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A world with trees but without the word ‘forest’ – a thought experiment

The abovementioned paper carefully avoided the word forest in its title; it challenged the various definitions of forest that may cause more confusion than necessary, and preferred the more objectively observable ‘tree cover’ term for discussing what types of changes are occurring in China and whether or not the investments made by the state are delivering the services society wants. This leads to a thought experiment: Can we do without the word forest and its derivatives (deforestation, reforestation, afforestation, agroforestry, agroforestation)?

The recent paper China’s fight to halt tree cover loss carefully avoided the word ‘forest’ in its title. 

It challenged the various definitions of forest that may cause more confusion than necessary, and preferred the more objectively observable ‘tree cover’ term for discussing what types of changes are occurring in China and whether or not the investments made by the state are delivering the services society wants.

In the paper, CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) researchers showed that China’s forest cover gains remain highly dependent on definition.

This leads to a thought experiment – please give it a try for the next five minutes: Can we do without the word ‘forest’ and its derivatives (deforestation, reforestation, afforestation, agroforestry, agroforestation)?

Let’s try. No, not a world without trees, of course. It is hard to think of landscapes completely without perennial woody stemmed plants – although they may be short and sparse in harsh climates, belong to a wide range of plant families, including ferns, conifers, dicotyledons and grasses, restricted to the edges of fields, lining roads, isolated remnants of a formerly denser vegetation retained to provide shade, or planted to create a more pleasant environment around houses and in urban areas.

No, not a world without “old growth”, “young growth”, “jungle rubber”, “home gardens”, “timber plantation”, “tree crops”, “line plantings” and vegetation derived from “old growth” by various degrees of logging and currently recovering.

Not a world, however, where we lump part of these land covers, and exclude others from a black-versus-white terminology, without words for the greys in between.

It could be a world where all land covers without or with trees are described by terms that are precise and clear. The amount, type, age and size of trees and other flora and fauna that shape land cover are directly related to its ‘use’, the ecosystem services and benefits provided to humans (and to those who attribute a right to non-human inhabitants of this planet).

Read also: New look at satellite data quantifies scale of China’s afforestation success

Trees produce wood of a wide range of qualities and utilities, fruits, resins, nectar for honeybees, medicinals and other tradable goods. Trees interact with water in the full hydrological cycle of atmospheric moisture, clouds, rainfall, runoff, groundwater recharge and regulated river flow.

Trees have major influence on micro- and meso-climates, and some role in the global carbon balance (no there is no shortage of atmospheric oxygen, so they don’t solve problems here). Trees represent a pretty good cross section of plant families, and support a huge diversity of beetles, other insects, birds and beasts.

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