The 21st of March has a lot going for it. It is, after all, the first day of spring here in the northern hemisphere. But since the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/67/200 on December 21, 2012, it is also now recognized as the International Day of Forests. This annual event is intended to be an opportunity to educate and celebrate the critical role that forest ecosystems play in the health of the planet, but also in the sustenance of our species.
The Importance of Forests
According to the United Nations, forests cover 31% of the global land area and are home to more than 80% of the planet’s, animal and insect species on Earth. 1.6 billion people depend directly on forests for their livelihood, medicine, food and fuel. And this is just the start. Beyond just providing goods from which people derive jobs, food, energy and shelter, forests provide critical environmental services which often go unrecognized by our traditional economic measures. While they often go unmeasured and unreported, these services are absolutely essential to our survival.
What are Environmental Services?
Simply put, environmental services are the functions carried out by natural systems that contribute to human well-being. A classic example is the pollination “services” carried out by the bee. Without this “service”, the agricultural production of many varieties of food would be impossible or too expensive, due to the costs of artificial pollination activities, to undertake. Forgive the human-centric nature of this definition – it is after all an attempt to explain “value” within the human construct of “the economy”. Many of us believe that bee has a value in and of itself. But that’s a whole other discussion for another time.
What Environmental Services do Forests Provide?
Forests perform many environmental services. They sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and they produce soil from their biomass. They regulate the water cycle and the climate. They also help to control the flow and quality of surface waters. This connection to water flow and quality is often the activity that is least understood by the average person.
While the specific type and degree of impact that forests have on local watersheds is unique to the geography in which they are found, there are some common functions they perform. Forests help to collect and slow the flow of rain waters. This helps to increase the amount water that makes it to the ground and helps to mitigate local flooding. Forests hold the soil with their roots and limit erosion. Having a forest in a watershed typically results in cleaner water downstream.
Forests do a lot for us, so it seems appropriate that we take a day each year to recognize their importance and think critically about how we are destroying them at a rate of 13 million hectare per year. The UN estimates that deforestation accounts for 12 to 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. We are literally suffocating, dehydrating and starving ourselves.
Thinking about the importance of forest on this International Day of Forests, I can’t help but think about the time I recently spent in Tijuca National Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was an eye-opening and affirming experience for me.
International Day of Forests is an opportunity for all of to be mindful of the importance of forest in an ecological sense and a spiritual one. Don’t you feel better after spending some time surrounded by trees? I know that I do. Visit the official International Day of Forests website for more information about what the United Nations is doing to increase awareness and protection of global forest ecosystems.
Happy Forest Day!