UOA05-03: Saving the world’s forests: maintaining biodiversity alongside economic development
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Oxford
Unit of AssessmentBiological Sciences
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Environmental Sciences: Environmental Science and Management
Biological Sciences: Ecology
Agricultural and Veterinary Sciences: Forestry Sciences
Summary of the impact
Research by Oxford University has led to the development of a
biodiversity assessment tool based on three biological indices, that has
been used in many parts of the world to prioritise and protect
biodiversity hotspots, particularly in landscapes that are at major threat
from logging or conversion to agriculture. In Ghana these methods have led
to the protection of ~2,300 km2 of forest reserves (13% of the
total forest network) and were codified in a simple field guide. In
Liberia a multinational mining company made important conservation
decisions based on the application of these methods. Use of the tool has
led to the retention of substantial areas of high biodiversity forest in
West Africa, despite competing economic and political drivers, and amidst
a continuing general decline in forest condition across the region.
Research by Dr William Hawthorne, originally as a Research Scientist in
the Oxford Forestry Institute and latterly in the Plant Sciences
Department, has had a major impact on forestry conservation and
biodiversity in Africa and South America. In 1996 Dr Hawthorne published a
study of the ecology of the forests of Ghana, in which he described (a) a
new taxonomy for identifying plant species and (b) novel approaches to the
analysis of biogeographical and ecological data1. This research
- Vegetative characters can be used to differentiate even closely
related tree taxa.
- Globally rare plants are clustered in hotspots that are present at all
- Heavily exploited timber species are clustered in different areas to
globally rare plants.
- Most timber species are well dispersed, light-demanding and not
The Oxford University research developed three Biological Indices
to express and map forests:
- The Bioquality Index, which is based on a `Star' system of
categorising species. Black Star species are the most globally rare
whilst Green are the most globally widespread. The balance of different
Star species in a particular plant community reveals `Bioquality
hotspots' within the forest.
- The Economic Index, which highlights the concentration of
commercially exploitable tree individuals in a forest. Relative to the
standing crop, Scarlet Star species are exploited three times as
intensively as Pink species, with Red species intermediate.
- The Pioneer Index, which quantifies the balance of pioneer
(light-demanding) species germinating after forest damage and is used as
a proxy for forest recovery.
The use of these indices made it possible to carry out large-scale `Rapid
Botanical Surveys (RBS)' in a timely and cost-effective manner and
thus to assess species richness and threats within forest communities.
Subsequent research used statistical methods to validate the Pioneer Index
as a proxy for regeneration state2 and to corroborate species
richness distribution patterns3.
References to the research
1. Hawthorne WD. (1996) Holes and the sums of parts in Ghanaian forest:
regeneration, scale and sustainable use. Proceedings Royal Society Ed.
Series B 104: 75-176. doi:
Paper introducing the Star system of species classification and
2. Sheil D, Salim A, Chave J, Vanclay J, Hawthorne WD. (2006)
Illumination-size relationships of 109 coexisting tropical forest tree
species. J. Ecol. 94: 494-507. doi: 10.1111/j.1365- 2745.2006.01111.x Paper
confirming the correlation between recovery state of the forest and
the Pioneer Index.
3. Poorter L, Hawthorne WD, Bongers F, Sheil D. (2008) Maximum size
distributions in tropical forest communities: relationships with rainfall
and disturbance. J. Ecol. 96: 495-504. doi:
10.1111/j.1365-2745.2008.01366.x Paper using regression analyses to
demonstrate that the largest tree species in Ghana occur in drier and
more disturbed forests. Wet forests were associated with high species
Funding for research: Since 1993 around £2.5M has been received for Dr
Hawthorne's research, in grants from the Overseas Development Agency, the
Department for International Development, EU FP6, The Oxford Martin
School, Intercontinental Hotels Group and BP Biofuels.
