 10 percent of the total global anthropogenic carbon emissions over the time period analyzed.” The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

In a discussion with Nancy Harris, one of the authors, I asked what role ongoing, active forestry had in these carbon emissions. In the release announcing the study, the authors argue that reducing forest-related emissions involves promoting “forest livelihoods.” Harris confirmed that active forestry was not a contributor to deforestation, saying the problem was “outright clearing” associated with other activities. Harvests that are re-planted, however, are not a significant contributor to climate impact.

The study calculated the amount of land impacted by examining forestland that had moved from greater than 25 percent forest cover in 2000 to less than 25 percent cover by 2005. Harris noted the analysis may have picked up some timber harvests that had not yet re-grown. She and her co-authors are currently updating their research to cover the period from 2006 to 2010. This new study, which they hope to release in December, will provide further insight into the pace of deforestation and should also give more information about the role active forestry plays in the forests of developing countries.

There may be other reasons to purchase timber certified by a science-based system. This study, however, demonstrates that forest certification systems designed to reduce timber harvests in developing countries are unlikely to have a measurable impact on carbon emissions.

Can Consumers Know What They are Getting with FSC? The Problem of Audits.

Travis Snapp received a call from one of his overseas clients that he says typifies some of the problems with the Forest Stewardship Council’s auditing process in developing countries. His client told him the auditors “show up to do these audits for FSC certification and they have no idea what to do.”

In an environment where the political and legal structure are uncertain, FSC and other certification systems offer the opportunity to be sure that forests, regardless of the local laws, are harvested in a consistent and responsible way. That, however, is only true if the auditing process is done in a consist and responsible way. As Snapp argues, that isn’t the case.

Snapp, whose company Benchmark International, consults with foresters across the globe, expresses frustration that FSC pressures purchasers, supplies and politicians to follow the standard, but they aren’t as attentive to the actual implementation of those standards on the ground. He says the experience with the FSC auditors who didn’t know what to do is not a one-off experience. He says “it is not typical, but not infrequent.”

He places the blame for these errors at the feet of FSC. The problem, he argues, is “the way they have written and implemented their standard.” One particular issue is that ultimately FSC isn’t accountable for errors. He cites the example of Asia Plywood. When it was discovered that some of the wood coming from an FSC-certified supplier was illegally harvested, FSC washed their hands, leaving Asia Plywood to take the heat and financial cost. When an environmental group found the errors, Snapp noted “FSC doesn’t take the black eye, nor did the auditor — Asia Plywood and its customers did.”

As a result, there is growing nervousness that FSC won’t stand behind its label. What good is the label if, after passing an audit, that label can be revoked at any time without support from FSC? Snapp says there has to be a mechanism so FSC and its certifiers can be held accountable for what they certify.

Of course, this is not just a business issue — it is an environmental issue. The goal of certification systems is to ensure good forestry where it might not otherwise occur. If audits are done poorly, they don’t achieve the basic goal of maintaining good standards. If FSC is serious about using the value of the FSC label and what it stands for to encourage foresters to meet those standards, it needs to ensure the label means something for the auditors on the ground as well.


Uncertified Conversion: Unintended Consequences of Forest Certification

Nonindustrial private forest landowners provide about half of the nation’s wood and steward nearly 360 million acres of forestland. These lands also provide numerous ecosystem services such as water purification, wildlife habitat, and carbon sequestration.

Forest certification, generally considered a voluntary act to recognize good forest stewardship, may hamper the ability of some of these small private forest owners to manage their land. Timber products flow through a chain of custody from forest owner to processor and through production to create the final product. Certification requirements along that supply chain can restrict market access for non-certified forest owners. Home Depot, for example, sells certified timber products, hence buys from certified processors who must buy from certified forests owners. The cost of certification, however, may outweigh the benefits.

Forest certification can be a costly endeavor for small forest owners. Certification entails the costs of the certification process (auditor visits, travel, report writing, and monitoring) and on the ground expenditures of additional forest planning, infrastructure, and possible reduced harvest.

To date, there are few reported price premiums on certified forest products. As a result, most certification costs are borne by the producer.

