How does the FAO Forest definition harm people and forests? An open letter to the FAO

This open letter, calling on the FAO to revise its forest definition, will be sent to the FAO next March 21 when the International day of Forests is commemorated.

If your organization has not yet signed, we invite you to support the letter. Please send an email to and include your organization’s name and country.

Signatures as of March 16, 2017


How does the FAO Forest definition harm people and forests?

In September 2015, during the XIV World Forestry Congress, thousands of people took to the streets in Durban, South Africa, to protest against the problematic way in which the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), insists on defining forests (1). The FAO definition considers forests to be basically just “a bunch of trees”, while ignoring other fundamental aspects of forests, including their many other life-forms such as other types of plants, as well as animals, and forest-dependent human communities. Equally, it ignores the vital contribution of forests to natural processes that provide soil, water and oxygen. Besides, by defining ‘forests’ as only being a minimum area of land covered by a minimum number of trees of a minimum height and canopy percentage, FAO has actively promoted the establishment of many millions of hectares of industrial tree plantations, of mainly alien species, especially in the global South. As a consequence, only one particular sector has benefitted: the tree plantation industry. Industrial tree plantations have been the direct cause of many negative impacts on local communities and their forests; which have been well-documented (2).

The protest march that took place in Durban in 2015 had people holding up banners saying Plantations are not Forests!, and ended in front of the venue of the World Forestry Congress, which was organised by the FAO. In response to a call from civil society leaders at the march, a WFC official left the Congress building to receive a petition that had been signed by over 100,000 individuals and groups from around the world. The petition called on the FAO to urgently change its forest definition and to define forests by their true meaning. But once again, the FAO did not change its definition.

Nevertheless, something new did happen: Unlike the silence in response to previous demands for the FAO to change its flawed forest definition, this time FAO reacted to the protest, and sent a letter in response. One point in the FAO letter is particularly interesting. It stated: “There are, in fact, over 200 national definitions of forests that reflect a variety of stakeholders in this matter....”, and goes on to say, “ facilitate the reporting of data…, a globally valid, simple and operational categorization of forests is required” in order that it can “enable consistent comparisons over longer periods of time on global forest development and change”. In writing this, the FAO attempts to convince us that its role is merely one of harmonizing the 200-plus different definitions of forests that different countries have.

But is it really true that the existing FAO forest definition did not influence the way the 200 national definitions of forests were formulated in the first place? And is the FAO correct when it claims that the many different national forest definitions are a result of the reflections of a variety of stakeholders in these countries, again playing down its own influence?

We believe the opposite to be true. First of all, FAO´s forest definition was adopted a long time ago, in 1948. According to a recent joint analysis by different authors of forest concepts and definitions, “FAO´s definition, agreed on by all its [UN] members, is the first to be used by all countries for harmonized reporting; the definition adopted by FAO remains the most widely used forest definition today” (3).

A good country to use as an example to see if the FAO definition is being used, is Brazil, the country with the highest forest cover in the global South, and according to official sources, almost 8 million hectares of industrial tree plantations, mostly eucalyptus monocultures. In its 2010 (4) publication “Forests of Brazil” the Brazilian Forest Service (SBF), under the national government Ministry of Environment and responsible for forest-related issues “… considers as a forest the woody vegetation types that come closest to the forest definition of the Organization of the United Nations for Food and Agriculture (FAO).” As a logical progression from basing its definition on what FAO already defined, it states that “Brazil is a country… of natural and planted forests”, where “planted forests” refers to the 8 million hectares of mostly eucalyptus monocultures. How the Brazilian government defines a forest is therefore not the result of a process that “… reflects a variety of stakeholders in this matter”. On the contrary, it is rather a result of what the FAO had already determined.

But the influence of the FAO´s forest definition goes beyond just determining national forest definitions. In these times of climate change, the FAO´s definition has been the main point of reference to define what a forest is under the UN climate change convention (UNFCCC). By adopting the FAO´s narrow wood-based definition, the UNFCCC has also promoted a view of forests being an area of land containing only trees. For the UNFCCC, it's mainly the trees in a forest that matter because of their capacity to store carbon as they grow, and not forest-dependent communities. Such affected communities are most negatively impacted by restrictions placed on their use of forest resources by “forest carbon offset projects”, also often referred to as REDD+ projects (5). A forest definition only focused on trees opens the door to including “planted forests” – read: industrial tree plantations – a completely false way of “reducing deforestation and forest degradation”, as an option under the climate change convention through which carbon can supposedly be sequestered from the atmosphere and permanently stored. In practice this is just another money-making opportunity for the tree plantation industry, and a major threat to communities affected by the trend of expanding “carbon sink” tree plantations.

