The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demand for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it affords protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axe man who destroys it – Gautama Buddha.
The above quote depicts very explicitly the nature of trees and forests which can be compared to a mother who cares and loves her children always even when they turn against her.
With our busy lifestyles, it is easy to take the trees and forests around us for granted and undermine their multiple benefits to mankind and nature as a whole. We often do not make connections to the water we drink, bathe and other chores, the food we consume, the timber we use to build our houses, the fire wood we consume, etc.
However, with the advent of climate change and its adverse impacts on mankind, trees and forests have got a lot of prominence as carbon sinks which help to absorb the evil green house gases especially carbon dioxide in their photosynthesis process and thereby reduce the green house gases in the atmosphere.
However, as always, we realise the value of things a little too late. Natural forests are mostly found in the developing world where there are many stresses on these forested ecosystems on the face of economic development.
Deforestation and degradation
They are either used in economic development or are sacrificed for it. Either way the end result is deforestation and degradation of natural forests. It is rather shocking to realise that every year a forest land area twice the size of Sri Lanka (36 million acres) is lost in the world. The highest levels of deforestation are in South America with 9.4 million acres lost per year. The fastest rates of deforestation are in South East Asia.
The biggest causes of deforestation and forest degradation are agricultural expansion, cattle ranching, road and urban infrastructure projects, commercial logging, mining, subsistence farming and collection of firewood.
Deforestation and forest degradation releases about 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon annually, about 20 per cent of global carbon emissions. Total emissions from deforestation in 2008-2012 are expected to equal 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. To halve emissions from the forest sector by 2030 through carbon markets would cost between 17 and 33 billion dollars a year, according to the Eliasch Review. The European Union reckons that it would cost 15 to 25 billion euros every year to halve deforestation by 2020.
In order to act locally to arrest deforestation, it is imperative to learn about the benefits of forests as it is only then can one appreciate it and take action towards conservation. As a resource, forests provide many important natural resources such as timber, fuel, rubber, paper and medicinal plants. Forests also help sustain the quality and availability of freshwater supplies.
More than three quarters of the world’s accessible freshwater comes from forested catchments. Water quality declines with decreases in forest condition and cover and natural hazards such as floods, landslides, and soil erosion have larger impacts. By regulating water for many of the world’s rivers, they help secure water quality, and supply nearly half of the world’s largest cities from Caracas to New York. They also help decrease the impacts of storms and floods, whilst helping control erosion. As the most biologically diverse ecosystems on land, forests are home to more than half of terrestrial species, from the great apes to the smallest of creatures. The impact of forests reaches even further. In many developing countries more than 80% of total energy consumed by people and industry derives from forests such as fuel wood and charcoal.
Trade in timber and other forest products, is estimated at almost US$ 330 billion per year. The value multiplies as they are processed into a myriad of products used globally every day. Use of the genetic diversity within forests enables the development of new medicines; progress in healthcare and science.
Forests also provide homes, security and livelihoods for 60 million indigenous peoples, whilst contributing to the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people worldwide. Many of the world’s most threatened and endangered animals live in these forests, making them crucial to sustaining ecosystems.
Beyond supporting the natural habitat, forests sustain economic growth. In 2004 trade in forest products was estimated at $ 327 billion.
Forests as a carbon sink
When the world is faced with the increasing and irreversible threat of climate change which is equivalent to a killer which takes its prey slowly but surely, the importance of forests as a carbon sink became more and more prominent.
It’s well known that forests play a key role in our battle against climate change; storing carbon and sucking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it into their biomass. Forest have high rates of eco system productivity, and therefore of carbon sequestration, compared to most other terrestrial ecosystem. The world’s forests hold approximately 90% (about 740 Giga tonnes) of all above ground terrestrial carbon and 40% (about 570 Giga tonnes) of all below-ground terrestrial carbon (Winjum et al., 1992).
It is estimated that between 1.1 to 1.8 Giga tonnes of carbon per year can be sequestrated (absorbed) in 50 years (Brown, 1997). From the research studies carried out in Sri Lanka it has been found out that the natural forests sequester about 10 tonnes carbon per ha per year or 36 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per hectare per year.
