No forests – no future

Леса – это легкие планеты

Only after the last tree has been cut down,
Only after the last river has been poisoned,
Only after the last fish has been caught,
 Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.
 (Cree Indian Prophecy)

Forests are the lungs of the earth. Almost all of us heard this phrase in some context. However, have you ever thought, for example, while walking in a park or forest, what is the real role of forests in our life? Yes, many of us remember from their schooldays that trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen that humans breathe. We can go even further and firmly state that the forests play a key role in our battle against climate change, taking into consideration that carbon dioxide is one of the most important contributing factors of the “greenhouse effect”, which is resulting in the global warming.

At the same time, it’s not widely known that approximately 60 million people in the world, largely indigenous peoples, reside in forests, and for these people the forest is their home, shelter and livelihood. Moreover, 1.6 billion other people depend on forests for their livelihoods. Large forests and forest complexes are crucially important for water supply of nearly half of the world’s largest cities from Caracas to New York. In many developing countries, 80 per cent of energy consumed for domestic and industrial purposes is of the forest origin. Yet, despite all these benefits, global deforestation continues at an alarming rate - 13 million hectares of forests are destroyed annually, equal to the size of Greece or Nicaragua. And the only cause of it is the human activity, no matter whether it is carelessness, rush for immediate profit or a simple desire to survive. Deforestation and forest degradation is of extreme concern among the specialists of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

In a recently published document “Forests and People” by the UNEP is asserted that deforestation may begin… from our plates, to be more precise, from the meat we eat. While cereals and cash crops, such as coffee and cocoa, have expanded, so has livestock farming, boosted by an increased demand for meat products.

In the last 20 years only the pastureland territories have doubled and may double again by 2050. Of course it is good news that under­ or poorly nourished populations should have access to richer food, but this can have harmful side effects. Livestock farming requires large surface areas: of all human activities, it takes up the most land. Pastureland occupies 26 percent of the earth’s landmass, while forage production takes up about one third of arable land, and these areas continue to be expanded, mostly by the way of deforestation. The most dramatic situation is in the Amazonian rainforests, situated on the territories of nine countries - Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Surinam and French Guiana. About 80 percent of the endangered forests are being cut in these countries for soybeans and other crops used to feed livestock.

For those who already eat meat several times a week, cutting back is an easy and effective way to protect the planet. If you don’t want to cut back on meat, then consider specially certified meat, which takes environmental and animal welfare concerns into account, or switch from beef to less polluting meats such as poultry, taking into consideration that seven kilos of soybeans or maize are needed to produce one kilo of beef, compared to only two kilos for chicken. Helping the environment is also about helping yourself. Excessive meat consumption leads to numerous health problems, including obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The other problem is forest fires. On average, 350 million hectares of vegetation burn each year throughout the world, representing 1% of forestland. In Russia and some European countries we see the same spectacular images year after year: raging wildfires, firefighters, water bombers and houses in danger of being engulfed by the flames. Sometimes there is a human toll too.

Forest fires are part of a natural, age-old cycle and can play a positive role for the ecosystem in enabling it to rejuvenate itself. The Mediterranean forest ecosystem, for example, has evolved with fire: some plants such as pines require the heat of an ire to open their cones and release the seeds into the air. And the cork oak is able to survive most fires thanks to its bark. In denser forests, fires create clearings that enable different species to flourish.

However, the alarming factor is that more than 90 per cent of all fires are started by humans. Abandoned campfires, unextinguished cigarette butts or simple carelessness, in combination with the extreme heat and lack of rains have resulted in 2010 in the destruction of huge forest areas in Russia - from 1.5 to 6 million hectares according to various sources. Emergencies of this kind not only result in a direct harm for the environment, but also can have far-reaching consequences. Forest fires produce large quantities of green­house gases, contributing to climate change. This in turn increases the risk of more forest fires at more frequent intervals.

Another problem, typical for the developing countries, is the use of wood as a source of energy for domestic and industrial purposes. Many people don’t even think about the role of forest in their life, until they realize that the source of their livelihood that was used for housing, cooking and heating, no longer exists.

Forest cutting for industrial purposes also results in irreversible damage for the environment, if it is done recklessly and not controlled by strict regulations. The annual world turnover in the forest and related industries is estimated at 330 billion US dollars, and it is pitty that most companies don’t take into consideration the fact that the processed wood must be compensated so the future generations could breathe.