Evidence reported by Reed Watson of PERC suggests that increased certification requirements or mandates “will produce the unintended consequence of hastening forest conversion (Forest Landowner March/April 2012).” The small forest land owner that faces restricted timber markets due to certification requirements may find forest conversion more beneficial than certification.

This blog is cross-posted from

Dr. Patrick Moore on Sustainable Forestry and Forests

Dr. Patrick Moore, one of the original founders of Greenpeace, grew up surrounded by forests and it was his love of nature and forests as a child that helped lead him to join the environmental movement. Today he disagrees with his former organization about the best way to protect the forest, but his passion for forests continues. Here are excerpts of our interview with him, discussing sustainable forestry in North America and in developing countries and how active forestry helps preserve forestland across the globe.

Prosperity and Sustainability Go Hand-In-Hand in Asia and Worldwide

Famed GE CEO Jack Welch once said “You can’t grow long-term if you can’t eat short term.” The same can be said about forests. They can’t grow long-term if people can’t eat short term. That is the spirit behind my editorial in the Bangkok Post addressing forest certification standards.

It is certainly true that foresters should be given incentives to manage for the long-term and be given science-based standards of good forestry. Ignoring economic sustainability, however, is not a sound policy. If it isn’t economically sustainable, it won’t be environmentally sustainable.

As I wrote in the piece:

Prosperity and economic growth go hand-in-hand with good forestry practices; poverty and politics are the enemies of sustainable forestry. The evidence of this connection is everywhere. Last year the United Nations celebrated the International Year of the Forest, highlighting the link between prosperity and sound forestry. The UN noted that forest land is actually expanding in the Northern Hemisphere, where demand for wood products is high.

The areas where forests are at risk are primarily the poorest areas of the Southern Hemisphere. But in these regions, active forestry is not the culprit. In fact, it is part of the solution. Most trees in the Southern Hemisphere are cut down to cook food or to heat homes. Focusing on active forestry as the cause is misleading.

You can read the entire piece here: Don’t let politically driven forest certification derail Asia’s economic rise.

Is Forest Certification Helping or Harming the World’s Forests?

What began as a way to offer foresters in developing countries an incentive to practice sustainable forestry has, unfortunately, become a tool to impose particular politics on developing countries.

Forest certification systems, a part of some companies’ corporate social responsibility efforts, were originally designed to offer a price premium to those foresters who followed a basic set of forestry guidelines. Systems like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) promised to help those who followed their guidelines – both environmentally and economically.

Too often this process does not produce its intended results. Instead, some in the environmental community used the standard as a political tool – hanging banners from big box lumber stores – and turning the systems into trade restrictions that harm the developing countries the greens claim to care about.

Forest Certification Audit is designed to examine the ways forest certification systems have gotten off track. They left the science and economics behind (even as they promised to follow them) and have now replaced them with political motives. It is often wealthy Americans lecturing poor foresters in developing countries – in many cases the same wealthy Americans who didn’t honor their promise to pay a price premium for certified wood.

Our simple guiding principle is this: prosperity and good forestry go hand in hand, and poverty and politics are the enemies of sustainable forestry.

The evidence of this is everywhere. Last year the United Nations celebrated the International Year of the Forest highlighting the link between prosperity and sound forestry. The U.N. noted that forestland is actually expanding in the Northern Hemisphere while the areas where forests are at risk are primarily the poorest areas of the Southern Hemisphere. Indeed, active forestry is not the culprit. Most trees in the Southern Hemisphere are cut down to cook food or heat homes. Focusing on active forestry as the cause is misleading.

Forest Certification Audit will focus on promoting science-based forestry that offers developing countries a way to benefit, trade and grow. We will examine which certification systems achieve those goals and which are failing. We will identify the real areas of concern for forest habitat and wildlife so we can honestly assess their effectiveness. Such assessments stand in stark contrast to chasing mistaken, but on-the-surface, emotionally satisfying political issues that take our attention away from real opportunities to help forestland.

And to those that may disagree with what we have to say, we want to hear from you.  Forest Certification Audit will be an open platform to learn about the various certification systems, and hear from their champions, including FSC.  We aim to foster a healthy dialogue to educate stakeholders, public officials, civil society and concerned citizens.