On the Joys of Nature Next Door, Cultural Ecosystem Services, and the Human Right to Nature

What does natural capital and cultural ecosystem services have to do with biophilia, nature deficit disorder, and the human right to nature? These topics are typically studied in rather separate contexts. My aim in this long read is to begin to connect the dots between these areas to develop a more holistic picture of our growing cultural relationship with nature in the west.

My Nature Next Door

I live in the Pacific Northwest on the Capilano River escarpment in North Vancouver. This area is known in the local tourist circuit through the Capilano Suspension Bridge and local hikes in the Capilano River Park. It’s a place of rugged contrasts. The river lies at the bottom of the steep Capilano Canyon, shown below.  The river itself is sometimes slow, clear, and slowly meandering along, and at other times it becomes a torrent of muddy waters (that once was so aggressive that I called the local authorities just to make sure we weren’t going to all be washed away in the flood!). The only reason why there are beautiful views of this river, like the one below where you only see nature in the shot, is because of laws. Laws that protect riparian areas in this case, and make it so that you cannot build within so many feet of a river. Thank-goodness for the river. Thank-goodness for the fish. Thank-goodness for me and my hungry camera.

CapilanoRiverCanyon_©MariaLavis

Capilano River from Cable Bridge showing people on trail lookout in the distance.

I count myself blessed to be able to live in a place that sits on the border between the built human landscape and the natural world. The birds one can spot from our house along the Capilano Canyon also frame the extremes, often being eagles or hummingbirds. The last few weeks, it has been raining in the lower mainland off and on (as it tends to in a coastal temperate rainforest). Imagine my surprise the other day I looked out from the kitchen window to find an eagle sunning itself in the trees looking down at the river. I don’t have a telephoto lens like the pros, but managed to capture a few shots.  (Click to go to Flickr)

Bald Eagle_2015-02-08_14-49-53_DSC_0680_©MariaLavis

Bald Eagle_2015-02-08_14-46-14_DSC_0662_©MariaLavis

What a joy to be able to drink my morning coffee that day while hanging out with this guy fluffing his feathers and spanning his wings out.  On the other side of our house, not 50 feet away, is one of the main routes into the downtown core (you can hear it along with the river in the video link at the bottom of this post). If I go out the front door and I’m walking on asphalt and heading down the street towards the city. Going out the back door is the opposite. It leads to a verdigris world that is a reminder of what the whole of the North Shore once must have looked like at one time (though the trees would have been way bigger; they razed them down at the beginning of the 20th Century in the Great Cut).

The Contentious Value of Cultural Ecosystem Services

In real estate talk, this kind of place is one with a ‘view’, and the economic value of properties with different natural views could be considered one way to measure how we ‘value’ nature. (You can also get a sense of the value of nature to us in the covers of architectural magazines that usually feature places looking out at pristine wilderness. I’d love to see someone who has done a survey of how much nature appears in these magazines. If anyone knows of one, let me know.) The beauty of nature usually doesn’t have an material price tag though, and falls into the realm of cultural ecosystem services, along with other ‘non-material‘ benefits like educational, spiritual or recreational services that humans derive from nature. Yet, in spite of the obvious importance of all of our collective deeply personal, and interpersonal relationships, values and experiences in and with nature, when it comes to measuring and taking into account natural capital, cultural ecosystem services is one of the areas that is often neglected in the research literature.

This notion of putting human economic values on nature rather than focusing on more traditional intrinsic values (such as biodiversity) is one that is hotly contested and debated within ecological circles these days (more on this in a future post). There are some who say that we need to value nature monetarily to better protect it, and then there are others who say that the monetary valuation of nature is counter productive and demeans the real, functional and intrinsic value of nature.

Personally, I think the answer to this debate is we need BOTH approaches.

Nature is not just one thing. It is not an either/or proposition. It is multidimensional, and, like the proverbial Buddhist diamond, it has many facets for us to see depending on where we are standing. Nature has economic value for things like timber and other natural resources, and it has as long as humans have been trading such things. It is also important to economically value nature when the government looks at options for development, which was when nature was traditionally externalized and neglected from the equation and decision making process. This has led to a systematic loss of nature globally over the last few decades which is starting to alarm many scientists. But, valuing nature can stop or slow this process. I have personally chatted with professors doing work in places like Indonesia who know that their work on valuing forest services helped in preventing logging in some areas because they could communicate that value through economic valuation sheets.

But this kind of valuation, in and of itself, is not enough. This is because, at the same time, nature still has other important values such as:

  • aesthetic value (as much if not more priceless than famous museum art which often strives to emulate nature, but never succeeding),
  • functional value (which is not just priceless, but absolutely necessary to our survival like climatic regulation and healthy soil creation),
  • biodiversity value (as someone with a background in behavioural ecology, I would like to note here that maintaining both nature’s genotypic and phenotypic capacity that has evolved over millions of years is key to maintaining diversity; keeping seed banks and zoos to preserve diversity is a last ditch effort because so much is lost when you take organisms out of their interconnected ecological niche that they often grow and learn to live in), and
  • even less talked about but often even more deeply important things like spiritual value (that thing that takes your breath away when you reach the view point on a hike; that thing that makes the guru sit by him/herself on the mountain; and that thing that makes the guru on the mountain become the guru to begin with).

Some of these values may seem intangible, but we are starting to see real effects of their loss.

On Establishing the Human Right to Nature

How do we get out of our silos?

One of the areas where I think that we could make strides in our ability to conserve nature and live in better harmony along side it is through some strategic collaborations to bridge some of the work being done now by the people working on cultural ecosystem services with the work of those who work in the area of biophiia, nature deficit disorder, and the human need for nature. This could also engage those working in the arts who have long known the value of nature, such as poets, authors, musicians and visual artists. For instance, get the people from the ecosystem services world together such as those at the  Natural Capital Project like Gretchen Daily (who was also integral to getting the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment off the ground), the people at TEEB like Pavan Sukhdev, and the folks from the Ecosystem Services Partnership like Robert Costanza in the same room talking to those on the biophiia and nature deficit end of the spectrum. These latter people would include E.O. Wilson who came up with the biophilia hypothesis, and others like S.R. Kellert and working in that vein. On the side of the children’s need for nature and nature deficit disorder work you have people like Richard Louv and the people at the Children & Nature Network. Get these talking to those cultural mavens like authors who care about nature literacy like Margaret Atwood, and the people at the Robert Bateman Foundation connecting kids with art. Add to this the people doing amazing work in ecopsychology and things like deep ecology such as Davd Abram, Bill Plotkin and Jay Griffiths. And get these talking to the people who know about law like the folks at Ecojustice and those who are the traditional lobbyists for nature, the major NGOs like the WWF, DSF, Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club.

The above random list, in no particular order, is just the tip of the ice burg of organizations and people. And, of course, there are the First Nations groups who have basically been trying to get the message across on the importance of the value for nature since European colonialists first landed on this continent, such as in the plight of the Nez Perce with Chief Toohoolhoolzote saying “...I belong to the land of which I came. The Earth is my Mother”, and similarly Chief Joseph saying, “The Earth must not be sold”, to the lament of Chief Dan George and more recent protests to safeguard the land against development going on across North America by many tribes. In so many ways Aboriginal groups are leading us in the theory in this space on how to reconnect, and some of us are finally, slowly, getting the message. And last but not least, there are the parent groups, those amazing moms and dads out there who get it and want their kids to grow up with at least as good of a natural legacy as they inherited.

I guess what I’m saying here is that in spite of all the great work that everyone is doing in their respective areas, the loss of nature on every continent is a collective problem, and for that we need a cross-cutting, collaborative platform that brings us all together on this shared issue. In their own ways, the above people and groups are all essentially talking about the same thing here: about preserving the legacy of the deep and meaningful, and absolutely essential, role of nature in our lives (whether we are individually aware of how much we depend on nature or not). Of course, the work that different groups do in their silos is important, but I believe we need some silo bashing on this issue and come together in some way to make this happen. This touches on climate. This touches on biodiversity. This touches on everything we get from nature.

Of course, protecting the natural legacy that preserves us is what responsible governments are supposed to do as part of safeguarding the public good, but this isn’t something I’m about to rely on my elected officials to be proactive about any more.