In the UNEP, the term “incidental deforestation” is used for the situation when forests are cut down simply because they bar the way to underground resources. For example, in the Appalachian Mountains in the United States, mountain top removal coal mining uses explosives to destroy large areas of the forests that cover the summits. Often, an area of land that has been destroyed for this reason is totally abandoned after the mineral resources have been mined. Sometimes it is restored by the operating company, but this is rarely the case.

The unauthorized logging of precious wood is one more threat for tropical forests, which are home to tens of thousands of tree species. For example, the various species of mahogany, ebony, rosewood and merbau are consequently widely exploited all over the world: they are used to make furniture, decorative objects and musical instruments. But their exploitation endangers not just the species themselves, but the whole forest. To access a single tree, loggers have to open up roads and paths, sometimes clearing several hectares in the process. Today, some of these trees are on the Red List of Threatened Species (compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature) or the list of CITES­controlled species. But nevertheless, an ever-increasing demand promotes illegal trade, because the market is a lucrative one. One cubic meter of a particularly highly prized variety of rosewood can sell for up to 3,000 Euros in Asia. This trafficking is often undertaken in areas of political instability or governmental weakness, or in huge, sparsely populated regions that are difficult to monitor. The illegal timber passes from intermediary to intermediary, going from one end of the planet to the other: logs might be cut in Cameroon, processed in China and sold as a product, e.g. a table, in France. The problem may seem insignificant, but in the European Union, according to some estimates, more than 20 per cent of imported wood and forest products – the equivalent of over 360 million cubic meters – are probably illegal.

While forests, which store large quantities of carbon dioxide, are an important ally in the fight against climate change, they have already begun to be affected by it. Some of the effects are positive: with shorter winters, trees grow for longer periods, and with more CO2 in the air they grow faster, because the gas increases photosynthesis. Since the early 20th century, forest productivity has grown by around 40 per cent in Europe. At the same time, the global warming makes forests more fragile. An illustration of this phenomenon is the ‘drunken forest’. In Siberia, rising temperatures have resulted in the thawing of permafrost (soil that is usually frozen year round). As the soil softens, the trees wind up tilting over, growing in unusual directions. Because they are less solidly anchored in the ground, they are prone to collapse at the least disturbance, like a house of cards.

Acid rains, resulting from the air pollution, are also dangerous. They have caused irreversible damage to dozens of millions of hectares of the forests in Canada and Europe. Though this phenomenon is less common nowadays, the threat of acid rain persists in China, where numerous coal-fired power plants, which are major sulphur emitters, are in operation.

Because forests can hide enemies, armies sometimes see the destruction of forests as an important strategy. Between 1962 and 1971, the US military sprayed approximately 80 million liters of defoliants (i.e. chemicals sprayed or dusted on plants to cause its leaves to fall), including the notorious Agent Orange, onto the Vietnamese countryside. One fifth of the forests in the south of the country were destroyed, and 36 per cent of the 291,000 hectares of mangrove forest were wiped out.

Damaging the forests may be a side effect of the struggle against another evil, the drugs. In Columbia, for example, vast areas of Amazonian forests were regularly destroyed due to the fact that the country’s authorities actively used the herbicides, resulting in destruction of not only the drug plantations but also forests and agricultural crops.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the most endangered now are the mangrove forests. Their surface area diminished from 18.8 million hectares in 1980 to 15.2 million hectares in 2005 – a reduction of nearly 20% in a quarter of century. Mangrove forests are traditionally exploited for their wood, reputed as rot­ and insect resistant. But recently they have become victims of other modern threats such as farms, housing, aquaculture, port infrastructure and tourist resorts.

However, there are several positive trends, indicating that the situation becomes more favorable for the forests. In this regard, the worldwide Billion Tree Campaign has become the most important event in the recent years. This campaign was initiated in November 2006 by prof. Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Prize Winner (2004), in cooperation with the UNEP, several non-government organizations and the UN bodies. The idea was to plan of 1 billion trees all over the world by 2007. But once this goal was achieved, the campaign’s founders have decided to develop their success. As a result, more than 11 billion trees have been planted by now and this number continues to grow. Anybody can take a part in the abovementioned campaign – a person, a group, a small company, a large corporation, city authorities, a ministry, government etc. Anyone can register at the campaign’s web site and make a contribution to the planet’s forest expansion, regardless the number of trees planted – one, dozen, thousand or million.

