Defining “forest” could improve REDD+ monitoring in Indonesia

Choosing the right definition for forests in order to curb deforestation.
Indonesia is one of the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitters — 85 percent of which comes from land conversion and deforestation.

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If policymakers fail to consider carefully how they define forests, they risk compromising the potential success of the U.N.-backed REDD+ program, which aims to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, scientists say.

A recent case study in Indonesia found that such challenges as determining whether to classify eucalyptus and teak plantations as “forest” could have a significant impact on how carbon emissions from deforestation and degradation are measured and reported, and how the drivers of deforestation are assessed, according to a study.

“Definitions set the parameters by which you gather past, present and future information on your forests, which enable you to design a more effective REDD+ scheme,” said Louis Verchot, director of forests and environment research with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), scientist and co-author of a new report.

“If these definitions aren’t clear and consistent, then you may be basing your assessment of success on inaccurate data. You could be thinking you’re having a bigger impact than you really are.”

The study, which reviewed historical deforestation data across the islands of Indonesia from 2000 until 2009, found that deforestation rates were 28 percent higher — 1.35 million hectares more — when using a national definition compared with an international definition, or using a definition that recognizes only non-plantation forests.

Indonesia is one of the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitters — 85 percent of which comes from land conversion and deforestation. Choosing a definition for forests that is not adapted to national circumstances could lead to large areas of deforestation being excluded under the REDD+ scheme and an extra 200 million tons of carbon pumped into the atmosphere, the report argues. These emissions must be accounted for if Indonesia can meet its pledge to reduce overall greenhouse gases by 26 percent by 2020 and for the success of its 44 REDD+ projects currently under way.

The Indonesian case study provides important lessons for other countries participating in REDD+ programs, in particular the need to accurately monitor and report their carbon emissions and deforestation rates.

The data, collected using satellite imagery and carbon stock inventories, are used to determine a national reference emission level (REL) — the benchmark from which the success of REDD+ actions can be measured and the basis from which compensation payments can be calculated.

As such, failing to comprehensively cover all major sources of deforestation due to challenges in defining forests could affect the very legitimacy of the scheme, Verchot says, which is why governments should choose wisely.

“REDD+ has financial incentives, so policymakers have to be conscious when submitting their definitions to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC] that they are accurate and hold up to scrutiny,” he added.


Although the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends that countries report forest cover loss and greenhouse gas emissions using an internationally recognized definition, such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO) definition, there are no globally agreed definitions of “deforestation,” “degradation” and “deforestation” within the UNFCCC itself. Definitions vary from country to country, and within countries at the state, provincial and local levels.

In Indonesia, the majority of definitions are determined by the Ministry of Forestry (MOF) and plantations (forests planted with a single, often non-native species) are considered part of the national forest domain.

This means that under the current MOF definition, teak and eucalyptus plantations are classified as “forests,” which could have major emission implications, Verchot said.

Although forest plantations do store carbon, they contribute to emission reductions only when planted on degraded land with initially lower carbon densities, he added, so the history of the land that is planted must be considered.

“What the current definition does not take into account is when plantation forests replace natural forests, such as peat swamps, releasing huge amounts of emissions into the atmosphere,” he said. “The UNFCCC was very specific that emissions from converting natural forests to plantation forests must be considered in national REDD+ schemes.”

With this in mind, CIFOR scientists decided to re-examine historical deforestation data across the islands of Indonesia to uncover to what extent an FAO definition, a  “natural forest” definition that excluded plantation forests, and a Ministry of Forestry definition would impact the assessment of deforestation rates and consequently the drivers of deforestation.

The study found that between 2000 and 2009, deforestation rates were 4.9 million hectares when using the FAO definition, 5.8 million hectares when using a “natural forest” definition (18 percent higher) and 6.8 million hectares when using an MOF definition (28 percent higher).

The choice of definition led to very different outcomes.

For example, under the international FAO definition, shrublands are considered secondary forest, based on their canopy cover and height. This meant that in Kalimantan and Sulawesi between 2003 and 2006, large areas of secondary forest converted to shrubland did not count as “deforestation” under the FAO definition.  Deforestation rates were therefore twice as high for the MOF and natural forest definition than for the FAO definition in these areas.

How you define a forest greatly impacts what you assess as the causes of deforestation and what you do about them

Louis Verchot

In fact, more than half the total area deforested in Indonesia from 2000 to 2009 was attributed to the conversion of secondary forest to scrublands under the national and natural forest definitions, which was not recognized by the FAO definition.

Both the FAO and MOF definitions make no distinction between plantation and natural forest. This meant that when more than 130,000 hectares of peat, mangrove and upland forest were converted into forest plantations in Sumatra from 2006 to 2009, they were recognized as being deforested only by the “natural” forest definition.

Without differentiating between natural forest and forest plantations, the data can often be misleading, Verchot said. He points to a spike in “deforestation” rates in Java between 2003 and 2006 where both the MOF and FAO definitions recognized the conversion of 650,000 hectares of forest plantations into agricultural lands as “deforestation,” whereas the natural definition did not.


While the importance of the natural forest definition is increasingly being recognized by NGOs, research organizations and in the UNFCCC REDD+ negotiations, Verchot is quick to point out that the choice of definition lies with Indonesia’s policy-makers.

“We are not recommending a particular definition to be used … we just want to show the implications of certain decisions when choosing a forest definition. Once the implications of a particular choice are understood, mitigating measures for undesired outcomes, like defining and accounting for emissions from forest degradation can be put in place, for example.”

However there are some lessons to be learned.

The first, Verchot said, is that international definitions that do not include national circumstances can leave out a significant amount of deforestation. “It is important for the integrity of REDD+ schemes to treat natural and plantation forests differently.”

The second, he said, “is that how you define a forest greatly impacts what you assess as the causes of deforestation and what you do about them. If your definition leaves out a significant portion of your deforestation, policies to curb deforestation may miss a large part of the problem and be ineffective.”

For more information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Louis Verchot at

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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