Details of the impact
Since Hawthorne introduced the concept of the Bioquality index in 1996,
RBS has been used to:
- Set forest conservation and management practices in Ghana
- Identify biodiversity-rich forests on Mount Cameroon leading to
sustained protection (1997);
- Assess logging impacts in forests in Malaysia leading to the long term
protection of important areas (1998);
- Prioritise areas for conservation management in Mexico (2003);
- Develop offsetting strategies after construction of a hydroelectric
dam in Sierra Leone (2006 and ongoing);
- Influence mining practices in Liberia, Senegal and Guinea (2008-2012);
- Support biodiversity management decisions in Trinidad & Tobago
- Inform plans for the expansion of biofuel production in Brazil
Examples in Ghana, Liberia and Brazil illustrate the reach and
significance of these impacts.
In 1997, the Oxford University Researchers proposed a conservation
strategy for Ghana's forests that was based on the use of Star and
Bioquality indices4. The strategy aimed to reconcile the demand
for the conservation of biodiversity with the production of timber and
non-timber forest products, and to protect forest reserves. The Ghanaian
Government responded by introducing the Timber Resources Management Act
(Act 547) and Timber Resources Management Regulations (LI 1649) in 1998.
These legislations underpin current Forest Regulations and the enforced
logging manual is framed in the context of Star categories (e.g. only
limited numbers of Scarlet Star species are approved for logging whereas
Black Star species are wholly protected).
In 1999 the Ghanaian Government established the High Forest Biodiversity
Conservation Project (HFBCP), which was funded by $9 million from the
World Bank. The project's objective was to "target the forests in
Ghana that, based on a comprehensive national forest inventory, rank
highest in terms of their global importance for biodiversity"5.
The project aimed to conserve biodiversity in these forests through the
establishment and protection of Globally Significant Biodiversity Areas
(GSBAs). These regions were identified on the basis of their bioquality
index as defined by the Hawthorne inventory1.
One of the objectives of the Globally Significant Biodiversity Areas
programme was to engage local communities whose livelihood depended on
resources and income from the forest. To facilitate engagement at
community level, Dr Hawthorne developed his plant identification
methodology into a field guide for non-specialists6.
Development of this user-friendly guide was essential to Ghana's new wave
of community participation in forest management as it enabled local people
to identify forest flora and thus to measure and monitor bioquality
indices. The guide was developed using evidence-based methods to assess
optimal content and layout for a non-scientific audience. Drafts were
field-tested with more than 600 potential users across rural Ghana,
including school-children, foresters, and the general public. The guide is
based on photographs and drawings, and is designed to minimise the need
for reading complicated botanical text. It includes 326 species,
representing virtually all of Ghana's forest canopy and emergent trees.
The field guide is now used by timber companies to ensure accurate
identification prior to logging. All of the 2000 copies that were printed
have been distributed and are in circulation in West Africa.
At the end of the World Bank funded programme, a post-project evaluation
report was commissioned by the Global Environmental Facilities/United
Nations Development Program. This concluded that government organisations
had successfully introduced new policies, and that the establishment of
GSBAs had achieved positive and measurable environmental impacts7.
In discussing the strengths of the programme, the report stated that "the
outputs included the establishment of 29 forest reserves and their
exclusion from timber harvesting on the merit of their high significance
as biodiversity-rich areas" (these 29 form the core of the GSBAs).
It also stated that the environmental impacts of establishing the GSBAs
were "(1) afforestation and rainfall patterns improved, (2) illegal
tree felling and group hunting reduced, (3) seasonal reduction of
volumes of water bodies subsided, and (4) use of poisonous chemicals in
In 2007, continued forest depletion was estimated to cost 3.5% of Ghana's
annual GDP in loss of economic and environmental assets, prompting the
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to report a "new
paradigm shift of inclusive forest governance in Ghana".
Conservation of the Globally Significant Biodiversity Areas remains a high
priority and key advances since 2008 include:
- Introduction of Dr Hawthorne's field guides, which are now central to
all forest survey work. The Head of the IUCN Forest Conservation
Programme writes8: "the Star scoring system is now
standard knowledge across the forest profession in Ghana. Most
foresters are aware of it and understand the importance in terms of
rarity values of Black and Gold species. They also understand the
importance of protecting these species. The significance of imbuing
this knowledge amongst the professional cadre in an economically
developing country should not be under-estimated".
