In the controversy around the inventory of the woods in Flanders the theme was the same: woods are disappearing year after year. To recap, these are the relevant quotes from the tweet of Groen [Flemish Green Party] (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):
Every year, more woods are disappearing in Flanders.
In Flanders, more woods are cleared than planted.
“More being cleared than being planted” and “more are disappearing”, if I understand that well, it means that the area is going down, so less hectares occupied by woods each year that is passing.
The same thing in the foreword of the quiz from De Afspraak [talk show on the Flemish Television] (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):
Environmental organization BOS+ examined at the request of Knack [a Flemish magazine] what the real state of the woods is in Flanders. The study found there are more woods being cleared than planted, contrary to the claims of Schauvliege [Flemish Minister of Nature].
Deforestation permits were issued for on average of 300 hectares of woods per year in the past ten years. In 2014 – the latest year for which figures are available – 263 hectares were cleared. In 2012 it was 195 hectares and in 2013 193 hectares.
More being cleared than being planted, that also looks like a downward trend to me. They also looked at previous years and found that 195 hectares were cleared in 2012, 193 hectares in 2013 and 263 hectares in 2014. So from the years that were presented, one could assume that there was an increase in cleared area over the last three years.
All in all, everything in the communication seems to assume that the numbers go down, that woods got lost. Remember that 263 number. It is important further in the post.
But I had more questions than answers. It was all rather vaguely presented and only with partial numbers. Something didn’t seem right. The first red flag was that if the average number of cleared woods in the last decade is 300 hectares and in the last three years 195, 194 and 263 hectares were cleared, then what about the previous years? 194, 195 and 263 are all less than 300, does this mean that there were much more permits given before that?
Secondly, why suddenly this focus on areas that were cleared? If we want to know something about a trend of the area of woods in Flanders, then also the incoming side (new terrains purchased or terrains that have a change of use) is important. So wouldn’t it be much easier to say that the trend of (de)forestation is x hectares per year? In this case, the data presented shows there is a larger area being cleared in 2014 than in the two previous years, but that is something else than the actual trend in area.
Third, when I watched the episode of “De Afspraak”, the director of BOS+ seemed to avoid actual numbers. Initially he said about their numbers (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):
we find another story, that the area in Flanders (and we are already at the back of the European pack), really is moving in the wrong direction. That hundreds of hectares are deforested with a permit each year. In a region like Flanders we can not afford this.
I can understand what he is saying, but again, the area of cleared woods is only one part of the actual balance of woods being cleared and woods being planted. As the conversation continued the question was asked whether the overall balance is negative? Aha, that is the question I have been waiting for and this was the (non-)answer:
In our opinion the balance is negative. But what we absolutely must avoid is that we get into a discussion whether five hectares were added or 10 hectares disappeared. The Flemish government has long been committed to create 10,000 hectares expansion, which is the order in which we should go. That has to be achieved in 10 years. A simple calculation, 1000 hectares has to be added annually. We are now actually around zero or below zero. That is the situation today.
Apparently he didn’t seem to know whether the balance was positive or negative, only that it was around zero and that in their opinion it is negative. While I can understand his concern that the 1,000 hectares are not being achieved, my interest in this issue was that Groen as well as De Afspraak concluded from a report from his organization that there were more woods being cleared than planted … and now we get to hear that the director of that same organization actually doesn’t know what the exact balance is? If even the Big Chief of BOS+ has no idea, then where did Groen and De Afspraak get their information from?!?!
This acted like a huge red flag to me … I really had to find those numbers!
I rather quickly found the woods barometer of 2015 of BOS+. On the very top of the report this number (screenshot):
Translated from Dutch:
Figures from Flemish government show that Flanders deforests by 0.72 hectares/day
Strange, that is a clear and well-defined number. Why didn’t he use that number in that interview? If he really want to show that the Minister is negligent, then this number was his best argument! Yet for some reason he is not wanting to use that number from his own report?
Scrolling down, I found the table with the data from 2000 until 2014. There I also recognized the numbers 193, 195 and 263 hectares. Now I could check whether the cleared area really goes up in the last year compared to the last decade. When I added the previous 7 years and put them in a graph, this is the result:
It doesn’t really show much of a trend. The values were indeed lower at the start, but there were some ups-and-downs and three years seen higher values than 2014. The median is somewhat lower (235.5) than the 2014 value (263). So far for the suggestion that there could be a clear increase in the cleared area. They probably know why they only took the three last years…
Strangely, the numbers were all lower than 300 hectares anyway, let alone an average of 300 hectares. This could be explained by the exemptions (areas that weren’t allowed to be cleared, but got a permit to do so). Below the row with cleared area, there was also a row with exemptions. If I added the exemptions to the area that was cleared, then I indeed found an average of about 300 hectares per year. But I don’t think one can do that. If those exemptions are part of the clearing figures, then adding them together would be double dipping. If they are exemptions for woods that weren’t cleared yet, then those numbers shouldn’t be added in this year, but in the year that it would be actually cleared. Looking deeper, that is exactly what they did, they just added those two numbers together. It is until later that they found the error and issued a correction. The foreword of the quiz was probably made on basis of the old report, containing the wrong reasoning. One mystery down.
But then, maybe there were more exemptions this year than previous years? If I made a graph with that data, this didn’t seem to be the case. Also here, the median is slightly lower (64), but there were several years with higher values in the past.
Then my attention was drawn to the bottom of the table. There I found the actual numbers of the total area of woods! And surprise, surprise, if I put them in a graph, I get this:
This is all but going down if you ask me. In my world this is going UP!
Okay, I understand that this is not a very big increase, it is rather modest to be honest. Especially if we know that our government pledged to increase the area of woods in Flanders by 10,000 hectares in a decade. This makes them more than 10 times behind their goal and also perfectly explains the eagerness to declare a 8,262 hectares gain (these would almost set the government on track of that pledge).
But it doesn’t matter that it is only a modest increase, the messages of Groen and the foreword of De Afspraak was that there is a decrease. Not a status quo, not an increase, but a decrease.
Notice however that 2014 is not included in the graph. The reason for this is that not all the numbers are in yet…
…but then one would ask: if not all data is available yet, then how could they claim that Flanders lost more woods than they gained?!?! There isn’t enough data to be able to make that exact calculation. Yet this is exactly what they have done. Didn’t they?
I went back to the top of the report, to the place where that number was stated and then I suddenly realized what they did. This is not the balance that they calculated. They basically took 263 (remember, this is the area of woods that were cleared in 2014) and divided this by 365. This gives 0.72 hectares lost per year and this is the number that was shown prominently on the first page. It is the first that people see if they start to read the report.
While mathematically that number is correct, it is only half of the story. The number that BOS+ gave was the area that is being cleared in 2014. Just as me, Groen and De Afspraak understood it as a decreasing area of woods and forests in Flanders and that is what they both based their campaign on. Not on the actual numbers, but on the (wrong) interpretation of a statement made by BOS+.