(So… Ideas on how to do this? I’m all ears.)

Sure, this is about our ‘personal’ experiences with nature. And, this is about the so-called ‘intangible’ services that nature provides. But just because it is subjective or intangible does not make it less important. In so many ways, it makes it more important. Like civil rights which come down to our subjective, intangible experiences in relationship with one another. Well, we also form relationships with nature. We can develop our capacity to have experiences in nature and grow our relationship with nature to the point where when people lose nature they grieve as though they’ve lost a loved one this is just one indication of how nature is part of our humanity, our birthright. It’s a matter of culture. It’s a matter of health. It’s a matter of survival. It’s a matter of making the world worth surviving in. And it should be a matter protected, like riparian zones, like other civil rights, in law.

However, just as nature has been externalized from our balance sheets, it has been externalized from many legal considerations. I’d like to note here that I am not one to jump on the bandwagon and blame big business, government and the oil companies for this situation, nor for the depletion and pollution of nature around the world. I have a healthy appreciation of,  the mythical Promethean forces that first brought ancestral humans the powers that came with harnessing fire. There is something to be said for human ingenuity, industrial productivity, and the level of cooperation necessary to run things like international corporations and markets. But those markets are part of the bigger ecosystem we share with all of life on this planet, and we all need to get the memo that nature is not the infinite thing we thought it was only just a few decades ago.

We have all benefited from the warmth and energy of combustion in some way or another, but we also all benefit from the air we breath and water we drink and so much more that the living systems on this planet provide. We are, ourselves, through our respiration, something like cybernetic combustion machines that are integrated systems with multiform other systems on Earth (for a longer read my recent essay has more on my view on this).

It’s about finding balance

The point I’m getting to here is that we need to collaborate as well as we do on international markets in order to  achieve more balance with our natural heritage and life support system here, or things could verily get tragic. I’m not just inferring the potential effects of climate change. Recent research confirms that humanity has crossed four of nine identified planetary boundaries. There are systems on this Earth that have been relatively constant for millions of years that we are tampering with. As someone who has studied climatology, biogeochemistry, and ecology, and that professionally writes with a strong degree of conservatism, I am willing to admit that the real potential of tipping planetary boundaries seriously freaks me out. But I’m not a doomsayer, or about pointing the finger of blame. Because that finger points at me, too. It points at all of us, but many of us these days in environmental or ecological circles seem to be pointing fingers, and this often leads to a kind of antagonism that I have seen stifle actually making headway on these important issues.

So, no, no pointing fingers. Instead, this is about growing up as communities, as societies and as nations to our collective impact. It’s about flexing our responsibility, that wing that makes us fly along with its twin that we prefer to talk about, freedom.

The more of us there are in a defined space, the more rules we need to live healthily and harmoniously. The Earth is our defined space, and our communities within it, and more of us there are, every year. So, how do we create social, civilizing, rules for ourselves that help us to live with more, not less, balance with natural systems, going forward? As mentioned, I think part of the solution lies in the field of human rights. (I also agree with those who are trying to instill rights for nature, and power to them, but I think we would get farther in trying to build on the already established lexicon of human rights in this space.)

As mentioned in my last blog post, my own view is that humans have an innate need for, and therefore, an inalienable right to access nature. This is due to our collective need for nature’s systems to keep functioning, as well as due to our personal needs for nature. This blog post focuses on the latter. As I delineate in the essay attached to that post, the jury is out, we do need nature. Personally. Physiologically. Emotionally. Cognitively. Physically. Medically. We have these needs for nature in ways that are also becoming less and less intangible and more and more concrete the more we study this topic. There are so many lines of evidence most likely because we are innately hard wired to live in nature to begin with. When we are cut off from that birthright we begin to see the adverse consequences. Deprivation of nature affects all of our senses. It affects our health. It affects our well being. Intrinsically, but also, now, thanks to the multitude of researchers doing work in this area, measurably so.

