DG’s Column

Putting forestry at the center

A final word from CIFOR Director General, Peter Holmgren
Peter Holmgren is finishing a five-year term as CIFOR’s Director General at the end of October, 2017. CIFOR Photo/Aris Sanjaya

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I am now moving on from CIFOR, and this is my final DG’s Column in Forests News. I have made it a reflection based on the 50 articles published here over the past five years. Altogether it becomes an illustration of the reasons and rationale for CIFOR’s efforts to position forestry at the center of the new development and climate agendas.

As an international organization, CIFOR plays an important role in providing platforms upon which politics can operate, because CIFOR’s voice is independent. One challenge lies in finding the space for a credible and comprehensive voice amongst defined commitments to donors and a diverse set of research results in our projects. Yet, this is a niche I have identified for CIFOR and tried to make the best of.

This is not intended as a full review of the role of forestry for sustainable development. Instead I have taken the liberty to frame it around the following topics:

What remains is to say farewell from this stage, although I expect to interact with many of you in the near future.

Best wishes to all of you and your families!

Mohon maaf lahir batin.

Peter Holmgren


In my first article in October 2012, I bring light on my perspective on forestry and also illustrate CIFOR’s long-standing research across the sustainable development spectrum, saying it is “time for forestry to come out of the forest”.

And further: “As long as we continue to measure the contributions of forests solely against the benchmarks of ending deforestation and limiting climate change, we will be blind to the much wider benefits that forestry can bring to sustainable development.”

In addition, the article discussed the unnecessary dichotomy between forests and food security. Later, and unfortunately, the 2014 New York Climate Summit reinforced this dichotomy by having separate declarations for forests and agriculture, to which I asked “Climate Summit statements: Agriculture + Forests = Landscapes?”.

I am now, however, pleased to see the CIFOR-led report to the 2017 Committee on World Food Security titled Sustainable Forestry for Food Security and Nutrition.

We seem to have advanced somewhat.


The development of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs has been among the most significant advances in international development in recent decades, comparable with the Stockholm 1972 and Rio 1992 achievements. Together with the Paris climate agreement this establishes the current key political reference framework for all sectors and on all scales.

As the SDG negotiations proceeded, it became obvious and important to figure out how forestry should relate to the new framework. At the same time, we were working internally and with many partners renewing our CIFOR Strategy. It became clear to us that comprehensively linking to the new SDG framework would be useful not only for CIFOR, but for the forestry community at large.

In June 2013, I wrote about how forestry could connect to the emerging set of goals. This was continued in January 2014, ahead of a major UN meeting on the SDG framework, and again in February 2014 on opportunities for forestry.

Eventually, Agenda 2030 and the SDGs were unanimously agreed by the UN General Assembly in September 2015. CIFOR followed suit by releasing our new strategy in February 2016, linking forestry to all 17 SDGs, which I commented in this DG column: Forestry in the new development era.

In hindsight, this appears to be a logical and predictable development. After all, we now finally also have a UN Strategic Plan on Forests connecting to almost all the SDGs. However, leading up to the SDG agreement, forestry discussions often revolved around the risks of abandoning the forestry tribe’s grounds, and about the risks of losing traditional forms of identity and influence. Many wanted to focus on maintaining a goal unique to forests. My perspective on this was very clear – it would be a reinforcement of the forestry silo, far away from the integrated solutions we need, and almost certainly reduced relevance of sector proponents. Ahead of the XIV World Forestry Congress in September 2015, I made suggestions on forestry for a sustainable future, noting rhetorically that:

“Readers of this blog may wonder what my views might be about a congress so defined by the forestry sector. Would it potentially focus on sector-internal considerations at the expense of broader development priorities? Is it reinforcing the institutional forest silo?”

The CIFOR strategy process has made clear that forestry is about livelihoods, food systems, health, water, landscapes, energy, climate, inclusive economic development, rights, land tenure, gender, value chains, conservation, integration and, yes, climate too.

Let’s keep it that way.


Measuring and monitoring forests is the academic field where I started my career, so it is close to my heart. I have also been involved in the international debates and reporting on this topic for the past 20 years. I was an early critic to the overselling of satellite remote sensing, and have discussed what forest monitoring and assessment would be about throughout this time.

Since around 1980, deforestation has been the dominating parameter for those engaged in forests internationally. From the FAO Global Forest Resources Assessments, the area of deforestation appears to be the only number of interest, and it was also the only statistic that went into the MDG reporting at the time.

Or rather, it was the net forest area change that was reported, since, interestingly, there has never been a consistent measurement of the extent of deforestation. The only exception is a FAO remote sensing survey that was designed from the outset to capture global area dynamics including deforestation.

This is of course remarkable when you consider the political momentum over the past decade that calls for the end of deforestation, payments to those that reduce it, and punishment by consumers to those that don’t zero it out.

It is also remarkable when you consider the significant resources available to science in recent years to figure this out.

I have written some articles on this theme. In April 2015, I commented on limitations in a global update of remote sensing data: “Watchers of forests – what news from above?” to which the answer seemed to be “not sure.”

In September 2015, three independent studies of global forests came to vastly diverse findings. My article “The new global assessments and the forest” was a travesty on the tale of “The blind men and the elephant” who told different stories of the same animal that they could not see. I followed up this article by going into some depth about the data problems: “Can we trust country level data from global forest assessments?

It is even more worrying that media and experts uncritically use widely disparate figures in their reports, which adds to the confusion as per my latest comment on this topic: “One number to rule them all”.

I can’t detect much concern over these inaccuracies, which raises the question: “Is the extent of deforestation really important, or is the agenda in reality about something else?”.


In the El Nino year 2015, Indonesia and surrounding countries suffered from huge fires and hazardous smoke. Following the human and environmental disaster, there has been more attention to the underlying issues than ever before. CIFOR has been deeply engaged, and in October 2015, I wrote about fire and haze prevention.

However, another feature of the annually recurring fires is that the attention span is quite short. 2013 was also a year with major fire and haze problems. We found then that the media reporting and the hot spot indications from space were strongly and conspicuously correlated over time. Which led to the question “Fire and haze – how to maintain a glow of interest?”.


‘Thinking landscape’ has been a main topic over the past years at CIFOR. In 2012, we made the move to start the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF), although at the time the support was not obvious. One point I made was:

“There are no sharp boundaries between forests and the wider landscape. Not geographically, not economically, and not for sustainable development.”

Several articles in this column then discussed the landscape concept and what to do with it, for example: “What are landscapes”. One point was to be inclusive and embrace the fact that landscapes are very different, and that the common denominator is people.

Ahead of the 2015 Paris Conference of the Parties (COP), I stuck out my neck saying “Climate isn’t everything so welcome to the Global Landscapes Forum”. We had a very successful Forum in Paris and agreed to take the GLF to a new level and organize it outside of the climate talks. This goes along with the perspective that, while landscapes are vital for achieving climate goals, we should consider climate as one of many co-benefits of sustainable landscapes, and also that to find real solutions we must focus beyond climate emissions.

The GLF has set out to put people first and engage a billion in its next phase. This will in itself require new solutions; beyond the plethora of talks and conferences we often seem to get caught up with.

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Topic(s) :   Deforestation Climate change Food security Landscapes Food & diets Rights Restoration SDGs