Forests empty of birds, animals, trees – and people

“Tree-damaging pests pose ‘devastating’ threat to 40% of US forests” according to Oliver Milman writing in The Guardian (12 August 2019). Not quite as bad as 100% of the Amazonian forest being threatened by Brazil’s current president, but still alarming. What’s going on?

“Tree-damaging pests have already destroyed swathes of US woodland, with the American chestnut virtually wiped out by a fungal disease and elms blighted by Dutch elm disease. About 450 overseas pests that damage or feed on trees have been introduced to US forests due to the growth in international trade and travel.”

This inadvertently introduced blight threatens US forests that are already under intense strain from rising temperatures, altered rainfall patterns (leading to water scarcity) and severe outbreaks of wildfire, particularly in the west of the country.

In Brazil, land grabbing by loggers, miners, smallholders and ranchers has turned swathes of the Amazonian forest into pasture for methane-emitting cattle. Environmental officials say 95% of that deforestation is illegal. In addition, government-approved projects such as highways and dams are opening up new areas for incursion.

Forests are the world’s largest storehouses of carbon. In tropical forests like the Amazon, a quarter of a trillion tons of carbon is stored in above and below ground biomass, Forests are also home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and provide livelihoods for many human settlements, including 60 million indigenous people.

The world’s forests contain hundreds of billions of trees. At the high end is an estimate of three trillion, including 1.4 trillion in the topics and subtropics, 700 billion in northern parts, and 600 billion in temperate regions. An estimated 15.3 billion trees are cut down every year and 46% of the world’s trees have vanished over the past 12,000 years.

Worldwide, human beings are responsible for most forest loss. The biggest causes of deforestation in the tropics are commercial and subsistence agriculture, including cattle ranching and palm oil production; road construction, which opens up remote forest areas to conversion and logging.

Greed and myopia are responsible for the devastation of the world’s forests. Greed for more profit outweighs ethical considerations. Myopia means literally not seeing the forest for the trees. Greed and myopia deny the future by destroying a long-term mechanism for countering climate change.

That’s not all. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature index of wildlife that lives only in forests, the number of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles has dropped by an average of 53% since 1970. This has had serious consequences because of the role that particular vertebrate species play in forest regeneration and carbon storage as well as pollination and seed dispersal.

Stopping deforestation and increasing forest cover are essential responses, but on their own insufficient to restore biodiversity. In order to reverse the decline, it is crucial to relieve the multiple pressures on forest species. Tackling ignorance and greed is the first step.

Forests are essential to the Earth, to biodiversity, and to human beings. For reasons of scale and time, replanting forests is only a partial solution. A full-frontal assault on everything that is damaging our world is vital, without which the world’s forests will be empty of birds, animals, and trees – and we shall not be there to mourn their passing.

Empty forest in sunlight

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“Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky”

A line from Sand and Foam by the poet Kahlil Gibran published in 1926. It continues, “We cut them down and turn them into paper that we may record our emptiness.” Continue reading “Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky”