From 5.3 billion persons in 1990, to 7.8 billion in 2020, the global population is steadily approaching 8 billion with the United Nations suggesting that world populations will rise to anywhere between 9.6B by 2050 and 11B by the year 2100 (U.N. and Gerland et al., 2014).
As populations continue to grow, the need for lateral support systems and infrastructure increases; schools, markets, farms, churches and roadways just to list a few. While this is not surprising, it does raise a very important question – Should we clear existing forests to support the growing population? This constitutes the compromise; should the land remain forest? Should it be converted to farmland for food? Or, should we build homes, schools, roads and hospitals?
The Global Forest Watch (2021) reports that between the years of 2002 – 2019 approximately 60 million hectares (Mha) of forest cover was lost globally, the size of approximately 113 million football fields. In Trinidad and Tobago only, we recorded about 2.31kha of forest loss within the same period, roughly 11% of our total forest cover lost (Global Forest Watch, 2021). Globally we continue to clear forests to create land for other uses, but are we unknowingly creating a larger problem?
We’ll discuss the major impact of reducing forest cover, then we will look at some of the more unspoken contributions of forests to our livelihood.
The Major Role of Forests
We constantly hear that trees are important in removing Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, providing us with clean, breathable air, as well as providing food and shelter for wildlife. Trees remove carbon dioxide (CO2) via photosynthesis which creates forest carbon sinks. This process utilizes the energy of the sun (sunlight) to cook CO2 and water to make their favourite food, glucose. While these plants are silently completing their meal preparations, they ensure tons of CO2 are removed from the atmosphere making it possible for our growing population to survive. Ultimately, CO2 in the atmosphere traps heat, and increasing heat can begin to destabilize the oceans. Forests directly combat global warming; however, this dismal conversation is not the one we’re having today. Today we discuss some other important factors of our forest, but it would be reckless of me to not have mentioned climate change. We’ll discuss 4 other important functions of forests:
- Tourism and Recreation
- Food & Water
Also noteworthy to mention is that almost 25% of the world’s population rely on forests for their livelihood and 80% of the world’s terrestrial organisms live in forests.
Forestry in Tourism/Recreation
Planning a trip for your upcoming vacation? Head to your favourite online travel companies and see what activities are available when you get to your destination. You see photos of rivers meandering through dense forests, a couple splashing below a waterfall or persons ziplining above lush green canopies. Ecotourism is certainly on the rise, the social demand for areas with a serene, natural look and feel are sorted for by the urban population, tourism remains the main contributor to the economies of many Small Islands Developing States (SIDS). In Trinidad and Tobago, many persons are adding hiking to their list of hobbies, as it provides a means to escape the hustle and bustle of the city while burning some calories. Forests attract millions of tourists, both domestic and international, daily. Additional recreation includes nature walks, mountain biking, hunting and bird watching. The Matura National Park forest, for example, is known to have some of the most scenic waterfalls and terrain in Trinidad (EMA., undated).
Forestry provides food, water and employment
Forests directly impact the quality of water that reaches our watershed, the availability of water and the cost of water treatment. The quality of water is reduced when erosion occurs as healthy forests assist in the filtration of water while strong tree roots anchor soil, preventing erosion (Lyons and Gartner 2017). Material on the forest floor assists in absorbing nutrients and sediment, in deforested areas this “material” is absent hence sediment pollutes water systems, directly impacting treatment costs. Having clean watersheds reduces the amount of treatment required in purifying the water to bring it up to “drinking standards”. Water treatment costs increase when water quality is poor. Finally, forests help control the water cycle by directly influencing processes like precipitation and evaporation. Forests can store and release water vapour, which affects rainfall. Forests, therefore, assist in reducing the impacts of flood from storms by slowing down the flow of runoff.
In northeast Trinidad Nature Seekers has started a reforestation programme that provides gainful employment for many members of the community, in addition to this, some have become tour guides and have seen the fiscal benefits of having forests.
Forestry allows for scientific research
Thirdly, may not be the most exciting but certainly, of major importance, forests provide infinite opportunities for research. Whether the research is on a microbial level that assists scientists in formulating new and effective medication, or on an ecosystem level so they can understand the importance of multiple different systems. This research allows us to note endemic species (only found in a specific area), which gives us more to boast about as a nation or region, for example, the Pawi/Trinidad Piping Guan. There remain so many unanswered questions, and it is only through the preservation of such forests can we do the necessary research to find the answers, and uncover mysteries.
Forestry as Therapy
We’ve all experienced that rush you get after stepping outside from being indoors all day, even more so throughout the pandemic. The fresh air, the bright blue skies, the green trees, the chirping birds. Forest therapy is a growing global practice. Especially, after being confined with our homes for long periods staring at a screen, the urge to get outdoors has not been greater (Susan 2020). Forest therapy finds its origin in the Japanese culture, a practice called Shinrin-yoku, forest therapy, separate from the recreational activities like nature treks, hashing or hikes, is reliant on a guide(your therapist) that slowly allows patients to interact with the natural environment utilizing all senses. Slow deliberate walks through the forest has a direct impact on the stress hormone (cortisol) levels in the body, reducing high blood pressure, headaches, heart diseases (Susan 2000). Studies out of Japan have supported that the essential oils produced by trees influence immunity humans and increase one’s ability to fight viruses/bacteria. Just spending time within a forest setting is beneficial (Park et al 2008).
Are forests important?
As the world’s population continues to grow the likelihood of deforestation for urban development increases. We know that forests are a necessary for our survival on Earth as they are vital in critical processes and provide food and shelter for many. Apart, from these necessities, there are major benefits surrounding forests, as they provide numerous opportunities for recreation and tourism, where tourism being a major contributor to the Gross Domestic Product of many Small Islands. Forests ensure we have adequate clean water for consumption and give us a natural stress reliever. The answer is a resounding “Yes!”, forests are important. Regardless of your age, physique, background or ailment the forest holds something special for you.