Forests – Our Green Lungs

Forests all over the world are vanishing at an alarming rate. As the green lungs of Mother Earth, they are vital to our health and survival. The year 2011 was proclaimed by the United Nations as the "International Year of the Forest". Its aim was to promote awareness and knowledge about the conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests for the benefit of the present and future generations.

Author Pui Ying Doris Lee, 07.26.11

Forests function as habitats, suppliers of raw materials, places of recreation and a means of climate protection altogether. It will be an international challenge to preserve forests for all mankind and to promote sustainable forest management throughout the world.

The Forests of Our Earth

Image: Paarma/ flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Forests are diverse. As a result of factors such as climate, soil conditions and forest history, different forest types have emerged, such as evergreens in the tropics, rainforests in warm temperate zones, and coniferous forests of the northern forest belt. They are the most species-rich habitats of all: of the approximately 1.8 million animals and plant species on Earth, two thirds of them live in the forest. The country with the most forestland is Russia, where a quarter of all forests on earth can be found.

Just 20 years ago, one third of the land was covered by forests. Today the number has dropped to only a quarter, which is about 3.9 billion hectares. While the number of trees in Europe is increasing, it is falling in the southern hemisphere where 12 to 15 million hectares of forest are lost every year due to fires or deforestation. This loss of forests threatens the economic and ecological basis at local, regional and global levels.

What Do Forests Have to Do with the Climate?

Image: Cajie/ flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Both locally and globally, the forest stands in close interaction with the environment. Forests contribute significantly to oxygen generation and carbon storage. The temperature-regulation effect a forest has on its surrounding environment is a reason why city parks or green areas are especially popular on hot summer days. Forests and forest soils act as filters, oxygen producers and water storage areas.

A tree produces its biomass, like all green plants, practically out of “nothing”, i.e. carbon dioxide, water and solar energy. In India, the forests contain 2,800 million metric tonnes of carbon in living forest biomass, making it easy to envision exactly how forests serve as the “green lung” of the country and of the world.

A 100 year old oak tree with 130,000 leaves, their biological cells, binds about 5,000 pounds of carbon dioxide to organic substances such as wood, leaves and bark each year and gives off up to 4,500 kilograms of oxygen, which is the annual requirement of eleven people. At the same time, the tree works as an air conditioner. The roots of that oak absorb about 40,000 liters of water from the soil every year, then “sweats out” via the leaves again. The generated evaporative cooling ensures that the forest even on hot summer days remains pleasantly cool. In addition, it filters about one tonne of dust and pollutants from the air, thus acting like a giant vacuum cleaner.

The Forest Disappears for Steaks and Toilet Paper

Image: Seema KK/ flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Every day, our planet loses about 356 square kilometres of forest especially in the tropics but also in the vast territories of the Russian taiga. That is about 35 football fields of forest per minute. This immense forest destruction is responsible for around 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than when all the cars and airplanes of the world emit together and the worldwide demand for wood is still increasing!

The forest is turned into disposable items of all kinds, from tissue paper to paper cups for the daily coffee-to-go. Forest areas have to give way for agricultural use, as soy is grown in its place for the increasingly growing meat production and palm oil crops for food and bio-fuel. Using forestland for agricultural production of food, cattle feeding, bio-energy and renewable raw materials as well as municipal, commercial, industrial and mining is generally more economically attractive than forestry. Even the often man-caused forest fires contribute to the destruction of large forest areas. This has particularly increased in recent years.

According to the World Bank, forests are essential to the survival and livelihoods of about 1.6 billion people who live in extreme poverty. The wide range of products made from the forests secure their food, income and housing while at the same time forests hold deep-rooted spiritual and cultural values. Traditional forms of self-sustainable agricultural activities and knowledge of the usefulness of valuable forest resources including endangered flora and fauna are disappearing.

Forests – Aiding India’s Magical Economic Growth

As one of the world’s leading economic powers, India relies heavily on resources from the forest. Its economic growth comes at the expense of its natural environment. On top of this, studies have repeatedly found that population growth (which has correlational relationship with economic growth) has an adverse effect on biodiversity.

Until recently, after countless environmentalists stressed the importance of tree plantation for regulating pollution level in the air, illegal felling of trees was on the rise, for example, in the Sunderbans of India, the world’s largest mangrove forest.

How can the forest serve the people in India? Forests and woodlands are converted into agricultural land to feed growing numbers of people, used to plant cash crops while cattle ranching helps India to earn money. Trees are also cut for firewood, building material and other wood products.

Monoculture plantations are on the rise in India, expanding by nearly 6,000 square kilometres (2,300 square miles) to 18,000 square kilometres (nearly 7,000 square miles) per year. (Source: Mongabay)

Apart from that, India is a big edible oil consumer. In fact, it is one of the three largest importers of palm oil in the world, along with the EU and China. Of these imports, 95 percent come from Indonesia and Malaysia, causing negative social and environmental consequences in these exporting countries. The global demand for palm oil is projected to increase from the current level of 22 million tonnes to 40 million by 2020. This increase in demand is likely to force the producing countries to establish new plantations, by converting forestland into crop area. 

Sustainable Ways of Consuming Wood

It is estimated that the demand for timber is likely to grow from 58 million cubic metres in 2005 to 153 million cubic metres in 2020. In principle, the sustainable usage of wood could see it turned into a renewable and environmentally-friendly source of raw materials.

The concept of sustainability has its origins in the forest economy. Over-exploitation, forest grazing and energy starvation in the Middle Ages led to the formulation of the basic principle of sustainability. To put it simple it suggests not to use more wood faster than the rate of the wood growing back. The Brundtland Commission (1987) and the Rio Conference (1992) have introduced the concept of sustainability as “Sustainable Development” to the international debate.

According to today’s interpretation of the principle of sustainability, a balance between economic, environmental and social aspects over generations and regions are all included. To put it in the context of forestry, silvicultural strategies can only be economically successful in the long-term if they are ecologically acceptable.

The FSC label is now the only seal that guarantees the products made out of wood are from a responsible source. These products include furniture, paper as well as construction materials and diapers.

Conservation and “Paper Parks”

Image: uspn/ flickr (CC- BY-NC 2.0)

In addition to the sustainable management of forests, it is necessary to protect certain forest areas in order to ensure their long lifespan. From National Parks, Animal Sanctuaries, Biosphere Reserves, Reserved and Protected Forests to Community Reserves, there are at least 140 different categories of protected areas worldwide. For some, such as biosphere reserves and national parks, international guidelines are applied. Others are regulated by the state and laws differ as how to strongly an area is protected and the degree of intervention in the area that is allowed.

However, not all reserves are equally protected. Most protected areas have been reported in regions with strong resistance from various interest groups – e.g. agriculture, tourism industry or mining companies.

The lack of will and initiatives from the financial and political sectors causes difficulties for the existing protected areas to be effectively managed, not to mention establishing new conservation efforts. Many developing countries are not able to offer sufficient funds to finance necessary salaries, infrastructure and equipment for this matter in order to protect biodiversity. Many of these areas are therefore, unfortunately, only available on paper – they are the so-called “paper parks”.

Even under the current Kyoto protocol, the avoidance of deforestation and the protection of existing forests has so far not been financially honoured. To finance those reserves with global significance and set up new ones, new ways of protected area management, fundraising and financing of nature protection are needed. Only when the measures are no longer placed from top to bottom, would the forests and thus the climate benefit. International regulations are necessary but must also be linked and be compatible with local and regional measures.

Author: Doris Pui-ying Lee/ RESET editorial

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