Following the latest UNFCCC negotiations, countries have recently been revising their forest legislation, in the hope of attracting so-called ‘climate finance’. Unsurprisingly, the definitions used are largely based on the FAO´s forest definition. In Mozambique, for example, at a workshop on REDD+, a consultant proposed a new forest definition for the country. Just like the FAO´s definition, it is also based on the presence of trees saying that a forest is an area with “…Trees with the potential to reach a height of 5 metres at maturity..”. Also in Indonesia, the Ministry of Environment and Forests submission to the UN Climate Conference in 2015, stated that it had “...adjusted the FAO forest definition...” in order to define its forests. Once again a definition that defines and values a forest only through its trees, and that divides “forests” into a number of different categories including “natural forest” and something called “plantation forests” (6).

The FAO´s forest definition also influences the actions of the financial and development institutions promoting wood-based activities such as the industrial logging of forests, industrial tree plantations, and REDD+ carbon offsets. The main example is the World Bank (WB) which as part of the United Nations conglomerate has been partnering with the FAO for decades in a number of forest-related initiatives. They again joined forces in one of the most ambitious plans launched during UNFCCC COP 21 in Paris, the so-called African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) (7). AFR100 aims to cover 100 million hectares of deforested and so-called “degraded” lands in different African countries with trees. The World Bank will make US$ 1 billion available for this plan. But to understand what the World Bank views as “reforestation”, it is crucial to see how the Bank itself defines a forest. Unsurprisingly, its definition is also borrowed from that of the FAO, describing a forest as “An area of land...with tree crown cover of more than 10% that have trees...” (8) . By defining forests in this way, the World Bank opens the door wide for tree plantation companies expanding their large-scale monoculture tree plantations over community territories in Africa to be part of the ambitious “restoration” plan it is promoting together with the FAO and other partners. The AFR100 proposal strongly resembles the failed Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP) from the 1980’s, which was also dreamed up by the World Bank in collaboration with the FAO.

Final remarks

There is an urgent need for the FAO to stop misrepresenting industrial tree plantations as “planted forests” or “forestry”, because national governments, other UN institutions, and financial institutions, as well as the mainstream media will then follow its inappropriate example. This deliberate confusion of tree plantations with forests is misleading people, because forests in general are viewed as something positive and beneficial. After all, who could be opposed to “forests”?

Above all, the FAO should take full responsibility for the strong influence its “forest” definition has over global economic, ecological and social policies. The 2015 petition that was presented to the FAO in Durban states that it portrays itself in its founding principles as being a “neutral forum where all nations meet as equals”. To live up to this claim requires, among other things, that the FAO must urgently revise its forest definition from one that reflects the preferences and perspectives of timber, pulp/paper, rubber, and carbon trading companies, to one that reflects ecological realities as well as the views of forest-dependent peoples. In contrast to the existing dominant influence of wood-based industries over the FAO, a transparent and open process to establish new and appropriate definitions for forests and tree plantations must also engage effectively with those women and men who directly depend on and therefore protect forests.

1 - “Land with tree crown cover (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10 percent and area of more than 0.5 hectares (ha). The trees should be able to reach a minimum height of 5 meters (m) at maturity in situ.”
2 - See more in
3 - Chazdon, R.L., Brancalion, P.H.S., Laestadius, L. et al. Ambio (2016). doi:10.1007/s13280-016-0772-y. When is a forest a forest? Forest concepts and definitions in the era of forest and landscape restoration (
4 -
5 - See more in
6 -
7 -
8 -

