Today is the International Day of Forests 2016 and a good time to take note of the importance of forested land (the ‘lungs of the planet’) that covers almost one third of land area of our planet. In our projects and many others, a strong focus is put on the role of forests as a form of carbon storage to counter the increasing anthropogenic carbon emissions, however forest ecosystems provide a variety of other ‘services’ that often go unobserved or unaccounted for.
It is estimated that forests are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. As well as being important themselves in creating biologically diverse plant ecosystems, they provide a vital habitat to a vast array of animals, many of which are not yet known to science. For humans, this can provide food, medicinal resources and raw wood/plant products for fuel and building materials. Additionally, grazing occurs within forests and local populations often grow rotational crops on temporary plots of land with the forest providing cover and protection.
Forests also play a key role in the hydrological cycle. By stabilising the soil with root structures, slowing the percolation and reducing the total water flow, forests lessen the impact of flooding and erosion, benefitting people far beyond the forest margins. This process greatly increases the water purity through filtration and preserves soil quality across the landscape; improving crop yields and the health of populations that rely on surface water for drinking and washing.
One ‘service’ that is often less considered is the cultural importance. Forests often come to define landscapes and, though it may contribute to the tourism industry, the aesthetics and beauty that they offer is something that cannot be quantified. Places where nature is untainted often carries a spiritual importance, not least for indigenous populations, therefore any destruction of these areas undermines this historical knowledge.
The benefits that humans derive from forests should not be understated; as well as providing a home to hundreds of millions of people, almost a quarter of the global population depend on forests for their livelihood. When considering the vast array of ‘ecosystem services’ that forests provide for humans, the number is probably far greater than that. Every year an area of forest the size of England is lost but, more and more, these benefits are being recognised and celebrated. Today in particular we can try to raise this awareness and encourage the sustainable use of these resources so that they might provide the same benefits to future generations.