Reducing deforestation, has become a respected policy target for governments. Unfortunately, the term "forest" has lost its meaning in the global discourse. Cutting down a tropical rain forest and replacing it with a single species of "fastwood" is not considered deforestation -- it is even promoted as a form of forest improvement.
Replacing the natural forest by oil palm is also not (technically) deforestation, because oil palm is a tree and the crown cover of an oil palm plantation is more than enough to qualify as a forest.
Thus, all the international promise to stop oil palm expansion at the expense of forest is very difficult to implement, since this type of land use change is not classified as deforestation. That is if we base our discussion on the internationally agreed definition of forests.
What is a forest? After the international climate community agreed to include reforestation and afforestation in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in 2002, the definition of a forest became a serious issue, directly linked to (expectations of) money. The agreement was to use minimum values of 10-30 percent "crown cover" and 2-5 meters in tree height as measures, with final decisions left to national authorities.
Clear-cutting followed by tree planting has always been part of forest management, but temporarily does not meet the crown cover definition of forest. Under the definition, such tree-less land is still a forest as long as there is an intention to replant -- without time limit.
Consequently, none of Indonesia's treeless kawasan hutan (forest areas) could qualify for the afforestation/reforestation CDM, as they are technically still forests. Also, by definition, clear-cutting in the forest areas is not deforestation as long as the intention to replant remains.
The proposed new EU directive for sustainable energy states that biofuels associated with deforestation after Jan. 1, 2008, will not be counted as part of the EU's commitment to sustainable energy use.
Unfortunately, the directive will have no "teeth" in arresting environmental damage, since oil palm plantations meet the criteria of the forest definition used. Several studies of Indonesia's forestry sector have shown overcapacity in the pulp and paper industry, at least close to the biggest mills.
The mills' combined capacity is much larger than the legal supply that sustainably managed forests can support. To resolve the overcapacity and associated illegal logging, the government has now decided to abandon the selective harvesting system and legalize clear-cutting within the production forest, as long it is done with the intention of planting monocultures of fastwood trees.
All the esthetics of the natural forest and its biodiversity will be gone -- but the plantation will meet the definition based on tree height and crown cover, just like oil palm plantations do.
The transformation of the landscape will remain within the category of "production forest" and be 100 percent legal. There will be considerable loss of environmental services, but no deforestation.
If we simply take "crown cover" as criterion, land outside the forest areas in Indonesia has about the same probability of being a forest as land within that domain. This implies that the issue of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) should apply equally on lands outside the forest areas.
How can we close the gap between public concerns about forests and trees and international and national policies?
First, we need to have a clear definition of various types of forests, plantations and agroforests that reflect what we really want to achieve through national and global policies.
If we want to address carbon release from forests and peatlands, we need policies that are directly linked to the amount of carbon stored in the natural or manmade vegetation. Instead of a "forest" that can have between zero and 450 ton of carbon per hectare in aboveground biomass, we need separate terms for high/medium and low carbon stock forests.
Logging leads to a "carbon debt" by bringing forests to a lower carbon stock category; fastwood and oil palm plantations are in the low carbon stock group, and will take a long time to pay off their carbon debt. If biodiversity is the target, the rules will need to specify diversity of flora and fauna as the basis of the regulation.
Instead of "forest" that can have between one and more than a thousand tree species, and associated range of diversity in other flora and fauna. We need separate terms for high/medium or low conservation value forests. If watershed functions are the target, the rules need to specify the protective litter layer on top of the soil, the porosity of the soil or the tree root anchoring that protects from landslides.
Again, a "forest" that meets the definition can have between zero and maximum effectiveness in providing these functions, and some plantation forests are worse in providing such functions than much of current agricultural land use.
Second, the institutional boundaries which separate professional foresters from those knowing about and caring for trees in the landscape (i.e. the majority of farmers) need to be made less rigid. Indonesian landscapes display varying levels of tree cover, different proportions of naturally established and planted trees and varying degrees of tree diversity.
Thirdly, the debate needs to focus on environmental services that matter and avoid getting side-lined on non-issues. There is no shortage of atmospheric oxygen in the world, and forests, like any other vegetation, only provide an "oxygen credit" to the world that will be used when the organic matter is decomposed.
The writer is the regional coordinator for Southeast Asia of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and can be reached at M.email@example.com