Whether it be enjoying the tree out a hospital window, nature next door, the park down the street, or that national park you’ve been meaning to visit for years, we all should have the right to access nature and be able to satisfy our human needs. This isn’t just about ‘benefits’. This is about the base levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Food. Water. Air. In addition to these there are a multitude of other factors that we glean along nature’s continuum (from nature next door to the tangled wilds) that we are measurably less well without. So, this is not about a right to some fluffy nature benefits. This is about establishing basic human rights based on fundamental human needs.

Let’s stop externalizing nature from human rights

Similar to how nature has been externalized from being incorporated into our economic equations because it was not too very long ago considered infinite and ubiquitous, it has also been externalized from the human rights conversation.

It’s about time we take up that conversation. And soon. We all read the news on how natural landscapes, resources and systems are disappearing. Yet, the majority of us are like the frog sitting in the pot of slowly warming water about this issue. Would people sit back and take it if their rights were abused in the workplace? Would people sit back and take it if they went out and were discriminated against on racial grounds? So why do we sit back and take it as our natural legacy, our ancient birthright, is destroyed all around us?

This is not a new idea. There are people working in this space. There are even precedents, like ‘every man’s right’ to roam and wild harvest in Norway, Allemansrätten in Sweden, the IUCN’s Children’s Right to Nature initiative, and grounds closer to home, like the common law right to access and transit navigable waters, and other shared rights. If we remember the First Nations adage that we do not own the land but belong to it instead, we can maybe make some gains here in how to collectively be better stewards, and live more harmoniously with it by adding another tool to the conservation beltthe human right to nature.

There is much that could be gained from establishing the human right to nature in law. Just like we have laws to protect riparian areas within cities I mentioned at the start of this post, if we established the fundamental human right to nature, then we could establish secondary laws based on those, such as laws to protect natural areas where our kids can go outside and play in healthy landscapes and connect to something besides the internet and social media. One of my favourite examples of this is the Children’s Forest that was recently established here in BC on Cortes Island. Imagine if all greenbelts were extended in this way as a trust legacy for our children to be able to play as their great grandparents once did? (I for one would support fences around those areas and cameras so that they can also place in relative safety from predators, human and otherwise.)

Just like we have laws to protect our water quality, we can add to those laws so that all humans have the right to access nature and certain needs provided by nature, regardless of race or economic background (which is not currently the case in many areas where poor people are the ones who get polluted). Just like we have laws for water, we can establish laws for the air we breath, and we can find legal instruments to ensure that in their education, our children, our future citizens, understand the value of nature to them. Understand how something intangible can be not only tangible, but a part of you. Walt Whitman said it perhaps the best, and his words often haunt me:

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover,
And the song of the phoebe-bird…

By working together, those of us who value our right to this natural legacy can go farther to protect it so that we have the legal muscle to help nature provide our food and water and other resources, keep functioning to provide our critical life support services, as providing other ‘intangibles’ like the joy of just hanging out with an eagle for a while.

Bald Eagle_2015-02-08_©MariaLavis

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News: UN Issues Warning if Private Sector Doesn’t Invest in REDD

“Forests are the natural treasure chests of the world, providing a host of ecosystem services that – and this needs to be said very clearly and up front – are paramount to ensuring economic progress and human well-being, not only locally but globally. What forests give us is fundamental in the strictest sense of the word: they stabilise the global climate system, regulate water cycles, provide habitat for flora, fauna and people, and host genetic resources of unimaginable potential. Forests and their services remain, however, chronically undervalued by today’s economic and political decision makers, resulting in their rapid destruction. One of the many consequences of current deforestation and forest degradation is their contribution of approximately one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.”

UN, REDDy Set Grow

It has been a challenging year for the carbon world, and the related sphere of  applying economic instruments for environmental protection and conservation of other ecosystem services. Variables, such as the economic downturn and the political climate on climate change have downplayed the urgency for dealing with issues like deforestation. What does all this stalling spell out for natural environments?

The UN has put out a recent report, “REDDy Set Grow: Private sector suggestions for international climate change negotiators.” The report clearly states why the forests of the world are important (which I also do in my previous Part I, II, III series on forests), why the private sector needs to get involved in financing saving them, and how they can do it through programs like REDD and REDD+.

