The Giving Trees: Part 3, Forest Services

This post follows Part 1 and Part 2. It is in participation of the “Nature’s Forest Services” blog competition being hosted by UNEP and TreeHugger in honour of World Environment Day on June 5th. This blog post is the last in a three part series to form the background information to my final official post tomorrow.

This series of background posts on nature’s forest services covers the following topics:

  1. A bit of background on where forests come from,
  2. How forests are being degraded and lost,
  3. Valuable forest services, and
  4. How our valuing these ecosystem services can help to protect them.

Part 1 of this series of posts covered Point 1 above, discussing a bit about how forests themselves came to be, and how life as we know it would not be the same if life had taken a different twist and turn and trees had never been. Part 2, The Vanishing Forests, covered an overview the threats and extent of deforestation around the world. Finally, this post will cover forest ecosystem services, and how they can help to protect our world’s remaining forests.

In my enthusiasm for a good excuse to blog and wax poetic about forest ecosystem services, I missed the word limit in the rules for the World Environment Day contest! Hence, officially, this series of posts is to just provide background information (for those who want to know more) for my final official pithy post entry which will follow tomorrow.

Forest Ecosystem Services

Morning forestMost of us live in cities, and do not have the privilege of spending much time in nature. As such, it is easy to become disconnected from the natural world which surrounds and supports us. Nevertheless, we are dependent on nature for our very survival. The very oxygen that we breathe accumulated in the atmosphere due to the action of photosynthesizing life forms. Forests play a key role in helping to locally and globally balance oxygen levels, as well as filter polluting impurities out of the air.

Forests and other wild ecosystems are also the foundation for life on Earth. They are the original source of biodiversity, all the food we have, all the animals, and the biogeochemical cycles that they help regulate. The combination of all the ecosystems in the world makes up the global biosphere, that we are a part of. At the same time, there are so many of us (as pointed out in Part 2) that our actions are starting to have significant impacts on ecosystems, as well as their net structure and function. Climate change is an example of how our cumulative actions of emitting greenhouse gases has led to anthropoenic climate change, which means that we have overwhelmed the capacity of natural systems to buffer CO2 out of the atmosphere.

So, ecosystems are bigger than us, and many aspects of ecosystems are also priceless. Yet, we have left out ecosystem goods and services of ecosystems out of our national GDP accounts and economic systems, and this has led to the externalization of forest goods and services from our balance sheets, policy and planning, and the eventual degradation and loss of forests and other ecosystems around the world. In order to help stop this externalization of forest ecosystem services, what we can do is provide a price to them. In this way, we can better meausre, manage and protect the health of our forests, economies and the people who depend upon them.

So, what kinds of ecosystem services do forests give to us? Using the TEEB definition of Ecosystem Services, here is a quick run down of nature’s forest services to us:

1. Provisioning

Blue forestWhen we think of forests providing for us, usually the thought that comes to mind is wood to build, furnish and warm our homes. Yet, forests provide so much more.  30% of forests globally are used for providing both wood and non-wood products. These products are conventionally part of what is called natural resources. These resources provide us with things we need, and help to drive our national economies, and yet forest natural capital is, as mentioned, often externalized from our national accounts.

In order to provide a better reckoning of forests, so we can better manage our impacts on them, what kinds of goods and services do forests provide us?

  • Softwood and hardwood lumber
  • Wood fibre and pulp products (like paper)
  • Fruits from fruit trees (bananas, apples, pears, mangoes)
  • Mushrooms (some mushrooms are still wild harvested and require very specific conditions to grow)
  • Wild harvested plants
  • Biomass for biofuel
  • Biochemicals, medicines and pharmaceuticals
  • Genetic resources
  • Fresh water purification is provided by forested watersheds
  • Animals that live within forest ecosystems are also a food source (fish and game)

2. Regulating

Forests are also like biological machines that impact and regulate the chemicals and environments around them through their metabolic pathways. Just like a car has an engine and produces CO2, the plants and trees of the forest have metabolisms that not only respire (producing CO2 and using up O2 like us), but photosynthesize. Photosynthesis is part of the magic of life on Earth, which pulls CO2 out of the air, and fixes it in plant tissues, while releasing O2 at the same time. This also makes forests perfected systems for carbon capture and storage. What other regulating functions do forests provide?

