Today is the International Day of Forests, an annual celebration, and effort to raise awareness of forests and their vital importance to the future of the planet.
There is something about forests that speaks to the primal within us. They inspire a sense of calm, of wellbeing. Their sounds, their scents, the light, the clean air – all of these things offer a chance to feel grounded and at one with nature in our hectic, urban lives. The Japanese, in fact, have a whole practice based around spending time in forests: shinrin-yoku, or forest-bathing. It means bathing in the forest atmosphere, immersing oneself in the natural world, experiencing it with all your senses. It has been shown to have real health benefits, both mental and physical.
It’s not just our personal wellbeing that is linked to forests. As a species we rely on them for so much more. They directly support the lives of more than one billion people who live in forests – including 40% of the world’s extreme rural poor. Almost 50% of our food comes from fruit grown in forests, and forests supply a large part of the clean drinking water of almost a third of major cities, including New York and Mumbai. It’s not just the human species that relies on forests. They are home to a staggering 80% of terrestrial plant, animal and insect populations, making them a crucial centre of biodiversity.
Even more fundamentally, forests are integral to the future of our planet. They are our most powerful weapon in the fight against climate change, acting as carbon ‘sinks’. Absorbing carbon from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and locking it up for centuries, a woodland of young, indigenous trees can lock up more than 400 tonnes of carbon a year. Humans invest billions of dollars a year in inventing technology to help us combat climate change and reach our carbon emission goals – but all over the world there are literally trillions of these natural carbon capture and storage machines, their abilities honed by natural selection over billions of years. Tropical tree cover alone could provide 23% of the climate mitigation needed over the next decade to meet goals of the Paris Agreement. What’s more, forests help us to manage the devastating effects of climate change, including preventing flooding, reducing city temperatures, reducing pollution and keeping soil nutrient-rich.
So why on earth do we as a species seem so intent on flattening forests? Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 502,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometers) of forest, according to the World Bank. That’s an area larger than South Africa. About 17% of the Amazonian rainforest – the ‘lungs’ of the planet – has been destroyed over the last 50 years, and recently losses have risen, thanks in no small part to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s decision to open up protected landscapes for commercial purposes.
Forests are chopped down or destroyed for many reasons: farming, grazing livestock, mining, drilling, production of palm oil and logging are among them. Not all of it is intentional: wildfires cause a huge amount of damage – but sadly we are also ultimately responsible for many wildfires, as they are increasing as the Earth’s temperature rises.
If tropical deforestation were a country, it would be the third biggest carbon emitter in the world, behind China and the US.
If we are to forge a sustainable future, saving existing forests and planting new ones with native species must be at the heart of our efforts. Old and new forests are equally effective ‘carbon sinks’. Encouragingly, there is increasing momentum behind initiatives to grow more trees on the planet: governments are pledging to plant millions, even billions of trees, while organisations and activists are tackling illegal mining and logging. Bhutan famously planted 108,000 trees in celebration of the birth of a prince in 2016 whilst Ethiopia planted 350 million trees within 12 hours in July 2019.
Governments hold huge responsibility to save our forests, but we as consumers do as well. We can ensure that our paper products come from sustainable sources or use alternatives such as bamboo: groups such as the Forest Stewardship Council and the Rainforest Alliance certify sustainable products. We can also avoid palm oil wherever possible (the World Wildlife Fund has a palm oil scorecard). Read more about the benefits of using certified woods
Trees are majestic, powerful and ancient: they support lives and livelihoods for all life on earth, and are integral to the future of the planet. Let’s learn to respect and cherish them, so that we strive to save them. This International Day of Forests, why not discover how you can contribute to saving our forests?
We have found this wonderful resource for teachers who wish to inspire a love and respect for trees: if we can inspire a generation of young people to cherish the natural world, then there is hope for our planet.
Other interesting links to read more
Ten Reasons Forests are important
Ten more reasons ….
Then things you can do to save our rainforests
Fabulous ways to protect trees and conserve our forests
Get free tress for your school or community (UK only link)