Forests - General
For millions of years forests were the dominant form of vegetation covering the earth and played a significant role in the evolution of new plant and animal species. Tropical forests such as the Amazon, Congo and Southeast Asian forests, cover only about six per cent of the Earth's surface but are particularly important because they provide the habitat for at least 50 per cent of the Earth's species.
Trees are useful sources of fruit, nuts, fuel, timber and medicine. They provide shelter from sun and rain, act as wind breaks and sun traps, and also act as homes for birds and other animals. The leaf cover on the forest floor acts as a mulch, reducing evaporation and adding nutrients to the soil. Trees act as the lungs of the planet, sucking up vast amounts of harmful carbon dioxide, while their roots help hold in place valuable top-soil. In tropical forests where the soil is shallow and relatively poor, most of the nutrients are held in the trees. Trees add beauty and character to any environment.
An area of tropical forest the size of Britain is cut down or burned each year. The rate of deforestation exceeds that of new planting by more than ten to one. Over 50 million acres, or 17-20 million hectares, is destroyed in order to create revenue from timber and beef exports to Europe, North America and Japan, however, the majority of land is cleared for farming. Trees removed for fuel for energy in areas of semi-desert accelerate the desertification process with disastrous consequences for humans and wildlife.
Large areas of temperate forest in Eastern Europe, Canada, Alaska, China, Scandinavia and North Western USA have been destroyed. Sixty per cent of British Columbia's ancient forest has been cut down. Much of the deforestation occurring in Russia is not only being clear-cut by the state but also by illegal operators. Many of the world’s native forests, like those in Chile, are being replaced by conifer plantations. Conifers use large amounts of nutrients to support their rapid growth and create acid soil from their leaf litter, which then supports very few other species of plants. Compared to a native forest with a wide variety of species of trees, a monoculture forest of conifers supports much less wildlife.
Original forest: All yellow and green areas Current forest: Dark green and light green areas Original forest remaining: Dark green area
Logging in many of the countries with tropical forests is referred to as 'selective' logging but this is not very selective in terms of the number of trees that are also cut down in the process of getting the one tree that is chosen. Selective logging involves the destruction of a huge area of forest by a bulldozer that makes a bee-line for the tree and tramples on everything in its path to reach it.
Deforestation destroys the once sustainable livelihood of local people dependent on fuel, wood, food and other harvested products, affects watersheds and depletes water resources, depriving the country's economy of sustainable resources for export. It reduces the productivity of the soil, leaving the land impoverished or barren, destroys the habitat of many species of plants and animals and drives some of them to extinction. The process of deforestation causes incalculable losses of nature's chemicals and food sources to science, medicine and crop geneticists, not to mention leaving an ugly scar on the land for many years.
Deforestation also contributes to greenhouse gases. Forests act like a sponge absorbing and storing the carbon dioxide, which humans produce in excess when burning fossil fuels. By destroying trees we curtail this important function. When we burn forests we suddenly release this huge amount of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - about 1/4 of carbon dioxide emissions are a direct result of burning.
Soil erosion is a major problem with 24 billion tonnes of topsoil lost by erosion every year. Farmers strip the land of trees and shrubs for firewood and to produce fodder. The roots of these plants hold the topsoil in place and, once gone, wind and rain (erosion) act on the soil which ends up clogging rivers or in the sea. Over-grazing and over-cultivation also speeds up the process of erosion and salinity. Once the fertile top soil has gone, the microbes die and the productivity of the land is lost.
Erosion is particularly serious in tropical regions and in mountainous regions, where there is the additional problem of terraces collapsing if land is not drained. In dry areas soil erosion leads to desertification. Every year, 6 million hectares of productive land turns into desert. Over 30 years, this would amount to an area as large as Saudi Arabia. Desertification is self sustaining and almost irreversible.
In the early 1970s, the drought of the Sahel region, bordering the Sahara in Africa, resulted in the deaths of over 250,000 people.
In Australia 70,000 hectares of native forests are cleared each year for woodchips with much of it used to produce photocopying paper. The woodchips and forest logs from old growth forests, are usually hauled a long way by road or rail to port or processing plant. This uses a great deal of energy and pollutes the atmosphere. Natural annual plant fibres such as sisal, kenaf and industrial hemp, can be used to replace wood in paper. They could be grown nearer the demand areas. These kinds of fibres can also be made into boards, timber substitutes and recyclable bioplastics.
What you can do
Do not buy non-plantation timber such as imported hardwoods, as this will encourage the destruction of the world's old growth and tropical rainforests. Purchase wood and forest products from independently certified well managed forests. That way you can be sure of supporting good forestry and giving value to forests. Sustainable forests need help to enable them to compete with other land uses. Support forest certification systems such as the Forest Stewardship Council based in the UK. Use recycled timber when possible. Use timber in preference to non-renewable resources such as metal and plastic.
Support environmentally friendly office paper that is 100% recycled post consumer waste, or uses plantation timber without chlorine bleaching. Find out who are the best local producers of recycled paper. Use their recycled paper and help promote their product to your local council, government offices and schools. Some good brands are available by asking at your local office products store or by searching on the internet.
Write to your favourite magazine and ask if the magazine is printed on environmentally friendly paper, and if it is not, tell them that you will stop buying it. Or, instead of buying magazines, read them at the library or find out if they are available on the internet.
Write a letter or email to the editor of your local newspaper; urge him or her to publish your concerns about local logging, conservation and forest management issues.
Visit woodland and forests regularly and spend time there so you may learn to appreciate them. If they are in a poor state of health, through disease, acid rain, logging or neglect then you will know that they need your help.
Guard your local trees. Join direct action groups. Put yourself between the machines and the trees, or support others who are prepared to protest in this way and perhaps be arrested. Attend meetings to help protect trees. Work in your community to help protect local areas. Perhaps this will involve taking legal action. If there are new developments in your area, check with the local government to make sure that threatened trees are covered by Tree Preservation Orders. If you find trees have been destroyed by builders, or you suspect this might happen, complain to the council, local press and your government representative. You will then be helping to ensure that in future new developments are designed around trees.
Support groups, which promote the conservation of forests in developing countries. Donate money to groups working to protect forests. Work with volunteer organisations planting trees in the countryside, bush or local environment. Study about ecology and the role trees have in natural systems.
Grow your own trees - from locally collected seed wherever possible. Plant the right variety of tree in the right place.