Understanding Land Use and Deforestation – Part 2. What is Deforestation?

Initiatives to halt deforestation

The topic of deforestation is receiving much attention, particularly that calling for the halting of deforestation. Some of the more recent initiatives include the following:-

1.New York Declaration on Forest (2014)1: A voluntary and non-binding international declaration to take action to halt global deforestation during  the UN Climate Summit in New York, USA by governments, companies and civil societies.

2. Amsterdam Declaration Towards Eliminating Deforestation from Agricultural Commodity Chains with European Countries (2015)2: A declaration by seven EU countries with a nonlegally binding political intention to eliminate deforestation through the private sector’s goal of zero net deforestation.

3. Stepping up EU Action to Protect and Restore the World’s Forest (2019)3: An outline to show the priorities to step up EU’s actions  against deforestation and forest degradation.   

These initiatives will be  translated into possible actions in the future. EU and UK have been looking into this matter by seeking public consultations, e.g.

  • Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, United Kingdom on ‘Due Diligence on Forest Risk Commodities’4 and 
  • European Union on ‘Deforestation and Forest Products Impact Assessment’5.

While international interest to halt deforestation has picked up momentum since 2015, the palm oil industry had embarked on the journey to halt conversion of forest to plant oil palm on forested land with the ‘No Deforestation’ agenda.  This was led by Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) as far back as 2010 when some palm oil companies voluntarily embraced ‘No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation’, commonly referred to as NDPE policy6.


When enough interest is created for consumers to support  ‘No Deforestation’, a two tier market segment occurs. Products  are then viewed as “Deforestation free’ or otherwise. 

This two tier market exists in the palm oil trade and has shaped trade policies. For example, Nestle has made sourcing of ‘No Deforestation’ palm oil part of the company’s sourcing policy since 20107

Similarly, policies contained in EU’s trade deals such as Green Deal8 and particularly contained in  the Farm to Fork Strategy9contain the element to eliminate forest risk products from the shelves of EU’s markets in the future. Possible implementation may include banning products linked to deforestation and forest degradation  to be sold in EU markets. When that happens, trade  between producing and importing countries for these products will be affected. Further down the line, livelihood of farmers will also be affected.

The need to protect forests

Forests are important ecosystems in the world as they have important ecological functions such as  carbon storage, nutrient cycling, water and air purification. They are also the home of numerous wildlife as well as indigenous flora and fauna. They also play a prominent role to abate climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 10  pointed out that deforestation contributes to 17% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the world; second to  fossil fuel usage which accounts for a hefty 57%. Undoubtedly, wanton destruction of forests is not to be tolerated. 

Meaning of deforestation

What is deforestation? In very  simple terms, it means the cutting down of trees in a large area or  the destruction of forests by people11. This is the common meaning to the majority of people in the world. 

A clearer description of deforestation is provided by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); this being the global organization that has been assessing the status of the forests in the world regularly through its Forest Resource Assessments (FRA).  FAO defines deforestation as the conversion of forest to other types of land use, regardless of whether it is human-induced or not12.  A forest  is land that has a minimum area of 0.5 ha and with a tree crown cover of more than 10%. The trees should be able to reach a minimum height of 5 m at maturity in situ. Urban parks, orchards, agroforestry systems and other agricultural tree crops are excluded from this definition13

In summary, deforestation happens when vegetation/trees are cut down in non urban and non agricultural areas that are at least 0.5 ha in  size, > 10% tree crown cover and  the  trees  are able to grow to at least 5 m at maturity. 

The palm oil industry  via RSPO14  defines deforestation  as a loss of natural forest due to:-

  1. Conversion to agricultural or non agricultural land use
  2. Conversion to a plantation forest, or
  3. Severe and sustained degradation.

This notion of deforestation to mean clearing of forests for the expansion of agriculture or forest plantations is also used by Nestle in the company’s ‘No Deforestation’ products sourcing policy7.  The company has also used the  term ‘forest conversion’  interchangeably with ‘deforestation’.

Two different views of deforestation

There are two different views on deforestation.  The  first group views   deforestation as having taken place only when there is a change in use of the land after the forest is cleared.   So even if a forest is cleared, it is still not measured as deforestation until the area is converted into another kind of land use e.g. agriculture, housing, etc.. This group opines that the cleared area can regrow and regenerate back into a forest if left untouched.  

The second group looks at the loss of tree cover as a measure of deforestation. As long as the forest is cut down, deforestation has already taken place, even though it has not been converted to another kind of land use. This is because the regenerated forest will be of lower quality than the  original forest.  

No Deforestation is not the same as Zero Deforestation

Some of the terms used to describe deforestation are vague.  Three terms have been used interchangeably viz. Deforestation Free, No Deforestation and Zero Deforestation.

‘Deforestation Free’ may mean ‘No Deforestation’ or ‘Zero Deforestation’ to a lay person but this is not the case. The latter two terms have different meanings too15 whereby ‘No Deforestation’ means that no forest areas are  cleared or converted.  ‘Zero  Deforestation’ means either “No Deforestation’ as just explained or it allows for the clearing or conversion of forest in one area as long as an equal area is replanted elsewhere. So, the net sum of deforestation is zero in value. Some practitioners distinguish these two forms of ‘Zero Deforestation’ by calling the latter more appropriately as ‘Zero Net Deforestation’.