Sign-ons March 16, 2017


Abibiman Foundation in Ghana Ghana
Acción Ecologica Ecuador
Acción por la Biodiversidad Latin America
Africa Europe Fait and Justice Network International
African Women’s Network for Community management of Forests (REFACOF) Cameroon
Aliança RECOs – Redes de Cooperação Comunitária Sem Fronteiras Brazil
Alianza Biodiversidad Latin America
All India Forum of Forest Movements. India
Allure Marketing Global
Ambiente, Desarrollo y Capacitación Honduras
ARA Germany
ARBA (Asociación para la Recuperación del Bosque Autóctono) Spain
Árboles sin Fronteras Ecuador
ARPENT - Association pour la Restauration et la Protection de l'Environnement Naturel du Tonnerrois France
Asoc. Conservacionista YISKI Costa Rica
Asoc. Lihuen Antu Argentina
Asociación Amigos de los Parques Nacionales (AAPN) Argentina
Asociación Comunitaria Soluciones Nicaragua
Asociación de Usuarios del Agua de Saltillo AUAS, A.C. Mexico
Asociacion Ecologica del Orinte, Santa Cruz de la Sierra Bolivia
Asociacion ecologista rio mocoreta Argentina
Asociación Ecologistas en Acción Las Palmas de Gran Canaria Spain
Asociación Geográfica Ambiental Spain
Asociación Qachuu Aloom "Madre Tierra" Guatemala
Asociacion Red de Coordinacion en Biodiversidad Costa Rica
Associação dos Geógrafos Brasileiros, Seção Local Três Lagoas (AGB/TL) Brazil
Attac France France
Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance Australia
BankTrack Netherlands Chile Chile New Zealand New Zealand
Berggorilla & Regenland Direkthilfe Germany
Biodiversity Conservation Center, Russia
Biofuelwatch, UK/US. UK/US
Biowatch South Africa
Blog Combate Racismo Ambiental Brazil
Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Germany
Botshabelo Unemployment Movement South Africa
Brainforest Gabon
Brighter Green International
Bruno Manser Fund Switzerland
BUND - Friends of the Earth Germany Germany
Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) India
Censat Agua Viva. Colombia
Center for Food Safety Usa
Centro de Investigación, Validación y Transferencia Tecnológica para el Desarrollo Rural, Ac Mexico
Centro Internazionale Crocevia Italy
CETRI - Centre Tricontinental Belgique
Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat Costa Rica
Climate change awareness kenya Kenya
Coalition Against Land Grabbing PHILIPPINES
COECOCEIBA-Amigos de la tierra Costa Rica Costa Rica
Colectivo VientoSur Chile
Comité Nacional para la Defensa y Conservación de Los Chimalapas Mexico
Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN) Nepal
Conselho Indigenista Missionário Brazil
Construisons Ensemble leMonde République Démocratique du Congo
Consumers Association of Penang Malaysia
Cork Forest Conservation Alliance North America
Crescente Fértil Brazil
Denkhausbremen Germany
Diálogo 2000 - Jubileo Sur Argentina Argentina
Dogwood Alliance USA
EcoNexus UK
Edenvale RiverWatch South Africa
Environmental Association for Latin America Costa Rica
European Civic Forum Europe
FASE Espírito Santo Brazil
Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (FECH) Chile
Finance & Trade Watch (Austria) Austria
Flemish Centre for Indigenous Peoples Belgium
Focus on the Global South International
Forest Observatory Morrocco
Forests of the world Denmark
Forum Carajas Brazil
Fórum Mudanças Climáticas e Justiça Social Brazil
Forum Ökologie & Papier Germany
Fossil-Free South Africa South Africa
Friends of the Earth Interantional International
Friends of the Earth Sweden Sweden
Friends of the Siberian Forests Russia
Fundación Azul Ambientalistas Venezuela
Fundación para el Desarrollo Comunal Integral Nicaragua
Fundacion Recysol Colombia
GeaSphere South Africa
Geografía Viva Venezuela
Global Forest Coalition International
Global Justice Ecology Project USA
GRAIN International
Great Ape Project International
Greenpeace International International
GroundWork South Africa
Grupo de Investigación de Suelo y Agua (GISA) Venezuela
Grupo de Trabalho em Assuntos Agrários (GT Agrária - Seção Rio-Niteroi) da Associação dos Geógrafos Brasileiros (AGB) Brazil
Grupo ETC International
