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Ecosystem services from planted forests

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A presentation by Himlal Baral, Senior Scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

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  • ‘Green deserts’ or functional forests?

‘Green deserts’ or functional forests?

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Teak forest plantation, Jepara, Central Java - Indonesia. Photo: Center For International Forestry Research/Murdani Usman
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Teak forest plantation, Jepara, Central Java - Indonesia. Photo: Center For International Forestry Research/Murdani Usman
Teak forest plantation, Jepara, Central Java – Indonesia. Photo: Center For International Forestry Research/Murdani Usman

By Catriona Croft-Cusworth, originally posted at CIFOR’s Forests News

Natural forests support life in complex ways. Forest ecosystems are habitats for animals and humans, they regulate air quality, temperature and carbon cycling, protect soils and water quality, help mitigate climate change, and much more.

‘Planted forests’, “composed of trees established through planting and/or through deliberate seeding of native or introduced species”, rarely manage to fully replicate the rich ecosystems of natural forests. But can they provide benefits for the environment, and for human well-being?

New research led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) aims to provide an improved basis for assessing the contribution of planted forests to ecosystem services. In a recent paper in the journal Ecosystem Services, researchers from CIFOR and the University of Melbourne propose a framework for assessing the well-being benefits of planted forests.

Their findings show that plantations can contribute ecosystem services, and that it is possible to assess these benefits using a simple approach. This will enable a better understanding of the capacity of different types of planted forests to provide services such as timber, water quality, carbon sequestration or habitat benefits, and their contribution to forest landscape restoration goals.


Himlal Baral, the lead author of the paper, says the term ‘planted forests’ is not without its critics. The broad definition by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), as given above, encompasses everything from ecological restoration efforts to industrial plantations.

Critics are quick to point out that “plantations are not forests”, and often label them “green deserts” because they are perceived to provide few benefits to conservation of plant or animal species.

 But Baral says the negative impacts of plantations represent failures in policy, planning, management and community engagement, and are not direct consequences of plantations themselves.

“Plantations of the right species in the right places can provide multiple benefits, not just timber. It depends on where they are in the landscape, what they replace, how they are managed, and so on,’” he says.

While timber plantations often have a bad reputation, he adds, their effects are more limited than agriculture or infrastructure development as drivers of natural forest loss in tropical and sub-tropical regions.

They also have the potential to provide greater benefits than food crops and other land uses to human and environmental well-being in the long term, including by restoring degraded forest landscapes, according to the research.


The commonly cited TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) definition of ecosystem services is “the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being”. These are further divided into provisioning, regulating, supporting (or habitat) and cultural services.

Forest ecosystems provide food, raw materials and medicines. They regulate clean air and water, support habitats for a diverse range of species, and hold spiritual and recreational values for mental and physical health.

So can these services can be provided by planted forests, and to what extent?

In their new paper, Baral and colleagues aim to find answers by introducing a framework for quantifying and assessing the ecosystem services of natural and planted forests.

Using common classification systems, such as those used in the TEEB study, the framework recommends a step-by-step process for identifying beneficiaries, determining the appropriate assessment tools, and analyzing, synthesizing and communicating the results to relevant stakeholders.

The process is designed for increased transparency, participation and effectiveness in decision-making on policy, management and engagement in relation to planted forests.


In theory, the paper finds that planted forests can be better than agriculture and pasture for almost all ecosystem services measured. In comparison to natural forests, planted forests are generally higher for timber production and carbon sequestration.

The framework also takes into account the public and private aspects of planted forests, and what this means for access to ecosystem services. For example, timber and other ‘excludable’ forest products may not be as readily accessible to local populations from a planted forest as from a natural forest, while ‘non-excludable’ services such as clean air and water are accessible to all.

The ecosystem ‘dis-services’ of some planted forests are not considered in the assessment framework, as the authors consider these to be the results of poor planning and design. In testing the framework, factoring in negative impacts in the assessment balance sheet will be important to improve planning and decision-making for plantation investments.

Baral hopes that the research will support improved understanding and management of planted forests to the benefit of people and the environment.

“By increasing the area of plantations for timber production on degraded lands, we can reduce the pressure to clear natural forests,” Baral says.

“The human population is increasing and people are becoming wealthier. Demand for forest products is increasing – you need somewhere to satisfy those demands,” he says. “And if you don’t have plantations, you need to harvest natural forests more extensively.”

