Forest: which meanings and definitions guide society?

Agronomist, PhD in Ecology from the University of Stirling (UK). She studies the ecology of the Amazon rainforest. Titular researcher and former director of the Goeldi Museum. Counselor of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC).

Ima Vieira

Translated by Silvia Benchimol and Ewerton Branco (UFPA/ET-Multi)



Forests are important for life on the planet. Numerous initiatives and campaigns seek to provoke society to the urgent need to protect them, especially tropical forests. However, what is a "forest", after all?

In a holistic perspective, forests are complex systems, whose properties and characteristics emerge from evolutionary dynamics and provide self-organization and the occurrence of intricate interactions between species.

Forests cover 30% of the Earth's surface. They can be seen, defined and valued under different points of view, interests and priorities. Forests can be seen simply as a source of wood; as an ecosystem composed of trees, plants and enormous biological diversity; as a sacred place, where people get food and guarantee their subsistence; or even as an area to be cut down and replaced by techno-crops.

Technical definitions have guided debates and public management, such as the definitions proposed by FAO, widely used in the world and in Brazil to report the condition of forests. But, in the face of unprecedented biological, political, social and climatic challenges, the definition of forest in the world has been diversified, currently, there are more than 800 definitions.

As the definition of forest tends to include crops of tree species, even in monoculture, tree planting has been promoted in more than 43 countries, including Brazil, during the UN's “Decade of Ecosystem Restoration”. Although tree plantations are economically important, they should not be considered as forest restoration, as they do not restore diverse and complex environments such as forests.

Forest definitions are adapted to social needs and to show new ways of appropriating nature. The expression 'standing forest', established by the geographer Bertha Becker, is currently adopted by a large network of discourses, projects and individuals, to demonstrate that in the face of the approximation of the Amazon to the “tipping point”, it is necessary to determine new economic dynamics in the region to guarantees the maintenance of the “standing forest”. Then, new technologies and products are created to make the 'bioeconomy of the standing forest' feasible. This view considers that the threatened forest can only be saved by converting it into a profitable asset. In this clash of perspectives, the defense of biodiversity conservation has been left in the background.

Furthermore, a “standing forest” can be anything ranging from a forest with high ecological integrity to a forest degraded by fire, which remains standing, but has modified its structure, function and species composition.

In this debate, it is necessary to consider that in the Amazon, since 1990, the Peoples of the Forest have struggled to prove that people do live in the forests and it is these people who keep the forest standing and preserve their functions. What role will they play in this new techno-bio-economic paradigm of valuing forests, in a so different perception compared to their own one? Where are their values and rights? Since these values and rights can guarantee the conditions for the development of an economy that definitely respects and values the Amazon Forest.