Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme

“What is a forest?” An International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples reflection

August 9, 2017

MANILA, Philippines – As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples today, NTFP-EP recognizes that while significant progress has been made in several countries in terms of recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, it should be stated that communities are still in a persistent continuing struggle that hinder them from enjoying their rights.

Globally, there are around 370 million indigenous peoples with distinct traditions that greatly signify social, cultural and political characteristics, with a significant portion of them living in and around forests. However, many of these communities are facing various struggles in the recognition of their identities, way of life, and traditional right to land, territories, and natural resources and perhaps most notably, in their roles as managers of these forest frontiers.

A few years back in 2009, NTFP-EP reflected on the question of “when is a forest a forest?”

Phoenix grass (India) 4

An adivasi community in the middle of phoenix grass harvesting (Madhu Ramnath, NTFP-EP India)

This was a question triggered by an international forest definition: Forest as defined as “…with an area of more than 0.5 hectare and tree crown (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10 percent, with trees reaching a minimum height of 5 meters at maturity in situ…”  (COP, 2009) that was considered problematic and it was heavily contested by academics and forest and community advocates. At the time, NTFP-EP reflected on this with a concern that national forest definitions (like in the Philippines ) may not capture appropriately the context of indigenous and community rights, biological diversity, and ecology.

We feared that such international definition may frame our national forest and climate change policies and projects narrowly and this at the expense of conserving rich healthy natural forests and of truly benefiting community well being. Almost a decade later, the international forest definition has expanded with additional important exclusions, such as “ … land predominantly used for agriculture practices, tree stands in agricultural production systems, such as fruit tree plantations, oil palm plantations… “ However plantation primarily for forestry purposes such as rubber wood plantation remain included. Forests for “forestry purposes” is problematic when the emphasis is to cultivate and to make productive the area through primarily commercial or industrial activities instead of seeking to balance the ecosystem, restore or maintain its health and the communities that may depend on them.

“About 1.6 billion people of the world depend on forests for living’ – that is more than one-fourth of the world’s population that relies on forest resources for livelihood “ (FAO, 2014).

Forests for “forestry purpose” raises concern for example, on the likely priorities and incentives, for example given to forest rehabilitation and restoration activities with the preference for commercial, exotic and fast-growing species instead of native trees and of looking at restoring ecosystems services and functions as criteria.

We looked at the important view left out then, and we saw these values still rang true – for forests that give life, restores life and sustains life, for that we call for more care and nurture, and the embedding of indigenous and community rights and security in its definition as well as in capturing it in our policies and in our practice.

Based on our collective observations and experience, NTFP-EP defines forests as:

  1. Forests are not just trees but landscapes characterized by diversity – of flora, fauna, including microorganisms, rivers, and water bodies, soils, rocks, hills, mountains that have significant values to beings. Human, communities – indigenous communities and other forest dwellers that may hold this diversity as essential – to cultural, ecological, economic and spiritual use and significance – who collectively manage these in order to maintain the over-all health of people and the landscape.
  2. Forests are multifunctional, where the balanced ecosystem of flora, fauna, and fungi (microorganism)are a source of food, cultural identity, and livelihood for indigenous and local communities.
  3. Forests are carers and the being itself – hosting people and communities, nurturing them with food, shelter, energy and other essentials for survival, physical and spiritual growth. Abuse and greed violate the caring and nurturing space that forests provide.
  4. Forests both absorb and release energy – they provide services and functions that generate and maintain local economy and industries – from households, in nations to global enterprises.


Forests give life, restores life and sustains life. Decisions on what we do about them, in them and out of them matter for communities that depend on them today and for generations to come. It must be recognized that the pursuit of defining forests should also be a pursuit of recognizing the rights of its protectors.