In Peru, after the company’s goal to plant 170 million trees by the end of 2010 was achieved, the new campaign with the intention to plant 60 million more trees was launched almost immediately. The initiative here was taken by the Peruvian government in cooperation with the private sector through the AGRORURAL program. The country even managed to enter the Guinness Book of Records, when near the Tupac Amaru School, Tuman District in the north coast of Peru within the record-breaking short period of 5 minutes and 20 seconds were planted 27,166 trees.

Rather unusual way was chosen by the local authorities of the San Luis Province, Argentine. With a multifaceted approach to environmental conservation, they have decided that it isn’t enough just to plant the trees. Therefore, environmental education is provided to children and youth from all levels of society. At the same time, each year school children are called upon to collect native tree seeds from forests, which are taken to tree nurseries. In 2009, 660 kg of seeds, the equivalent of 15 million trees, was collected.  The forestry agents currently plant an average of 10,000 trees daily and plan to increase its goal to planting 30,000 trees per day.

There are several other positive examples. For example, the before-mentioned the   Appalachian region of the eastern United States has long struggled with poverty. The area is home to some 23 million people, but the exploitation of Appalachia’s coal reserves has left a scarred and damaged landscape. The Appalachian Regional Restoration Initiative (ARRI) was created in an effort to reforest active and abandoned mine lands. Since 2004, some 60 million trees have been planted on about 87,000 acres in Appalachia under ARRI’s guidance. The excitement and energy generated by the project has resulted in the Green Forest Works for  Appalachia, which proposes planting 125 million trees over the next five years, restoring forests on approximately 70,820 hectares of barren mine lands across Alabama, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. It will create more than 2000 green jobs while trees will prevent soil erosion, produce a carbon sink to help mitigate the effects of climate change, increase biodiversity, improve water supply in the region and turn this place into a recreational area, perfect for walking, camping and family vacations.

Unfortunately, Russia looks poorly in these terms. It is rich in forests, but little care is provided for them. As a part of the Billion Tree Campaign, only 50,000 trees were planted in Russia.

For the governmental and private investment attraction with the purposes of forest preservation, two mechanisms are considered by UNEP as especially important: PES (Payment for environmental services) and REDD+ (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation).

PES is a mechanism of voluntary transactions which compensate ecosystem service providers (for instance forest landowners) for providing watershed protection, carbon storage, recreation, biodiversity or other ecosystem services.

REDD+ is a mechanism that, recognizing the importance of trees as the means of CO2 storage, allows financial transfers from developed to developing countries in return for verified national-level commitments to reduce deforestation and emissions on the national and regional levels.

The PES mechanism, which exists for several years already, can be implemented only on an international level and did not meet the expectations in full due to the complexity and economic inexpediency of some projects. Now, high hopes set on the REDD+ system. According to Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, “Reducing deforestation is essential. Immediate action on REDD+ is a critical part of the climate change solution”.

The REDD+ was tabled in 2005 by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica. By now more than 30 models of how REDD+ should work have been put forward by countries, groups of countries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In general, the mechanism would involve a massive transfer of money from rich countries to poor as part of their commitment under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The purpose of the process is to reduce carbon emissions, around 20 per cent of which, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, caused by tropical deforestation. Specialists think that due to the mechanism forests would no longer be viewed merely as timber waiting to be harvested or land awaiting clearance for agriculture. However, even if all the agreements will be reached in the nearest future, the REDD+ program, which is considered to be the most inexpensive way to reduce the carbon emissions, cannot be launched earlier than in 2013, although several countries are already implementing the projects based on similar principles.

However, skeptics believe that the system that provides opportunities for companies and governments to meet targets for reducing their carbon emissions by paying for carbon reductions elsewhere in the global economy will slow down the process of switching to technologies that reduce carbon emissions in developed countries and will not make the investments in the “environmentally friendly” economy attractive for the countries that can pay for their emissions at others’ expenses.

Anyway, according to UNEP, investments in the forests or, at least, prevention of their uncontrollable cutting can result in significant economic benefits. An additional investment of 30 billion US Dollars (i.e. larger than the current investments by two thirds) fighting deforestation and degradation could provide a return of 2.5 trillion US Dollars in saved products and services. Furthermore, targeted investments in forestry could generate millions of jobs around the world, reduce the level of deforestation by a half by 2030 and increase the trees planting by 140 per cent by 2050. So it is quite logical that the year 2011 is declared the International Year of Forests by the UN – forests really need our attention for the sake of “green” future and sustainable development of the world.