The question is, is the involvement of certain actors within the private sector going to be enough to sway the tide of political opinion so that policy makers can put into place the kind of policies needed to take these markets beyond the voluntary scope they operate at now? A recent report by Forest Trends indicated that the last couple of years has shown many firsts for the implementation of economic instruments for forests, including the rise of forest carbon markets, with the EU leading the front for purchasing and many projects in the supply pipeline. However, in spite of the forest carbon sector being poised to take off,  many uncertainties remain as to whether the regulatory drivers that underpin demand will kick into gear in time to take these markets where they need to go. The quote below from State of the Forest Carbon Markets 2011, sums it up:

“Currently, buyers purchase most credits voluntarily, but regulatory drivers hold a critical key to unlock larger climate impacts and market demand. Across the global markets, a number of influential political choices remain to be made, and a host of market drivers remain uncertain. The consensus among dozens of market players interviewed for this report, including leaders of standards organizations and major buyers and project developers, is that the forest carbon market is entering a phase where growth will be fundamentally tied to finding and creating new demand for forest carbon credits

Policymakers are in the midst of developing funding for forest conservation at an unprecedented scale. A number of innovative solutions have evolved to both overcome many of the earlier hurdles facing market-based forest conservation efforts and attract private sector investment, but the scope of these markets is still relatively small in the face of global forest loss and a changing climate. The fate of these markets and projects will in large part rest in the hands of policymakers. 2010 was undoubtedly a critical year in the history of the forest carbon markets, but the most consequential chapters in this story still remain to be written.”

To the Giving Trees: “Thank-you.”

This blog post is my entry for the “Nature’s Forest Services” blog competition being hosted by UNEP and TreeHugger in honour of World Environment Day on June 5th. The post goes along with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, that provide some extra background material for those interested in learning more about forest ecosystem services.  

Cariboo Lake, British Columbia

“We are living on an incredibly beautiful little planet, but our human existence is threatened. If we are to survive we have to learn to think differently. The thinking for the future has to be loyal to nature. It must encompass all humans and all living creatures, because everything alive, in itself, has a value.”

Arne Naess

A Peculiar Dichotomy

What can I say? I’m a sucker for trees. You don’t have to convince me of forest services. I’m already there.

How did this happen? I don’t look like a forest nut. Many of my schoolmates grew up to love money and fancy cars more than trees. My parents were the opposite of hippies.  I can be as much of a workaholic, gadget loving, inside person as the next typical city dweller.

So what’s my story? Why did I choose to study environmental science in university? Why have I devoted my career to ecosystem services? Why am I the kind of zealot who would voluntarily write a lengthy three part backgrounder to preface this simple blog contest entry?

The answer lies in the fundamental power of forest ecosystem services to transform a person. I should know. They transformed me.

My Forest Story

“And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”

– Dylan Thomas, Fernhill


Grizzly
When I was nine, my parents up and moved to the wilds of British Columbia on the shores of Cariboo Lake. Did I want to go? Nuh un! I wanted to stay in Vancouver with my friends. I didn’t want to go live in the middle of nowhere. What would I do all day? No TV, phone, power. No neighbours. But there were grizzlies. It sounded scary!

But like most things we fear, it wasn’t so bad when we arrived, but yes, boring. I first read all the decent books in the house, then did the puzzles. I dressed my cat in doll clothes until he lost patience and started scratching me. Finally, I got up the nerve to face my grizzly fears, and started hanging around outside.

I spent my time between the daisies in our yard to the trees around it.  I would lie for hours on the soft mossy rocks by the stream behind our house, our source of water. There I learned the music of wind through the trees, punctuated by the melody of birds. So many birds.

Eventually, I had encounters with the other forest inhabitants. Porcupines, moose, black bears, deer. Once, I found a baby bat with a broken wing and nursed it back to health. Another time I was chased by a wounded moose. I used to pretend my dog, Duke, was a wolf who would keep away the grizzlies. And maybe he was–I never encountered one.

After a while, in this way, I forgot about notions of boredom. I never felt alone. I learned a kind of contentment that I had not known before. As this happened, the woods became a part of me, like dear, old friends. Time stretched out, and the ancient forest claimed me as one of its own.