High Carbon Stock Approach 

FAO is an international organization and its definition of deforestation is commonly used internationally.  However, its use may not be practical sometimes. Take the case of tropical areas in the world.  By nature, they are well endowed with copious rainfall and abundant sunshine which provide ideal conditions for luxuriant plant growth. Even when the forest is cut down, it will regenerate rapidly back into forest  again due to the favourable conditions for plant growth. However, the tree cover in the regenerated forest may not be as dense as the original forest.

Thus, by following FAO’s definition of forest,  all or almost all of the forested areas in the tropics will be classified as forests. Any act of cutting them down will then be viewed as deforestation. So if the ‘No Deforestation’ policy is applied to tropical countries, clearing of forested land will have to be put to a total stop with dire consequences on economic development and  people’s livelihood.

Some major producers in the palm oil fraternity have embarked on the ‘No Deforestation’ journey for a decade now.  They encountered this problem of implementing ‘No Deforestation’ policy on the ground when following FAO’s definition.   They have, thus,  moved  to use the more practical method by using the High Carbon Stock (HCS) Approach16,17.  This method distinguishes forest areas that have to be protected from degraded lands with low carbon and biodiversity values that may be developed. The former areas are High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests which must be protected. The degraded lands are former forests which are now exisiting as scrubs and open land composed of some woody  regrowth and grass like ground cover.


  1. Several interpretations to the word ‘Deforestation’ exists.
  2. In very simple lay person’s terms: ‘No Deforestation’ means to stop cutting down trees in a large area or  the destruction of forests by people.
  3. The terms ‘No Deforestation’, ‘Zero Deforestation’ and ‘Deforestation Free’ although used interchangeably may not have the same meaning and confuse consumers.
  4. Strict implementation of ‘No Deforestation’, particularly in humid tropical countries, may result in a total halt on land clearing. There will, thus, be a total stop on any further development in the affected countries with dire consequences on economic development and livelihood.
  5. The palm oil fraternity has embarked on the ‘No Deforestation’ journey a decade ago. Experience has shown that a total ‘No Deforestation’ implementation on the ground is impractical in moist tropical regions.  To overcome this dilemma, the industry is using  the High Carbon Stock or HCS Approach to decide on its eligibility for conversion.
  6. HCS Approach classifies forest areas into those that must be protected and the degraded lands with low carbon and biodiversity values that may be developed.
  7. Proponents of ‘No Deforestation’ policies must provide clear definitions in order to prevent ambiguity in interpretation. 


  1. UN (2014). Declaration on Forests. Climate Summit. UN HQ, New York, USA, pp18.
  2. Amsterdam Declaration Towards Eliminating Deforestation from Agricultural Commodity Chains with European Countries (2015) https://ad-partnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Amsterdam-Declaration-Deforestation-Palm-Oil-v2017-0612.pdf.
  3. European Commission (2019). Stepping up EU Action to Protect and Restore the World’s Forest. SWD (2019) 307 final, pp22.
  4. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, United Kingdom (2020): Due Diligence on Forest Risk Commodities: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/eu/due-diligence-on-forest-risk-commodities.
  5. European Commission (2020): Deforestation and Forest Products Impact Assessment: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/commission-launches-global-cooperation-platform-fight-deforestation-2020-10-02_en.
  6. Wilmar International Ltd (2019). No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation Policy. https://www.wilmar-international.com/docs/default-source/default-document-library/sustainability/policies/wilmar-ndpe-policy—2019.pdf?sfvrsn=7870af13_2.
  7. Nestle (2013). Nestle commitment on deforestation and forest stewardship : Appendix to The Nestle Policy on Environment Sustainability. Policy mandatory February 2013, pp3.
  8. European Commission (2020). The European Green Deal.  https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/european-green-deal-communication_en.pdf
  9. European Commission (2020).  A Farm to Fork Strategy. Communication from the  Commission to the European  Parliament,  The  Council, The European  Economic and  Social Committee and the  Committee of the Region COM(2020) 381 final.
  10. IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). (2007). Climate change 2007, Synthesis Report, http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreport/ar4-syr.htm. 
  11. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary( 3rd Edition),pp1699.
  12. FAO (2020). Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020.
  13. FAO (2015) Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015, Appendix 1: Definitions as in FRA Working Paper 1 and comments. FRA 2000 on definitions of forest and forest change. FAO Corporate Document Repository. http://www.fao.org/docrep/006/ad6665e/ad665e06.htm.
  14. RSPO (2019). Principles and Criteria for the production of sustainable palm oil. Annex1: Definitions.
  15. Lake,S; Baer,E. (2015). What does it really mean when a company commits to Zero Deforestation? http://www.wri.org./blog/2015/05/ what –does- it- really- mean-when- company- commits-%E2%80%9Czero-deforestation%E2%80%9D.
  16. Proforest (2017). The High Carbon Stock Approach: an update. Proforest Responsible Sourcing and Production Briefing 07, pp4.
  17. HCS Convergent Agreement. //www.simedarbyplantation.com/sites/default/files.sustainability/high-carbon-stoc/Final-HCS-Convergence-Agreement-pdf.
Share this post: