A practical definition of forests
Understandings of ‘forests’ or ‘natural ecosystems’ is a prerequisite and can vary greatly among stakeholder groups. Different definitions may even coexist in the legal framework of a producing country, with common confusion between legal classifications (areas officially zoned as forests), types of forests (e.g. planted or natural forests), and biophysical definitions (e.g. mature tree height and canopy cover). For example, in Indonesia 33.4 million hectares of ‘legal forests’ are non-forested, and 7.2 million hectares in non-forest areas are covered by forests, according to legal and biophysical classifications.
An appropriate definition of forests and deforestation, or conversion of natural ecosystems, would be one that:
- key stakeholders recognise as relevant for what is ultimately at stake in the process (better market access, improving the reputation of the sector, meeting greenhouse gas emissions reduction objectives, etc.), based on existing definitions used in legal or policy references of the concerned country(ies).
- can be measured and monitored regularly, ideally at least annually.
Capturing forest degradation can also be an important issue in particular supply chains, for instance in the cocoa sector in West Africa, although this remains a harder challenge to define and monitor.
Estimating subnational commodity deforestation
The concept of ‘commodity deforestation’ refers to the deforestation (or conversion of natural ecosystems) that is attributable to the production of a commodity. It corresponds to the areas cleared for crop cultivation or livestock farming.
A methodological choice: how to attribute past deforestation to subsequent land uses
The attribution of deforestation to single commodities can be complex, especially in contexts where deforestation is driven by an interplay of multiple land uses. The time lag between the deforestation event and the commodity production is also intrinsic to perennial crops that take years to mature into their harvesting cycle.
The simplest approach remains the one widely used in certification schemes: the choice of a ‘cut-off’ date. This is the date from which the conversion of a parcel of land from forests or natural ecosystems to agriculture is no longer accepted. With this approach, there is no need to distinguish between direct or indirect conversion, rather forests or natural ecosystems that were present at the cut-off date considered when measuring deforestation.