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

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


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,

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.


The Giving Trees: Part 1

This blog post 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. Following this post are Part 2 and Part 3.

"Emily Carr Forest" by Taralee Guild

“I sat staring, staring, staring – half lost, learning a new language or rather the same language in a different dialect. So still were the big woods where I sat, sound might not yet have been born.
Emily Carr

The woods themselves are silent in their giving. They don’t announce, advertise or charge for all that they do and all the beneficial services they provide to us.  It takes observers–artists, scientists, anyone with an eye to see really–to relay their stories to us. Even then, as people are so caught up with the business of their own lives, they often don’t have time to listen. In this, the International Year of Forests, with World Environment Day just around the corner on June 5th, perhaps it is time to sit back for a minute, take a break and consider, what do our forests have to tell us at this time? In honour of our forests, this is the first is a series of blog posts that will touch base on:

  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.

Where do forests come from?

Teman Negara National Park, Gerald S. Cubitt photo WWF

They say that if you walk in someone else’s shoes that you can understand better where they are coming from. What about forests? Where did they come from? They seem like they have been here forever, and in human terms, this is the case as they evolved long before we did. However, forests are also relatively fragile, depending on the balance of sun, rain and soil to survive and thrive. When these factors change significantly, forests can recede and vanish.

For example, as the Earth has gone through various glacial cycles over the last few hundred million years, forests that have grown up in the more northern regions have been razed by glaciers, leaving tropical rainforests as the oldest forests in the world. These rainforests, being so old, have had the most time to evolve many kinds of plants and animals, and that is why they are hotspots of biodiversity.

The most ancient of all known rainforests is the about 130,000 year old Teman Negara Forest in Malaysia. Home to the endangered Malayan tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Asian Elephant, Malayan Peacock-pheasant, amongst many other animals, this park exemplifies the amazing diversity and web of life that has evolved around forests. Forests that are now threatened by deforestation.

The Evolution of Trees

The trees that make up forests evolved between about 299-385 million years ago as shown in the image above. Remains of the world’s oldest rainforest have been found in Illinois in the United States. This rainforest existed about 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous, when most of the world’s fossil fuel deposits were put down.

“It is interesting to think about what would have happened if trees had not evolved…”

Endangered Resplendent Quetzal

It is interesting to think about what would have happened if trees had not evolved.

For starters, we likely wouldn’t have the coal and oil deposits that we are so dependent upon now for most of the world’s energy needs. We also know that some species of animals co-evolved with tree species–developing fascinating and symbiotic relationships–such as acacias and ants, fruit trees and bats. What about other creatures?  Many birds and insects are literally dependent on trees for their survival, such as the endangered Resplendent Quetzal, pictured at right. They live in the trees, eat parts of the trees, and hide in the trees to escape predation.

How about mammals, who diversified shortly after the spread of forests on Earth? Without trees we would not have squirrels, racoons, lemurs, bush babies, sloths, certain species of great cats like pumas and tigers, many deer species, gorillas, koalas, giraffes (that long neck, designed to reach the leaves in tall trees), and many other forest dwelling mammals.

Tarsiers, Philppines. Per-Andre Hoffman photo.

And, finally, how about us?  With our own tree dwelling primate ancestors, there is a good chance we would not even be here today if it were not for those giving trees.

Just ask the tarsiers, pictured at left. Having originated about 45 million years ago, and only still surviving in the forests of South East Asia, these living fossils are perhaps our oldest living primate ancestors. For whatever reason, they seem to have been happy to not evolve much from their ancestral form, maintaining many of the good ol’ ways, including their still very obvious attachment to trees.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series of blog posts tomorrow…