Then it happened. Barely a year in and my parents said we had to move back to Vancouver. I was devastated. In a hollow, wordless way. Leaving the Cariboo left a gap in my heart, that is only filled when I feel I am doing some justice to what I learned in those woods.

And so I can vouch for the profound value of forest cultural ecosystem services, for I’ve felt their direct benefit, and also their loss. Hence, I am who I am, do the work that I do, and finally, write this blog. It’s my small way to say, “Thank-you,” to the giving trees.



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

The Giving Trees: Part 2 The Vanishing Forests

This blog post follows Part 1, is followed by Part 3, and is part of the background information of my participation of the “Nature’s Forest Services” blog competition being hosted by UNEP and TreeHugger in honour of World Environment Day on June 5th.

As mentioned in Part 1, this series of 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. This post will address Point 2, presenting an overview the threats that our actions are placing on the forests of the world, that are, in turn, threatening us.

The Vanishing Forests


The Giving Tree

Images from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The inspiration for the title of this series of posts is the book The Giving Tree, pictured above, by Shel Silverstein. In it, the author tells a tale that is an allegory of parenthood–the parent giving, the child taking.  It starts out with a boy who is hungry, and the tree provides him apples. As the boy grows older, he goes off and leaves the tree, but he comes back to take from the tree again and again, up to the point where the tree gives up its own trunk for the child to build a boat with which to sail away.  In the end, when the child finally comes back as a tired old man, all that is left of the tree is a stump with “nothing left to give”. This ending leaves the reader feeling hollow, in spite of the book saying how the man and the tree are happy to be reunited. Not the kind of allegory of parenthood that is mutually beneficial. Not the kind I would want with my own children. Not the kind I would want with my own parents. Not the kind I would want with nature either.

World Population

World population from 1800 to 2100, based on UN 2004 projections (red, orange, green) and US Census Bureau historical estimates (black).

With Mother’s Day tomorrow, however; The Giving Tree is a fitting allegory for the depletion of our forests worldwide–and the mother we are taking from is, literally, Mother Nature. (The Bolivians would definitely agree on this one as they are passing ‘The Law of Mother Earth‘ to enshrine Pachamama with the same rights as humans.)

Well, there are about 6.92 billion of us ‘children’ on Earth, and our numbers are slated to increase to 7.5-10.5 billion by 2050. As shown in the graph at left, by 2100 we’ll likely be up to 14 billion, or we’ll get a serious handle on lowering our growth rate, or something will happen and  and we’ll have crashed back down to 5.5 billion.

Anyway you look at it, in the next 10-30 years just the population growth alone on Earth is going to account for a massive increase in demand for many more apples, much more wood, much more development on forested land. What does that mean for the future health of global forests? Will we have any wild spaces left, apart from a few scattered parks? How will this impact forest creatures? How will this impact the complex biogeochemical cycles that forests are part of? How will this impact regional climate and weather patterns? How will this impact water flow and supply? How will this, in turn, impact us?

How Much Have We Depleted Forests So Far?

Frontier Forests

Legend

Frontier Forests of the World (WRI Image, click to view)



Although the extent of forest cover has fluctuated over time naturally, the extent to which humans have cleared forests is unmatched in geological history. The image above shows the observed change in frontier forests over the last 8000 years. A frontier forest is a “large, ecologically intact, and relatively undisturbed forest that supports the natural range of species and forest functions.” (WRI) As can be seen, the current extent of these pristine forests, in dark green on the map above, is now considerably less than the total coloured original area. The changes in Europe, Asia and Africa–the cradles of civilization–are particularly pronounced. We have, literally, lost our original garden of Eden long ago in the veils of history.

Gold Mine in Amazon, Rhett Butler photo

Gold Mine in Amazon, Rhett Butler photo

When looking at forests overall, not just frontier forests, globally we have lost an estimated 1.5 billion hectares to deforestation. It should be pointed out that “deforestation” does not mean logging. Logging practices can be sustainable when the forest is not cleared in a way that will prevent it from growing back to its original condition or a reasonable near state, while deforestation involves not only the forest being cut down, but land use changes to agriculture or other use.