  • Fresh water purification is provided by forested watersheds
  • Clean air is provided by trees which help to filter out impurities and pollution
  • As mentioned, oxygen is provided by trees (in cities like Tokyo, oxygen levels can go way down locally, and planting more trees can be a way to help them back up again)
  • Regulating critical to life biogeochemical cycles such as the nitrogen cycle, water cycle, carbon cycle, and oxygen cycle
  • Wind breaks
  • Temperature regulation (from technical matters such as affecting the Earth’s albedo to providing some comforting shade out of the sun, forests have many effects on micro to local to regional climate)
  • Soil erosion prevention and control
  • Storm water control (to prevent excess flooding)
  • Oceanic storm surge protection (such as from mangroves pictured above) is critical along coasts, and can also help buffer against climate change induced sea level rise

3. Habitat

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” – Charles Darwin

White Stag

White Stag, Rob Ward Photo

Forests provide two basic kinds of habitat related to ecosystem services:  habitat for species and habitat to serve as gene-pool ‘protectors’.  Regarding the first, species live in what we normally think of as habitat, which is basically a space where an organism can live. This habitat can be as large as the vast range of a grizzly bear, the breeding ground of a migratory bird, to a tangled river bank reminiscent of Darwin’s quote above, to a single tree for an insect. Regarding habitat for gene-pool protectors, this refers to the necessity to maintain natural habitat to allow natural selection to take place as it has been since the dawn of life. This process of natural selection is the basis for the diversity of life on Earth, and it is critical to maintain it as best as we can for the genetic health and well being of all species on Earth.

Without maintaining forest habitats at the right size for the creatures that live within them, and providing a means to protect that habitat, both the habitat and the plants and animals within can be lost. Illegal logging and poaching is a pernicious problem that plagues countries all over the world, not only developing nations. For instance, the white stag pictured above was poached from a park in the UK to the chagrin of many.

In order to maintain the habitat of many organisms–as well as genetic diversity that those habitats allow and facilitate–it is important that we preserve the health and integrity of the various ecosystems that make up the many biomes of the world. There are breaking points at which, for example, deforestation leads to enough habitat fragmentation where the health of that ecosystem, its ability to maintain itself, becomes compromised. Hence, protecting large tracts of ecosystems is often important to consider.

The forests are also home to over 300 million people. While these forests may not be pristine, they are still important as intermediary forest habitat, which also support numerous other species. The forest homes of many people around the world are also threatened by fragmentation and deforestation. In particular, indigenous peoples who depend on the forest for their home and livelihood often do not have land rights to the land they occupy and have been expropriated and exiled from their original homes. A striking example of this are the Guaraní peoples of Brazil in Mato Grosso do Sul state. These forest people have been, often violently, turned off their land, and a few tribes now are relegated to living at the sides of roads.

For better news, the Dongria Khond, called the real life Na’vi of Avatar, in India recently won their battle to prevent a bauxite mine on their sacred mountain that contained the forest and agricultural land that they depend on.  Nevertheless, Vendanta Resources, the British company with interests in the bauxite doesn’t seem to have dropped the issue and it looks like they will go back to court to fight it out some more. It is sad to think that it is most likely the party with the most resources and legal assistance in the long run who will win in the war of attrition that the fight for resources can become. And this is why, in part, we need to properly measure and value these forest resources, to give people like the Dongria Khond, a better way to plea their case, and local governments more leverage in effecting protective policies.

One of the challenges of setting aside habitat to preserve wild ecosystems is climate change itself. Human induced climate change has already started to affect temperature and precipitation patterns around the world, and it is precisely these factors that determine what the underlying tree and plant assemblage of an area is, along with sunlight. Due to climate change, forests literally walk the Earth, as their zones move, shrink or expand as their species gradually die of in newly inhospitable conditions, or grow into newly hospitable ones. For an excellent example of how forests move due to climate change, this US Forest Service Atlas database is a great resource. Try clicking for example on the Sugar Maple (Summary All-5) on the Atlas link and see how most predictions indicate that this tree species will move completely north out of the United States due to climate change.

4. Cultural

Buddhists meditating in the forest

Last, but certainly not least, forests provide important cultural services. Cultural ecosystem services include the spiritual, educational, recreational, traditional and aesthetic benefits that forests provide. For instance, the meditation retreat pictured in the image above would not be the same without the forest setting. Other examples of cultural services forests provide are settings for hiking, orienteering, camping, nature retreats, sweat lodges and other First Nations spiritual activities, and scenes for inspiration for art and relaxation.

Often, cultural forest ecosystem services are given cursory attention in the literature compared to the other kinds of services, but nature can exert very strong direct and indirect impacts on human culture and well being.  For instance, many wars can be traced back to the pre-emptive actions of one group to secure access to resources that are perceived to be in more and more limited supply. This has been attributed to the Rwandan genocide, “in which much conflict arose over the struggle to control productive land, and hence to capture and retain the security that access to the ecosystem services that productive land affords.” (Butler and Oluoch-Kosura. 2006)

A sense of cultural heritage and place is also strongly associated with the ecosystems that one grows up in. These systems can be deeply ingrained within the cultures around the world and literature and anthropology is replete with examples. For instance, the mores, traditions, beliefs, legends and stories of desert cultures are different than those of fishing villages, which are also different from those cultures traditionally from tropical jungles. In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv discusses how the loss of natural systems, including forests, is having an effect on our own modern culture in the form of ‘nature deficit disorder’. In addition, the manner in which modern city dwellers are out of touch with nature, places nature lower on their priority list–out of sight, out of mind so to speak. Cultural methods of putting people, and their children back in touch with nature, is hence important to help people be more aware, and for their own health. This is a new area of expanded study now, with many parent and other groups sprouting up to encourage parents to literally get their children out in the woods and wilds.

