Making sense of the “no-deforestation” discourse.

Since June last year, I have been involved in a number of discussions on forest and deforestation in West Africa. I have been quite surprised with the depth one has to go to gain a better appreciation of the deforestation conversation. In spite of this, producers involved in major agricultural commodities (e.g., cocoa in Ghana and Ivory Coast) have to increasingly demonstrate compliance with “no-deforestation” requirements of their buyers. There are real risks of ban and loss of market access for producers and countries that fails to meet the relevant ‘no-deforestation” regulations. But what exactly is deforestation, why does it matter, and are all forms of deforestation bad, what should producers do to comply with “no-deforestation” requirements? I will be attempting to answer these questions in a series of blog post. In this first part, I will focus on answering the question “what is deforestation”?

1) What is a forest?

To define deforestation, one must first specify what is a forest! Surprisingly, defining a forest has never been an easy thing to do. This is mainly because forest structure and nature are incredibly diverse, and it is difficult to find a single definition that adequately cover this incredible diversity. Different organizations and countries have adopted different definitions in the past. To make matters worse, there are over 800 definitions of forest. Although still strongly contested in the scientific world, there seems to be a converging acceptance of the definition used by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). According to the FAO1

“Forest is any land spanning more than 0.5 hectare with trees higher than 5 meters and canopy cover of more than 10%, or trees able to reach these thresholds in situ”.

There are clearly some problems with this definition but let us leave that for another day! What is important to know is that this definition cover several broad categories (summarized in Figure 1) that requires a bit of unpacking:

Figure 1: Categories of forests
  • A forest may be growing naturally (Natural Forest) or planted (Plantation Forest).
  • A Natural forest can be Primary (undisturbed), Secondary (disturbed but recovered) or Degraded (severely disturbed forest that is currently not in good conditions).
  • A forest may already meet the minimum thresholds (i.e., canopy cover >10% and tree height > 5 meters) (i.e., Matured or Regrowing forest) or may only have young trees that do not currently meet these thresholds but expected to do so in the future (Degraded but regrowing forest). This implies that an abandoned shifting cultivation area undergoing secondary succession can still be considered a forest!
  • The definition of forest encompasses forests on both Protected lands and Outside legally and customary designated forest lands. Thus, a forest can be within a protected conservation area (as is the case for most national parks, nature reserves, other customary protected areas) or on non-reserved lands (e.g., within agricultural landscapes, small windbreaks/shelter belts, planted corridors).

2) What is deforestation?

Ok, with forest defined and categories of forest identified, we can now proceed to answer the question: “what is deforestation”? Again, it turned out that unlike the definition of forest, there is no globally accepted definition of deforestation2. Two main types of deforestation definitions exist.

  1. Land-cover definition: Any change from land covered by trees [that meets the minimum thresholds for forest] to land with few or no trees irrespective of whether this is followed by land use change (e.g., Figure 2-1).
  2. Land-use change definition: This definition is only applied to complete conversion of forest land to non-forest land use (e.g., agriculture, settlement, etc, see Figure 2-1&2). Thus, under this definition, a conversion of primary or intact forest to a degraded forest (Figure 2-1) will still not be considered as deforestation as the land remains a forest land.
Figure 2: Forest conversions

In practice, the second definition (“land-use change definition”) is commonly used to refer to deforestation whereas the first (“land-cover change definition”) is often used to describe forest degradation. Although not globally accepted, the FAO definition of deforestation is more commonly used (note that the FAO definition is within the domain of “land-use change definition”).

The FAO defines deforestation1 as “the conversion of forest to other land use independently of whether human-induced or not”.

Here, the FAO definition of deforestation emphasizes two broad agents of deforestation. Deforestation can be induced directly by human activities such conversion of forest to agriculture, pasture, urban areas, etc. Secondly, deforestation can be caused by biotic and abiotic disturbances such as insect/pest/disease outbreak, storm, drought, etc. However, most of the conversation  about deforestation  in agricultural value chains focuses on the “human-induced” component3–5.

In part 2 , I will focus on “why deforestation is bad and attracting so much international interest and pressure”. If you found this post interesting, kindly subscribe to my blog to get email updates of new posts.


1. FAO. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020: Terms and Definitions. Forest Resources Assessment Working Paper 188 (2018).

2. Seymour, F. & Busch, J. Why Forests, Why Now? The Science, Economics, and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change. (2014).

3. Rainforest Alliance. Sustainable Agriculture Standard: Farm Requirements. (2020).

4. Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Principles and Criteria for the Production of Sustainable Palm Oil. (2018).

5. Accountability Framework Initiative. The Accountability Framework: Core principles. version 1., (2019).

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