Why Are Forests Important?

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By Shani Asokan 

Ceylon Today Features

Many aspects of our lives are linked to forests. However, the connection is not always apparent. This is the case with even the most mundane of activities such as drinking a glass of water, popping a pill to relieve a headache or writing in a notebook. Yes, forests play a role in all of those activities. 

In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution making 21 March International Day of Forests. This is an annual event to celebrate and raise awareness about the importance of all types of forests, and trees outside of forests, for current and future generations. 

The sustainable management of forests and the multiple resources found within them are key to combatting climate change. However, despite the numerous and invaluable ecological, economic, social, and health benefits, global deforestation is still taking place at an alarming rate.

Importance of forests

Simply put, we depend on forests for our very survival. Forests cover one third of all land on Earth, and play a vital role in providing the bio-architecture for a diverse collection of species. Not only do they provide habitats for animals and livelihoods for humans, but forests also offer watershed protection, prevent soil erosion and mitigate climate change. So, from the air that we breathe to the wood that we use, forests play a significant role in all our lives. Despite this, we tend to take forests for granted, underestimating just how important they are to life on Earth. However, if all the forests on earth were to disappear, humanity may not live to see it happen – a fact that should illustrate just how important forests are.

Take something as essential as oxygen, for example. Forests pump out the oxygen we need to live, and absorb the carbon dioxide that we exhale. It is estimated that a single, large, leafy tree can produce a day’s supply of oxygen for two to 10 people. While the credit for most oxygen produced goes to the phytoplankton found in the ocean, forests a still a key source of clean air. 

As mentioned above, forests also provide habitats for many of Earth’s known species. To put this in perspective, nearly half of all of earth’s species live in forests, making up nearly 80 per cent of biodiversity on land. In turn, biodiversity is just as important both for ecosystems and human economies. 

Forests are habitats for some humans too. Around 300 million people live in forests across the world, including an estimated 60 million indigenous people whose very survival depends almost entirely on their habitat. Many more millions of people live along or near forests, and continue to depend on them for livelihoods, food, and even medicine. 

In terms of climate change, forests once again play a central role. They keep the Earth cool by absorbing carbon dioxide that fuels global warming. While plants need some carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, trees often absorb way more than needed, given the excess of fumes in the Earth air these days. This is then stored in wood, leaves and soil, often for centuries. Forests are also able to influence weather patterns and sometimes even create their own microclimates. For example, the Amazon rainforest creates atmospheric conditions that not only promote rainfall there and in its surroundings but potentially as far away as the Great Plains of North America. 

Trees are also key to preventing flooding in low-lying areas as they and their roots help absorb more rainwater in the case of flash floods, reducing soil loss and potential property damage. They also soak up many of the toxic substances that stormwater increasingly carries, like toxic chemicals from gasoline, fertiliser and pesticides, helping prevent the creation of low-oxygen dead zones. 

Though it may seem like we’ve addressed a lot of why forests are important, the things discussed in this article barely scratch the surface of the impact forests have on our lives and on the planet. 

How do we celebrate?

On International Day of Forests, countries are encouraged to undertake efforts to organise local, national and international activities involving forests and trees such as tree planting campaigns, or seed distribution events. 

In the past, Sri Lanka has celebrated International Day of Forests by holding events that highlight the importance of forests and raise awareness about the importance of conservation. Many of these events centre on increasing reforestation and reducing deforestation, alongside greater investment in renewable energy and decreasing all forms of pollution. Generally, tree planting events go hand in hand with these events. 

However, though reforestation is important, it must be done in a carefully planned out manner to actually be effective. Deforestation is still a significant issue in Sri Lanka. Agriculture projects alongside mega development projects have contributed and continue to contribute to the clearance of forests. Thus, simply planting a few thousand trees every year, though beneficial overall, will not compensate for the trees lost that year. 

When planting trees, there are several factors to be considered. When selecting a tree species to plant, there is such a thing as ‘right tree in the right place’. You will want to consider soil conditions, the purpose of planting the tree, species diversity, disease resistance and growth speed among other factors. 

Though Sri Lanka does organise some events at a national and local level on International Day of Forests each year, there is still some room for improvement. The environment around us is deteriorating at an alarming rate. It’s time we come up with events and agendas that directly contribute to combatting climate change with both short term and long term effects, ultimately working towards a sustainable future. 

What are you doing to celebrate International Day of Forests this year?