Grupo Guayubira Uruguay
Grupo Semillas Colombia
Guardianes del Iberá Argentina
Human Rights Law Network India
ICCA Consortium Internatioanl
ICRA International France
Indigenous Environmental Network Usa
Instancia de Consenso del Pueblo Maya Q'eqchi'-Poqomchi' de Alta Verapaz "K'amol B'e" Guatemala
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy USA
Instituto Amazónico de Investigaciones Imani, Universidad Nacional de Colombia Colombia
Instituto Socioambiental Brazil
International Center for Technology Assessment Usa
International Tree Foundation UK
Intipachamama Nicaragua
Jubileo Sur Americas Latin America
Just Forests Ireland
Justica Ambiental / FoE Mozambique Mozambique
Kalpavriksh India
La Asamblea Veracruzana de Iniciativas y Defensa Ambiental (LAVIDA) Mexico
Maderas del Pueblo del Sureste, AC Mexico
Maiouri Nature Guyane French Guyana
MEFP Central African Republic
Mesa Coordinadora De Jubilados  y Pensionados de la República Argentina Filial Chaco Argentina
MLT – Movimento de Luta pela Terra Brazil
Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC) Cambiodia
Movimento Amigos da Rua Gonçalo de Carvalho Brazil
Movimento Camponês Popular Brazil
Movimento Mulheres pela P@Z! Brazil
Movimiento Colombiano en Defensa del Territorio  y afectados por Represas "Rios Vivos" Colombia
MST- Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra Brazil
Nature and Youth Sweden Sweden
Naturvernforbundet - FoENorway Norway
Núcleo de Pesquisa Estado, Sociedade e Desenvolvimento na Amazônia Ocidental- NUPESDAO Brazil
Oasis Earth Usa
Observatório dos Conflitos no Campo (OCCA)/UFES Brazil
OFRANEH Honduras
Oilwatch Latinoamérica Latin America
OLCA - Observatorio Latinoamericano de Conflictos Ambientales Chile
Orang-Utans in Not e.V. Germany
OPIROMA - Organização dos Povos Indígenas de Rondônia, Noroeste do Mato Grosso e Sul do Amazonas Brazil
Otros Mundos AC/Amigos de La Tierra México Mexico
Pacific Institute of Resource Management New Zealand
PAPDA - Plateforme haïtienne de Plaidoyer pour un Développement Alternatif Haiti
Partner Südmexikos e.V. Germany
PGU (Personal-Global-Universal): Towards Equitable Sustainable Holistic Development UK
Pro Natura – Friends of the Earth Switzerland Switzerland
Programa Universitario Diversidad Cultural e Interculturalidad - UNAM oficina Oaxaca Mexico
Protect the Forest Sweden
Proyecto Gran Simio (GAP/PGS-España) Spain
Proyecto Lemu - Epuyen - Chubut Argentina
PUSH Sweden
Rainforest Foundation United Kingdom
Rainforest Relief Usa
RECOMA - Red Latinoamericana contra los monocultivos de árboles Latin America
Red Argentina de Ambiente y Desarrollo Argentina
Red de Acción por los Derechos Ambientales (RADA) Chile
Red de Coordinación en Biodiversidad Costa Rica
Red de Mujeres Rurales de Costa Rica Costa Rica
Red de Semillas "Resembrando e Intercambiando" Spain
Refopar(Reforestemos Paraguay) Paraguay
Reforest the Earth UK
Regenwald statt Palmöl" Germany
Robin Wood e.V. Germany
Russian Social Ecological Union Russia
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth Malaysia) Malaysia
Salva la Selva Spain
SAVIA - Escuela de Pensamiento Ecologista Guatemala
School of Democratic Economics, Indonesia Indonesia
Siemenpuu - Foundation for Social Movements' Cooperation sr. Finland
Solidarity Sweden - Latin America Sweden
SOS Forêt du Sud France
Swedish foundation Naturarvet Sweden
Synchronicity Earth UK
Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity Tanzania
Terra Australis Co-Op Ltd Australia
Terra Nuova - Centro per il volontariato Onlus Italy
The Bioscience Resource Project USA
The Corner House United Kingdom
The Gaia Foundation International
The Indigenous People of Mariepsko South Africa
ThiSaBi Sri Lanka
TimberWatch South Africa
Transnational Institute International
Unión Universal de Desarrollo Solidario Spain
Universidade Federal de São João Del Rei Brazil
Verdegaia Galicia
WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia Indonesia
War on Want United Kingdom
Woodland League Ireland
World Rainforest Movement International
Zo Indigeous Forum (ZIF) India
ZZ2 South Africa