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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Conroy

What is ecosystem conversion and what are the implications for sustainable forestry?

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Our project aims to develop a tool to value the ecosystem services that forests provide to enable better decisions for the most sustainable use of land and forests. This may result in something known as ecosystem conversion. Here, Kathleen Conroy, Trinity College Dublin, looks at what conversion means in relation to forestry, with three significant associated terms - deforestation, reforestation and afforestation.

Ecosystem Conversion

Ecosystem conversion is an ecosystem changing from one type to another. This can occur naturally (e.g., wildfire, storm), however, it is often driven by human inputs and management based on societal needs or desires. For example, a forest may be removed for a housing development in a growing urban centre. Likewise, a pocket or urban forest may be developed in an abandoned field to create a recreation and relaxation area near a city school - a valuable addition to society and economy when the benefits it provides to physical and mental health, air quality, educational value, and more, are all factored in.

Three significant terms associated with conversion and forestry include deforestation, reforestation and afforestation.

Infographic with 3 boxes: an urban area, a forested one, and one with trees cut down, and arrows  circulating between them


Deforestation is the removal of trees from an area of land. It often has a negative connotation due to species habitat loss (e.g., orangutans displaced from the rainforest) and illegal logging. Mass deforestation in the rainforests of the Amazon and Indonesia impact the local and global ecosystem services provided by these forests. The deforestation is largely a result of agricultural expansion. With rising profit in beef production, the Amazon rainforest is cleared for cattle ranches and pastures while rainforests in Indonesia are cleared for palm oil farms. However, when done sustainably, deforestation can store carbon and provide societies with useful timber products. All deforestation will have initial negative impacts on the environment, - but if replanting happens soon after, then some of the damages can be mitigated. The opposite of deforestation is reforestation and afforestation.

Reforestation and Afforestation

The terms reforestation and afforestation are often used synonymously, because their end results are similar, the establishment of forestry in an area that was devoid of trees. However, reforestation and afforestation are different processes.

Reforestation is the process of replanting trees in an area that recently had its trees removed. An example would be an area felled and harvested for timber and then replanted. Afforestation is the process of planting trees in an area that did not recently have trees. An example would be the conversion of agricultural land or an urban area to a forest.

Reforestation and afforestation are areas being examined by projects such as ForES for the number of advantages that they can provide, especially in relation to ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, climate regulation and habitat for wildlife.

While Europe and North America are having the highest rates of reforestation and afforestation, large-scale deforestation is occurring in South America and Southeast Asia. However, this is very much a global concern. Global institutions realise the importance of forests and the consequence of deforestation. The UN Strategic Plan for Forests calls for the end of deforestation by 2030. By working together, nations can address the issues around deforestation and collaborate to reach targets and goals.


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