The highest recent rates of deforestation are in the tropics. This is worrisome from a biodiversity perspective considering that the most recent glacial cycles left tracts of rainforest and temperate refugia in these areas that humans are now clearing. It is also very worrisome from a climate change perspective. For instance, the Amazonian rainforest recycles around 50% of it’s own rainwater, meaning that if the forest is lost to a certain extent, this would mean significant loss of fresh water as well to the area. In addition, the Amazonian rainforest has farther reaching impacts on climatic patterns that influence rainfall patterns in the eastern United States.

Factors contributing to this unprecedented rate of deforestation include clearing land for agricultural activities (such as soy and cattle ranching), mining (such as in the picture at left), urban sprawl, industrial expansion, clearing land for fuel wood, timber harvesting, road building and new demands for forest products.

Some Deforestation Facts and Figures

So what are the facts? The truth is that deforestation statistics varies widely from country to country, and sometimes, from year to year. Rainforests once covered 14% of the world’s surface, but they now only cover about 6%.  Some of the largest causes of current deforestation are for palm oil plantations, soybean production, cattle ranching, as well as growing pressure from the planting of biofuel crops such as corn and sugarcane. Some more information on deforestation from palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Amazonian deforestation are covered in some more detail below.

Palm Oil

Palm oil fruit

Palm oil fruit, Greenpeace Image

Palm oil is used for food (check those chocolate bar and processed food labels before you buy), consumer products, and more recently, for biofuel (with Europe being the largest importer of palm oil for biodiesel. It is also a very seductive crop in South East Asia as “once planted, the tropical tree can produce fruit for more than 30 years, providing much-needed employment for poor rural communities. And its oil is highly lucrative, due largely to the fact that the plant yields more oil per hectare than any major oilseed crop.” (WorldWatch)

The Mongabay image below shows the production of palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia showing how production has gone from around 0 to 16 million metric tonnes per year of palm oil production for both Indonesia and Malaysia in just 42 years. This production is correlated to deforestation in the two countries, as first forested land is cleared, then burned before palm crops can be planted on the land.

Palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia

Palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, Mongabay

Indonesia has since surpassed Malaysia in palm oil production, and has had some of the fastest deforestation rates in the world in the last decade, even making the Guinness Book of World Records in 2008 for the fastest deforestation rate in the world. This achievement is not much to be proud of as it has led to some severe negative community effects and some of the greatest species losses in the world.  For instance, in 1997-98 a fire related to deforestation killed almost 8,000 orangutans in Borneo alone. “Orangutans are predicted to be extinct in the wild in the next 20 years if the palm oil industry, deforestation and burning of peat forest do not change.” (Source) Many other species are threatened by palm oil plantations, some of which are in the images below. Click on an image for more information on each.

Sumatran Tiger  Probiscus Monkey Pigmy Elephant
Sumatran Tiger, Probiscus Monkey and Pigmy Elephant


Amazonian Deforestation

Brazilian Amazon Deforestation

Brazilian Amazon Deforestation, Mongabay

Most people are familiar with the issues of  cattle ranching, small and large scale agriculture and logging in the Amazon leading to tropical deforestation. As can be seen in the graph above, deforestation rates have recently slowed down in Brazil; however, the damage is done, and more forest is being lost yearly due to activities such as illegal logging.

Now, industrial soy plantations are adding to the land grab, speeding up rates of deforestation. As indicated in the graph below, much of this soy is slated for export to the United States, and production is projected to rise significantly in the next few years. Some of this soy is planted on grasslands, rather than from deforested lands, but one has to be careful when looking at stats on soy plantations, as “grassland” may be land that was previously forest cleared for cattle plantations, rather than natural grassland.