This research was supported by the Centre for International Forestry Research as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was partly funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) through the KNOWFOR program, and by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

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  • Investing in sustainable planted forests: Tools are available, but there’s room for improvement

Investing in sustainable planted forests: Tools are available, but there’s room for improvement

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Photo: Murdani Usman/CIFOR
Investors are following a growing demand for more sustainably sourced wood products. Murdani Usman/CIFOR

By Romain Pirard, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

Industrial-scale planted forests are broadening the scope of their products from a traditional focus on timber toward bioenergy, and even ecosystem services. This change is occurring in parallel with the rapid expansion of planted forest areas. A lesser known concurrent change is the growing interest in social and environmental responsibility expressed by institutional investors. This trend is also supported by the growing field of Timberland Investment Management Organizations that manage the large plantation assets on behalf of institutional investors.

These changes may very well signal a growing sense of responsibility among investors – but they could equally suggest that investors have understood something essential: more sustainable practices in planted investments means more secure, and sustained, profits. This realization is becoming all the more important as planted forests continue to rise in investment portfolios due to their alleged contra-cyclical performance and relatively stable revenues. Upper-end estimates point to $80 billion of such assets now under management. Nothing near to negligible.

But attractive business prospects can vanish rapidly if conflict breaks out on the ground, or surrounding water supplies become polluted, for example. Consideration of these and other risks has logically led to the elaboration of a number of Sustainable and Responsible Investment (SRI) tools in the forestry sector with possible applications for industrial-scale planted forests. The function of these tools is to help ascertain whether operations are “risk-free”, especially in emerging economies.

As it stands, the investment field looks more like a jungle so far – and a thriving jungle at that, with up to one-third of professionally managed assets being qualified as “sustainable and responsible” based on the application of the tools. Meanwhile, the quality of existing tools ranges from those that are overly lax and general, such as internal codes of conduct, to others that are well-focused and strict, such as multistakeholder-based standards with third-party certification.

For the sake of clarity, and to identify pressing areas for improvement, a team of researchers from the University of Padova and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) undertook a vast assessment of existing tools.


The team had two aims in mind: firstly to create a database of SRI tools, and secondly to propose a framework for the evaluation of the tools’ capacity to deliver on assessment. Describing the variety of tools that exist, the issues they address, and how they do so is a good first step. Even better is to take the next step to understand the robustness of the tools, and their suitability for the assigned objectives. This latter task was undertaken by considering the number of issues covered by the tools, and the level of control they had in place to ensure that the issues were properly assessed during the process. It’s important to not fall into the trap of either covering too many issues too lightly, or not covering enough issues, despite doing so in detail.

In the end, analysis of 121 investments in emerging economies produced a solid database of 50 SRI tools. The database was compiled with attention paid to a number of differences among the tools, including how they work, the governance at play, and the level of control over their application to given investments. The latter point is critical. Indeed, it includes contrasting features such as mere declaration of participation to the more robust measure of third-party accreditation. And you can’t assume that all of them give the same results.

It appears that management standards, bank investment policies and investment rating systems form the bulk of the SRI tools; yet this does not say much about their capacity to ensure sustainable and responsible practices associated with investment in planted forests. The good news is that the highest overall performance was found among representatives from these categories, such as the Forest Stewardship Council and the Gold Standard (management standards), ABN AMRO Forest and Plantation Policy (bank investment policy) and RepRisk (investment rating).

The bad news is that very few of the SRI tools in the extensive sample specifically address planted forests. Instead, they tend to have a broad sectoral scope on forestry, with little attention paid to the specificities of the plantation business. Another very problematic aspect is that key issues such as poverty alleviation, protected areas or prevention of encroachment – which clearly determine sustainability and responsibility of investments, to a large extent – were found not to be properly assessed by the sample tools.


The research findings highlight a couple of clear messages and areas for improvement. Admittedly, a lot has been done to develop tools that aim to guide investments toward sustainable and responsible practices, and this movement should be encouraged. But we are not there yet, and we must be aware of the severe shortcomings of many of these attempts that might mislead investments and jeopardize sustainability.

Nonetheless, a few champions exist and should serve as a source of inspiration for others in the race to the top. To this end, third-party certification should become a reference and SRI tools designed specifically for the purpose of planted forests should become a priority.

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