Illegal logging, slashing, burning and conversion of forests into arable land are threatening the planet's 'green lung'. The UN hopes to change that with the International Year of Forests.
Every year, 13 million hectares of forest are destroyed
More than a billion people worldwide depend on forests for their livelihoods and forests are considered the most important ecological system on land for sustaining biological diversity. Every year, however, some 13 million hectares of forest are destroyed - an area the size of Costa Rica.
According to a report by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, the rate of loss has declined somewhat over the past decade, but remains "alarmingly high".
Lobbying for forests
Forests are cleared to make room for crop plantations
The UN launched the 'International Year of Forests' earlier this month, with the hope of raising awareness about forest conservation and sustainable use.
The international community has agreed on conventions to protect the climate, biodiversity and deserts. But there is no such system in place yet for forests, said Astrid Deilmann, of the German branch of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Deilmann said forests need a stronger lobby, which she hopes will develop over the course of this year. The WWF sees the Year of Forests as an opportunity to finally put in place effective conservation measures.
"Forests deliver a number of invaluable services," Deilmann said. "Forests produce the oxygen we need, they store carbon dioxide and water, they protect us from flooding, they avert soil erosion, and they deliver products we use in our daily lives, such as wood and paper. Not to mention forests' importance for biodiversity."
Germany is rich in beech groves. For now.
Experts estimate that the resources, raw material and jobs provided by forests generate as much as 750 euros per hectare each year. Despite this, deforestation continues on a mass scale worldwide. FAO research suggests global forest loss is due largely to the destruction of rainforests and to their conversion into arable land.
In addition to raising awareness, the WWF wants to use this year to highlight the commercial value of intact forest ecosystems and encourage forest-friendly consumption. "We use too much wood, too much paper, we use up an increasing amount of land, more and more forests are being turned into plantations or into arable areas. Also, forests have to make room for infrastructure and settlements," Deilmann said.
An increase in meat consumption and a rising demand for biofuels mean there is more demand for crop land. Forests are logged in order to make room for crop plantations.
First-growth forests more robust
Forests are great service providers, too. Where would we get wood and paper from without them?
Plantations tend to be young stands of trees, intended for harvest. Anke Holtermann, a forest expert with the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation says they are no substitute for older trees which have been cleared. The Agency focuses its efforts on protecting first-growth forests. These are untouched forests, which have not been tampered with. According to Holtermann, first-growth forests are more robust and better able to resist the effects of climate change. Monocultures resulting from plantation management are more fragile in comparison. These plantations are merely "aimed at short-term economic interest," said Holtermann.
But human beings aren't the only threat to the world's forests. Natural events have also left their mark. A major drought struck the Amazon rainforest last year, killing billions of trees. British researchers have published a study in the journal Science in which they say the drought may have converted the Amazon from a carbon sink into an carbon source. Some of the survivng trees were so badly damaged that they are no longer able to absorb as much carbon as they used to. Meanwhile, the rotting wood from the dead sections of the forest are pumping carbon into the atmosphere.
Could the Amazon switch from a carbon sink to a carbon source?
Tropical forest expert Simon Lewis from the University of Leeds led the British research team. He explained that droughts usually happen every ten years - but last year's drought was the second in less than a decade. "The forest could become a source of emissions," he said in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
Climate protection: A chance for forests?
Russian environmentalists tried to stop the clearing of the Khimki forest
Many developing nations, which might otherwise profit from exploiting their trees stands, are faced with the problem that forest protection simply doesn't pay enough to farmers and land owners. Agricultural use, cattle breeding and land development are more lucrative in the short term. But conservation advocates hope the creation of financial incentive programs could change this. A pact on reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries - known as REDD or "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation" - is to become a central part of the new climate protection protocol, which is to replace Kyoto in 2013.
It's all about "appreciating forests for what they are," said WWF spokesperson Deilmann. She called the world's forests "a gigantic air conditioner for our planet, which all of us need."
Author: Irene Quaile, Nina Haase
Editor: Saroja Coelho