Soybean Exports to US from Brazil

Soybean Exports to US from Brazil, Mongabay


Other Forest Loss Around the World

“Europeans had lived in the midst of vast forests throughout the earlier medieval centuries. After 1250 they became so skilled at deforestation that by 1500 they were running short of wood for heating and cooking. They were faced with a nutritional decline because of the elimination of the generous supply of wild game that had inhabited the now-disappearing forests, which throughout medieval times had provided the staple of their carnivorous high-protein diet. By 1500 Europe was on the edge of a fuel and nutritional disaster [from] which it was saved in the sixteenth century only by the burning of soft coal and the cultivation of potatoes and maize.” -Norman F. Cantor1

Area of Forest in the US (lower 48)

Area of Forest in the US (lower 48)

If you live in a western or developed nation, that doesn’t mean that the problem is out of your backyard. Developed countries are also at risk from forest loss in spite of their better forest management than developing nations. Furthermore, as highlighted in the above quote, deforestation has been going one for a very long time, and has led to major resource depletion issues in the past. After Europeans ran out of their own resources, they managed to get by on colonialism to tap into the resources of other countries, but as history shows, resources, in particular forests, can and do run out.

The image to the left shows the extent of forest cover in the United States in 1620, 1850 and 1920. The reduction in the amount of green forest land is dramatic.

Deforestation has taken place in all developed countries, even Canada (my country) which still has about 91% of its forest cover. (Recall that ‘forest cover’ does NOT mean the same thing as pristine forest or frontier forest though.) Canada alone accounts for 10% of global forest cover, and some of the largest tracts of the World’s boreal forest are in Canada.

In spite of its high remaining area of forest, Canada is still experiencing deforestation due to agricultural expansion, industrial activities (such as the growth of the tar sands), and housing development. Looking at forested land just in terms of timber, Statistics Canada has come up with a Timber Index to contribute to measuring the Natural Capital Index of Canada which would give an indication of the health of our natural ecosystems and resources. In 2006 the Timber Index showed an 11% decline between 1980 and 2005, a significant decline for a country that reportedly manages its forests sustainably.

If you are interested in learning more about deforestation for a particular country, Mongabay has a great repository with figures for selected countries.

An Uncertain Future

Showing the Birds

Look, children,here is the shy,
flightless dodo: the many-colored
pigeon named the passenger, the
great auk, the Eskimo curlew, the
woodpecker called the Lord God Bird,
the…

Come, children, hurry–there are so many more
wonderful things to show you in
the museum’s dark drawers.

– Mary Oliver


Fledgling Spotted Owls
Fledgling Spotted Owls, Torsten Kjellstrand/The Oregonian

Although there are many great law, regulations, programs and initiatives to protect the world’s forests, this blog post has given a quick run down of how the global net effect of these programs has not been enough to halt deforestation globally.

The loss of forests is closely tied to the loss of biodiversity world wide. The poem above from Mary Oliver highlights the potential loss of forest habitat on the animals (such as the endangered spotted owl, pictured below) that depend on these ecosystems for their homes.  Indeed, in the word “ecosystem”, eco- comes from the Greek word for “home”. And the forests are home to many, including humans. Around the world forests are home to over 300 million people. Some of these people, more so than others, such as the uncontacted tribes of Peru and Brazil. Their lives and cultural heritage (that they want to keep to themselves thank-you very much) are severely threatened. To them, the loss of their forest homes, is the equivalent of the loss of life as their lives are both in and of the forest, and they would not want it any other way. The movie Avatar only begins to touch on the kinds of real world atrocities that these tribes have faced historically, and are still facing today.

“Every one of us, all 7 billion people on Earth, has our physical, economic and spiritual health tied to the health of our forest ecosystems.”Jan McAlpine, director of the U.N. Forum on Forests Secretariat

But what about the rest of us? Is the loss of forests really such a big deal? It’s easy to think, “Oh, it can’t be that bad.” But the loss of forests is more than just the loss of habitat, and a few species that will end up on museum shelves. A whole lot more. From the vital life support systems such as the air we breathe and the water we drink, to the resources they provide like food and timber, to contributing to our joie de vivre, forests give countless ecosystem services to humans.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series of posts to learn more about these forest services, and what can be done to protect them. After all, we do not want to end up like the image at the start of this post of Silverstein’s tired old man sitting on Mother Nature’s tired depleted stump at the end of The Giving Tree, now do we?

1 Norman F. Cantor: In closing The Civilization of the Middle Ages: The Life and Death of a Civilization (1993) pp 564f.