The theme of this year's World Environment Day (June 5) — ‘Forests: Nature at Your Service' — underscores the intrinsic link between the quality of life and the health of forests and forest ecosystems. Forests cover one third of the earth's land mass, performing vital functions and services which make our planet come alive with possibilities. Forests are the most biologically diverse ecosystems on land and are home to more than half of the terrestrial species of animals and plants. Many of the worlds's most threatened and endangered animals live in these forests, making them crucial to sustaining ecosystems.

Forests feed our rivers which is a major source for irrigation and domestic water supply. They create and maintain soil fertility and help regulate the devastating impact of storms and floods. As a result of the growing global pollution levels, forests are often referred to as the ‘lungs of the earth'. This is particularly because deforestation and forest degradation account for nearly 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which forests would absorb if carefully managed.

They play a key role in climate regulations, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere while storing carbon dioxide. Forests also provide a home, security and livelihood to millions of people worldwide. Around 1.6 billion people depend on forest for their livelihoods. Important natural resources such as timber, fuel, rubber, paper and medicinal plants are forest products.

The benefits or positive impacts of forests reach even further. In many developing countries, over 80 per cent of the total energy consumed by people and industry derives from forests in the form of fuel wood and charcoal. Trade in timber and other forest products is estimated at $330 billion a year. Its value multiplies as it is processed into products used globally every day. Use of the genetic diversity within forests enables the development of new medicines; progress in healthcare and science.

Mangroves

Mangrove forests are the ultimate illustration of why humans need nature. As a major coastal resource, mangroves protect the coasts from erosion and cyclonic destructions. They also support coastal and inland fisheries, act as a breeding ground for numerous birds, control floods and are a source of fuel wood. In brief, beyond supporting the natural habitat, forests sustain economic growth. In 2004, trade in forest products was estimated at $327 billion.

Despite all these innumerable ecological, economic, social and health benefits, we are destroying the forests. Global deforestation continues at an alarming rate and every year 13 million hectares of forests (equal to the size of Portugal) are destroyed. People who depend on forests for their livelihoods are struggling to survive. Many precious species face extinction and biodiversity is being eliminated. Continued and uncontrolled deforestation therefore not only has devastating consequences for the environment and the wildlife, but for economies around the world.

Mangroves are also disappearing, and about one-fifth have been lost since 1980. The greatest drivers for mangrove forest loss are direct conversion to aquaculture, agriculture and urban land uses. Coastal zones are often densely populated and the pressure for land is intense. Where mangroves remain, they have often been degraded through over-harvesting.

But this trend is not irreversible. It's not too late to transform life as we know it into a greener future where forests are at the heart of our sustainable development and green economies. Conserving forests need to be recognised as a business opportunity. An investment of $30 billion fighting deforestation and degradation could provide a return of $2.5 trillion in new products and services. Furthermore, forests need to become a universal political priority. Considering this the following steps should be urgently taken:

•Governments should develop and implement policies that encourage a sustainable use of forests. They should protect the forest areas inhabited by endangered species and promote forest restoration where they have been depleted. In this regard, a strict enforcement of regulations and the application of incentive and disincentive mechanisms are needed.

•Private companies have an opportunity to invest wisely into the new Green Economy while developing a socially responsible status with its consumers. They can develop procurement processes that buy only into sustainably managed forests, such as products certified by the forest authority/department concerned.

•Like private companies, individuals can make wise/planned choices over the forest products and purchase those originate from sustainable sources. This means checking that furniture, wood, paper and other products you buy are verified as coming from legal sources.

•Civil society can play a significant role by monitoring all parties involved, raising awareness on forests and its critical services and supporting grassroots initiatives.

(This write-up is primarily based on the different UNEP reports on WED)

(Prakash Nelliyat is Research Coordinator and Ambujam N.K. is Director, Centre for Water Resources, Anna University, Chennai. Their email ids are: nelliyatp@yahoo.co.uk & nkambuj@annauniv.edu)

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