Time for immediate action
On the face of the challenge the world face due to the tilting of the balance between the benefits and availability of forests, time has come to take immediate action to restore this. This has to be done by all levels of the world, i.e. international, national and individual, as well as all levels of society.
One of the international efforts to make the world aware of the goods and services forests give as well as the alarming rate at which they are disappearing is making the theme ‘Forests – Nature at your Service’ of the World Environment Day (WED) this year.
WED is an annual event that is aimed at being the biggest and most widely celebrated global day for positive environmental action. WED activities take place all year round but climax on 5 June every year, involving everyone from everywhere.
WED celebration began in 1972 and has grown to become the one of the main vehicles through which the UN stimulates worldwide awareness of the environment and encourages political attention and action. Through WED, the UN Environment Programme is able to personalise environmental issues and enable everyone to realise not only their responsibility, but also their power to become agents for change in support of sustainable and equitable development.
WED is also a day for people from all walks of life to come together to ensure a cleaner, greener and brighter outlook for themselves and future generations.
Forest carbon schemes
A few forest carbon schemes are evolving or under way at present in international, national and sub-national fora. On the international stage, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol allows developing countries to undertake Afforestation and Reforestation (AR) projects as per prescribed guidelines and obtain payments for the same.
Developed countries can use the net carbon sequestered by such projects to offset their greenhouse gas emissions and meet their mandated emission reduction targets.
Now a new expanded concept, REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, Conservation and Enhancement of Forest Carbon Stocks, and Sustainable Management of Forest), is under negotiation at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The UN-REDD Programme assists developing countries prepare and implement national REDD+ strategies, and builds on the convening power and expertise of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The Programme currently has 29 partner countries spanning Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America. REDD+ is seen as one of the most cost-effective ways of stabilising the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to avoid a temperature rise of two degrees Celsius. Countries have got together to purchase only timber from certified sources, that is from forests and plantations which have been managed on a sustainable basis. Even in the developing nations the enterprises who are engaged in international timber trade are compelled to resort to this.
Encouraging sustainable use
Locally, Governments make and implement policies and programmes that encourage sustainable use of forests. In Sri Lanka Forest Policy, Forest Ordinance, Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, CITIES (involves the trade of fauna and flora), Wildlife Policy are ones more targeted towards protection of forests while the National Environment Act and National Environmental Regulations (1993) which calls for the Environmental Impact Assessment for larger development projects and National Environment Policy 2003 are over-reaching.
The Forestry Master Plan which was prepared in 1995 has made projections up to 2020 to conserve and sustainable use forests. A recent initiative of the Government to have Strategic Environmental Assessments for the country helps to conserve forests and wildlife areas while giving the green light for sustainable development by zoning the land into appropriate land uses.
Outside the State forests, private home gardens and agro-forestry systems are rising in importance as refuges for biodiversity and also provide other environmental functions such as soil, water and carbon conservation.
The private sector is emerging as an important and significant stakeholder in the conservation and sustainable use of forests. It engages in forest tree planting and while helping to increase the forest cover in the country, does an important service in making the people appreciate trees and consider them to have value and reason to invest for both present and future generations.
What we can do
While initiatives at international and national levels are much needed, these cannot be made effective without attitudinal changes and resorting to greener daily routines and thinking of people. The following are a few tips we can follow to save forests from our daily routine:
- Save paper by printing only when it is absolutely necessary – even when it is so try to print double side. This will save paper as paper comes from trees!
- Go electronic for bills and payments; at home, in the office and at the bank
- Give a seedling as presents – so that there would be many trees growing and looked after with love
- Use glass cups and plates instead of disposable paper cups and plates
- Whenever we feel like buying books, magazines and newspapers go to the library or borrow from friends and neighbours
- Plant trees whenever possible
- Pass the message to all our friends
Every good thing had a small beginning. We will not be able to change the world overnight, but slowly and surely we would be able to experience a better quality of life for us as well as our future generations by saving planet earth before it is too late.
(The writer is Professor, Department of Forestry and Environmental Science, University of Sri Jayewardenepura.)