World Wildlife Day is being celebrated in 2021 under the theme “Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet” as a way to highlight the central role of forests, forest species and ecosystem services in sustaining the livelihoods of millions of people globally. Particularly of indigenous and local communities with historic ties to forested and forest-adjacent areas. The period 2021-2030 is the decade of restoration, where the United Nations will be and already has been, placing emphasis on forest replanting for climate mitigation.
Forests cover approximately one third of all land on Earth, providing support for many of the planet’s most diverse species, including humans. Trinidad and Tobago’s forest ecosystems range from tropical dry forests to tropical rainforests and coastal mangrove forests which are considered to be a keystone of coastal ecosystems. Trinidad and Tobago boasts of the oldest forest reserve in the western hemisphere, Tobago’s Main Ridge Forest Reserve proclaimed in 1776 and mangrove forests found on all coasts of Trinidad and concentrated on the southwestern end of Tobago. Two of the largest mangrove forest areas in Trinidad –the Nariva Swamp, and the Caroni Swamp– are protected and designated as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. The Buccoo Reef/Bon Accord Lagoon Complex in Tobago also shares this Ramsar designation and is a restricted area which has been a protected marine park since 1973.
Mangroves forests, seagrass beds and coral reef ecosystems are often associated with each other and work in tandem, keeping coastal zones healthy and productive. Mangroves and seagrass beds trap pollutants and sediment that could smother coral reefs and in return, coral reefs provide protection from waves and tidal influences to associated seagrass beds and mangroves. In order to sustain people and the planet, these ecosystems cannot be conserved or managed in isolation, as they work in conjunction to maintain the delicate balance of life here on Planet Earth. This interconnectivity has led to the holistic Ridge to Reef ecosystem-based management concept by understanding that forest health and functionality upstream have downstream impacts on marine and coastal habitats. Ridge to Reef management focuses on maintaining healthy waterways by preventing irresponsible environmental degradation such as land clearing and development in the uplands that result in the runoff of soil and pollutants into waterways that lead to the ocean and impact coastal ecosystems.
These terrestrial and coastal forest ecosystems play a vital role in sustaining people and the planet by:
- Acting as buffers during natural disasters for flooding and heavy rainfalls, and protecting shorelines from storm surges and winds.
- Protecting watersheds by land stabilization, reducing erosion and the quantity of effluent and chemicals entering waterways. This function is also achieved by coastal mangroves tangled root systems which additionally maintain water quality and clarity.
- Mitigating climate change and global warming by acting as a sink when trees absorb carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, and store carbon while releasing life-sustaining oxygen into the atmosphere. Forests are the world’s second largest storehouse of carbon.
- Providing essential habitats for a variety of species and supporting numerous food webs. Forests are home to more than 80% of the world’s terrestrial species while an estimated 75% of commercially caught fish spend some time in coastal mangroves or depend on their food webs. Mangroves provide a range of habitats (branches, roots, water column and mud) which serve as breeding and nursery grounds for various species of fish and aquatic organisms. They additionally maintain highly productive food webs by providing food through decomposition of tons of fallen leaves from each acre of mangrove forest annually.
- Provide many of the resources upon which terrestrial and coastal communities depend for their survival and livelihood. According to the World Wildlife Fund website, it is estimated that over 2 billion people, including 60 million indigenous people who inhabit forests, rely on forests worldwide, for goods and services that are essential to human wellbeing including food, shelter, timber, paper, medicines, fuel security and livelihoods.
In Trinidad and Tobago both terrestrial and coastal forest ecosystems support associated communities through the generation of income. Livelihoods are sustained through:
- Ecotourism and recreational activities like hiking, nature tours, bird watching, mountain biking, glass bottom kayak tours and even weddings. Jobs are generated by these activities for tour guides, event planners and coordinators, equipment vendors and transportation providers.
- Conservation activities such as education and outreach tours and game warden patrols. Surrounding communities not only benefit from the income generated but these activities cultivate stewardship for the environment in upcoming generations.
- Subsistence activities including hunting, fishing, oyster harvesting, agriculture and timber production.
As we continue to highlight forest ecosystems, the main challenge is to skillfully manage these ecosystems in order to ensure that they continue to sustain the planet and the livelihoods of the humans that depend on them while simultaneously conserving the resources for future generations.