International Day of Forests: Questions and answers on the forests-health nexus for Europe and Central Asia
27 September 2017, Prilep, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Areal view of conifer and scrub forests in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Views and perspectives on key challenges and solutions on forest and health at the global and regional level.
The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 21 March the International Day of Forests in 2012 to celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of all types of forests. The theme for each International Day of Forests is chosen by the Collaborative Partnership on Forests. The theme for 2023 is “Forests and health,” with the slogan “Healthy forests for healthy people.”
1. Shiroma Sathyapala, Forest Health Officer, FAO headquarters, Rome: Today we celebrate the International Day of Forests. You are involved in the arrangements for the celebration. What is your role? What are the challenges of the organization?
To celebrate the importance of forests, FAO is hosting a high-level event on 21 March 2023, bringing together ministers, experts and youth activists from around the globe (https://www.fao.org/international-day-of-forests/live-event/en/).
I am the head of the organizing team this year, as the theme is very close to my area of expertise. The organization has been very challenging, making sure that all geographic regions and age groups are represented in the event. We wanted to make sure the event is as inclusive as possible and interesting to everyone. It will be a hybrid event, taking place online and in FAO headquarters in Rome, with the participation of high-level representatives from Austria, Colombia, India and Madagascar alongside the director-general of FAO and the next generation of forestry leaders.
Now that the event has arrived, it is very rewarding to be part of the team that has put such a high-profile celebration event together.
2. Norbert Winkler-Ráthonyi, Regional Forestry Officer, FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia, Budapest: What are the main challenges in forestry in the Europe and Central Asia region? Among the numerous challenges, how important is forest health?
When I started working in 2010 with the FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia here in Budapest, the challenges in forestry were more related to ensuring sustainable wood mobilization and maintaining the active management of forests.
In the past few years, things have changed dramatically; climate change and its impacts on forests have become the real challenge. With climate change, you have pests and diseases posing challenges, new species appearing, the so-called invasive species, but you have also a higher frequency of severe forest fires observed in numerous countries in the region. Just look at Sweden in 2018; we had forest fires at a scale never seen before. Everybody talks nowadays also about biodiversity loss, which is at least partly accelerated by climate change.
It is also time now to give something back that we took in the past from our landscapes – namely, to bring back trees and forests to open agricultural landscapes. Without healthy trees and forests, it is difficult to maintain any agroforestry activities, shelterbelts or forest ecosystems and the numerous goods and services they are providing.
3. Ferenc Lakatos, Vice-Rector for Research and Foreign Affairs, University of Sopron, Secretary of the Forest Invasive Species Network for Europe and Central Asia: As you are a renowned expert on forest health issues, would you agree with what has been said on the importance of forest health in the context of challenges in the region?
I completely agree with what Norbert has mentioned so far. I have been teaching and doing research in the field of forest health for more than 30 years now, and in these three decades, the major topics have changed significantly. Norbert has already mentioned climate change.
The other important issue that we are facing, especially in the last two decades, is the introduction of several invasive alien species. They can be microorganisms, plants, insects and other species. The number of them has increased dramatically in the past 20 years, and several of them have a major impact on the native forests – not only in Europe, but in other continents as well.
Let me give you some examples.
The so-called saproxylic insects, which are the type of insects feeding on bark and wood, are easily transported from one continent to another via international trade routes, in roundwood or wood packaging material. They cause enormous damage in their new environment.
The emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorned beetle are two examples. Of course, we cannot forget about pathogens like ash dieback, which is eliminating, together with the emerald ash borer, almost all ash trees from several broadleaf forest ecosystems. However, not only forest trees can be affected by forest invasive species.
There are several examples of trees in urban areas, such as palms in the Mediterranean or horse chestnut trees in Central Europe, that are affected by invasive species like the palm weevil and the horse chestnut leaf-miners.
4. Shiroma, please tell us about the elements of a healthy forest. How can we tell if a forest is healthy? This is a very good question, because this is much debated in the scientific community. What is a healthy forest?
When we talk about a healthy forest, we need to think about the whole ecosystem. Any healthy forest is a thriving ecosystem that supports wildlife, food security, soil fertility and sustainable livelihoods and also buffers against climate change.
So if you ask me about the characteristics of a healthy forest – it can sustain unique species composition and also the processes that exist within it. I think if an ordinary person goes to the forest, if the forest is dying, they can see it. It's not only what you see in the canopy; we need to look at what is happening in the soil and what is happening in the undergrowth.
What I would like to say is that rather than looking at only the forest, we need to think about the whole ecosystem. When we talk about forests and health, we do not just mean the health of the forests itself, but also the health of the people and the health of the environment, promoting a One Health approach.
Healthy forests also reduce the risk of the emergence of diseases transmitted from animals to humans.
5. Ferenc: How did you get involved with FAO and REUFIS? Where do you see the network by 2030?
My involvement in FAO activities began in 2013, so exactly ten years ago, when the FAO Regional Office started a project in Kosovo to establish a well-functioning forest health monitoring system.
This was followed by several other joint activities, like in 2015 when the FAO Regional Office organized a meeting on transboundary pests and diseases in Hungary, where several participants expressed their interest in stronger cooperation in this field and the need to establish a network on forest invasive species.
The first REUFIS meeting was organized in 2016 in Belarus, which was followed by meetings and training sessions every year. The REUFIS network has developed in the past seven years. It has now 32 member countries from Europe and Central Asia, and Canada is an observer.
A network in general is not only a couple of people with similar interests, and it works only if the members contribute to the network with their expertise, activities, ideas and information. Sometimes, it’s not easy to keep a network running, so my task as the secretary of the network is to provide the members with adequate information and to distribute all the information I receive to the members. I would like to highlight that REUFIS is a network specialized in forest invasive species.
Many institutions are dealing with invasive species, and a wide range of general information is available, but only a limited number of organizations are focusing on forest invasive species. The plans for the future of the network are to increase the number of participating countries, especially from Western Europe and the European Union, and to select interesting topics for the meetings. We also aim to create an improved, fast and almost automatic information flow between the member countries and national focal points. In addition, we plan to strengthen our cooperation with the partner organizations, like Forest Europe or the European Environmental Agency.
6. Shiroma: What do we have to change in the management approaches and FAO’s project work to improve the resilience of forests?
First I have to say, the Europe and Central Asia region is at the forefront of improving the resilience of forests among the FAO regions. We do have several projects and also a very active invasive species network, as the previous speakers have already mentioned. We need to set up projects and especially programmes that address forest-related emergencies and natural disasters, including not only pests and diseases, but also fire and drought situations.
This means we need to work with national governments and other international organizations to put long-term prevention, risk mitigation and forest management strategies into place.
We currently have ongoing projects in Belarus and Ukraine on enhancing the resilience of pine forests to bark beetle outbreaks. In Kosovo and Azerbaijan, FAO is providing support to improve the resilience of chestnut trees to pests and diseases using nature-based solutions.
In addition, next week, an expert meeting will take place in FAO headquarters to establish a global framework and guideline for the development and implementation of national forest biosecurity strategies, systems and processes. We are going to get good practices from countries that have the best biosecurity systems, such as Australia and New Zealand, and we will have experts participating from Laos, South Africa and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We will also discuss the importance of the inclusion of sustainable forest management aspects in the forest biosecurity guidelines.
Countries will be able to use this new guideline to enhance their preparedness for invasive species and native pest outbreaks, and also to be equipped with early warning and rapid action systems to deal with biosecurity threats before they become outbreaks.