Animals Have Culture Tied to Forests Too!

Orangatun Using Spear

Orangatun Using Spear

I have not yet heard of animal social learning/cultural health and evolution being mentioned with reference to ecosystem services, but I feel that this is also an important area to consider. From rats, to parrots, elephants and monkeys, many animals are ‘social’ learners. This means that the animals are not just born with instincts that make them automatically act. Rather, they also learn how to behave in their environments based upon what they learn from their parents and peers. This means, that, to a certain extent, animals too have culture, and this culture has evolved in the context of and in connection with the natural ecosystems that they inhabit. Hence, it is important to preserve habitats as environments for animals to preserve their cultural heritage, as well as for us!

This means that if you take a baby tiger out of its forest habitat, and put it in a zoo to “save” it, or genetically preserve it, it might grow up to be physically healthy, but it will not be mentally or culturally healthy in that it would not be able to reintegrate into a natural habitat and succeed the same way that a wild tiger would. (Imagine a human child placed into an alien zoo similarly, and how ill equipped they would be to reintegrate to human society.) In degrading and losing the wild forests of the Earth, we are also, depriving animals of their ability to learn and evolve with those habitats, compromising their survival, in yet another way. How is animal culture and social learning an ecosystem service? I would argue that it is in a similar way to maintaining genetic diversity. In addition, learning more about animal learning and culture helps us to understand ourselves better. Finally, who knows what benefits may come from learning more from and better connecting with other sentient beings besides ourselves?

It is important to consider this evolutionary culture context in light of what future losses we may be instigating through our systematic deforestation of the world’s forests. What future amazing creatures might have evolved in the now already vanished forests of the world? How are we limiting the capacity of existing organisms to evolve in the forests we have left? We’ve spent much time and money looking for signs of intelligent life in outer space. Perhaps it’s time we more carefully considered fostering the conditions to further advance it here on Earth.

Protecting Forest Ecosystem Services

Sunrise on Swiss ForestTo recap, in this series of blog posts, Part 1 covered where forests come from, and why they are important. Part 2 covered how our global forests are being depleted and vanishing. Today, in Part 3, I have given an overview of forest ecosystem services. But, how can defining, measuring and valuing these ecosystem services help to protect them for us, as well as for future generations?

There are two main ways in which we can value nature. One is in terms of a deterrent system to penalize those who deplete the natural capital which provides valuable ecosystem services. For instance, these would involve penalties such as higher fees, or damage payments for industries which cause deforestation, or who cause pollution which damages forest ecosystem services. The other kind is an incentive system, such as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), which offer new incentives to land owners to use their forests in more sustainable ways. The most known example of PES programs are new carbon markets that reward land owners who do actions on their land that enable it to better sequester carbon. By replanting or protecting forested lands, land owners can obtain money through the sale of carbon offsets, enabling them to find a way to profit off their land through actions other than resource extraction. REDD+ is one of the best examples of such a system, which also enables poor local communities to find ways to reduce poverty, as well as other social and environmental co-benefits. Currently, with the inability of nations to come to international agreements on carbon regulations and targets through COP (we will see if they will do any better at Durban this year), the Verified (previously “Voluntary”) Carbon Standard has risen in quality and robustness such that forest carbon projects under its AFOLU standards are setting the bar for forest projects for other standards world wide.

Some may feel, as I once did, that placing a monetary value on nature has certain issues, such as people using things like carbon markets as perverse incentives to plant things like ‘carbon forests’ which might actually be ecologically damaging, but as discussed in my post, Why Put a Price on Nature?, systems such as REDD+ have come a long way, and it appears that the benefits of valuing nature at this time outweigh the potential risks.

Can Our Protective Efforts be Successful? Yes!

Tree planting in India

Tree Planting in India

Around the world the combination of deterrents and incentives is starting to bear fruit in slowing forest loss in some areas. One of the best examples comes from Costa Rica, where in the last 20 years about a quarter of the country has been reforested or preserved as a result of forestry reform. In addition, last year the FAO reported that globally forest loss rates, for the first time in decades slowed down, and this was in part due to regulatory reform and PES resulting in less deforestation, and more tree planting programs in China and South America.

Finally, it should be mentioned that neither of the two methods mentioned will be as effective as they could be in the absence of robust standards based on science, transparency and  clear land rights. For instance, if indigenous peoples in developing nations are not given rights to their land, they cannot benefit from PES programs properly.

In this way, when we value nature, and work to protect it, we are in essence growing up as a culture, become more aware of what supports it, and in turn, supporting it back. Like children growing up to look after their parents, we can look at the giving trees, and in turn give back to them. Frankly, this is a plot twist that I would like to see some day soon.

Giving Back to Trees

Giving Back to Trees


About Maria Lavis
Exploring questions on how well (or not) humans and nature are getting along.

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