- In 2009, Ghana was the first country to sign a FLEGT (Forest Law
Enforcement Governance and Trade) Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA)
with the EU9. As a condition of the VPA, it is stated that no
Black Star species, as defined by Hawthorne1 can be felled;
no timber can come from a GSBA; and regulations and guidelines
recommended by Hawthorne4 must be adhered to. The first FLEGT
licenses will be issued in late 2013.
In 2010, Dr Hawthorne's group was commissioned by the international mining
company, ArcelorMittal (AML), to carry out a Bioquality assessment of the
West Nimba region of Liberia, a mountainous area and global biodiversity
hotspot. AML used the botanical survey to assess the environmental impact
of proposed iron ore mining activities, and to investigate the scope for
offset or mitigation. A second assessment in 2011 and recommendations
published in 201310 have guided AML's operations in the area.
The Environmental Adviser for AML reports11 that key activities
in relation to conservation and mitigation have been:
- To position all new roads, ore concentrators and waste centres away
from high quality forest, and some existing roads are being re-aligned.
- To avoid mining one of the ore bodies because of its co-location in
- To carry out plantation trials with species that are important to
local communities for medicine, food and construction materials, to
compensate for any loss from forests.
- To protect culturally important and rare species at mine sites, and
collect seeds from individual trees to propagate in a local tree
- To cultivate globally rare and taxonomically distinct species in
nurseries for restoration and re-vegetation when mine sites are closed
Currently, the University of Brasília and BP Biofuels are using
Hawthorne's RBS tools to assess biodiversity in the Cerrado
hotspot of Brazil. Cerrado is attracting international attention
because of its agricultural and biofuels potential, and associated
biodiversity conflicts. RBS is being used to prioritise areas for
conservation, whilst supporting agricultural and economic development12.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Hawthorne WD, Grut M, Abu-Juam M. (1998). Forest Production and
Biodiversity Conservation in Ghana, and Proposed International Support
of Biodiversity Conservation. CSERGE working paper (held on file). This
paper was presented at the hearing of the World Commission on
Forests and Sustainable Development in 1997. It proposed the now
adopted conservation strategy for Ghana's forests.
- Appraisal document for the World Bank grant to support the HFBCP
project (1998). Held on file and also available from:
Outlines the strategy to establish GSBAs (page 46, Annex 2,
- Hawthorne WD, Gyakari N. (2006). Photoguide for the forest trees of
Ghana. A tree-spotter's field guide for identifying the largest trees.
OFI. ISBN 9780850741643. Definitive guide used by timber
companies to ensure accurate identification prior to logging.
- Global Environment Facility (GEF) and United Nations Development
Programme (UNDP) evaluation document. Country Programme Case Study:
Ghana. (2007). Held on file and also available from: sgp.undp.org/index.php?option=com_docman&Itemid
Final report confirming positive effects of establishment of
- Letter from the Head of IUCN Forest Conservation Programme (held on
file), confirming the importance of the Star Scoring system in
terms of helping to preserve Ghana's forests.
- Voluntary Partnership Agreement between the European Community and the
Republic of Ghana on forest law enforcement, governance and trade in
timber products into the Community (2009). Held on file and also
Annex II outlines the definition of legal timber. Compliance
with the criteria for both sourcing and harvesting timber requires
adherence to legislation in Act 547 and/or LI 1649, both of which
are framed in the context of Star categories.
- Nimba Western Area Iron Ore Concentrator Mining Project Environmental
and Social Impact Assessment. Held on file and also
http://www.arcelormittal.com/liberia/documents/Volume_4_Part_1_1_Forest_Botanical_Impact_Assessment.pdf This document was drafted by Hawthorne and issued by the
environmental consultants URS/Scott Wilson. It contains details of
both the 2010 and 2011 botanical surveys in Nimba County, Liberia.
It provides management recommendations in the context of how mining
operating procedures could be modified/implemented in order to
conserve both global and local biodiversity. The RBS methodology and
results are included.
- Letter from the Environmental Adviser for ArcelorMittal (AML) Liberia
(held on file), confirming key conservation and mitigation
impacts in relation to Liberian forests in mining areas.
- Letter from the CEO of BP Biofuels (held on file), corroborating
the use of RBS to help prioritise areas for conservation in Brazil.