International Day of Forests
By Steven King, PhD, EVP, Sustainable Supply, Ethnobotanical Research & IP
March 21st is International Day of Forests, and it is hard to think of where to begin in paying tribute to Earth’s forests. Much of the world is dependent on them in one way or another. Most people understand that forests and trees store carbon and, in doing so, help manage climate change, and that trees in urban areas provide shade, reduce heat, help clean air, reduce noise pollution, provide places for people to connect with nature and each other, and help people slow down and relax.
For people not living in urban areas, forests provide materials for food, medicine, shelter, income, and forests provide habitat for millions of species of plants, animals, birds, insects and microorganisms. Forests also provide ecosystem services such as maintaining watersheds, including healthy rivers, lakes and aquifers, that in turn provide clean water that is utilized by urban populations, by farmers for agriculture, and by engineers for power generation.
In many countries of the world there are sacred forests that are maintained by villages, a priest or by other local people. India has sacred groves scattered all over the country. These are often primary or lightly disturbed forests and often have spiritual links to the local religious beliefs and practices. Two areas of India, Himal Pradesh in the north and Kerala in the south, are well known for large numbers of sacred groves. Japan, Korea and Ethiopia, among numerous other nations, have many sacred forests. (Unfortunately, a large portion of the sacred forests in Korea were destroyed to build a ski slope for the 2018 Winter Olympic Gamesin Pyeongchang.) Many people in California consider the Redwood and Sequoia forests to be sacred or a least magical places with ancient tree spirits. Indigenous communities in the Amazon basin and all over the world view forests as living, breathing spirits and view themselves as part of the fabric of forest ecosystems.
Forests play a special role in maintaining Earth’s biological diversity, which is under threat of large-scale species extinction due to intensive pressure from human activities. In fact, many scientists now consider that we no longer live in the Holocene epoch—defined as beginning 12,000 years ago at the end of Paleolithic ice age—believing that we have entered the Anthropocene, a new geologic epoch also called “The Age of Humans”. The general idea is that humans have and continue to influence the entire planet as no species has ever done before. A good book with many essays on this topic is Living in the Anthropocene, Earth in the Age of Humans (Smithsonian Books, 2017).
There are, however, large-scale solutions being proposed to dramatically reduce the global loss of biological diversity, including the destruction of forests. One such approach is called the “Half Earth Project”, which is described by E. O. Wilson in his book Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Wilson and his foundation, the E. O Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, are working with the global scientific community, governments and the public to identify which 50% of Earth’s land and seas contain the highest levels of biological diversity. He and the Half Earth Project are proposing that we, homo sapiens, set aside 50% of the planet’s ecosystems in order to save a large portion of Earth’s biological diversity before it goes extinct forever. There are protected areas, marine reserves and national parks around the world and those areas can be part of the 50%. but much more land and sea areas will, as part of this vision, need to be set aside as permanent areas that would be off limits to development activities. This is not an easy goal to achieve, but in order to have healthy and thriving forests, we need to work towards this goal and embrace the vision of E. O. Wilson and all the people who believe we can make wise long-term decisions and actions now in this epoch of the Anthropocene.
The United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/67/200 on 21 December 2012, which declared that 21 March of each year is to be observed as the International Day of Forests. The theme for 2018 is “Forests and Sustainable Cities“.